An Open Letter to Parents of Prospective College Students

[This letter is adapted from an email to friends seeking advice on colleges for their children.]

Dear Parents,

Your child’s college decision will be one of the most important decisions he or she will ever make, and will often profoundly affect the most important decisions in his or her life: The choice of a spouse, a career, lifelong friendships, leisured pursuits, religious practices and fundamental values. Therefore it merits great attention and discernment on your part. In the end, your child should go wherever God is calling him or her. How does one discern that? Through prayer, obviously. And also through the natural means God gives us.

My thoughts here are animated by my conviction of the singular value a real liberal arts education can provide your child, and by my concern from my conversations that, deep down, many do not quite understand this point, or don’t quite believe it.

Put most simply, a real liberal arts education cultivates in you the necessary intellectual, imaginative and moral virtues that help you to flourish as a human being and make you most useful to others around you as a friend, spouse, parent, citizen, statesman, businessman, leader. No specialized or professional education can do this for you. It requires a study of great imaginative literature (and poetry), logic, ethics, history, politics, philosophy and theology, all in the company of close friends and under the careful guidance of masters.

I regularly see firsthand the great benefits of this kind of education in our students at Hillsdale College, not only in their personal development, but also their professional pursuits. One might truly and without blasphemy borrow from Our Lord’s words: “Seek ye first a [true] liberal arts education, and rich, fulfilling life will be granted unto you.”

So your 16-year old daughter has an interest in occupational therapy? That may be her vocation. But I would be very careful that she is not pressured into a “useful” occupation prematurely. What does a 16-year old, or an 18-year old, really know about him or herself? (I switched majors five times in college!). And even if this is her vocation, won’t she be in a better position to excel in it with a (real) liberal arts background?

Overall earnings data shows virtually no difference in earnings between liberal arts and non-liberal arts majors. Despite what many colleges are telling young people, the repeated word from the field is that employers value most highly exactly the skills a real liberal arts education provides: Creativity; excellent oral and written communication; quick, independent problem solving; thinking outside the box and being able to adapt rapidly to changes; self-teaching and learning; etc.

As the director of the pre-law program here I see this firsthand all the time. Law school admissions counselors frequently tell me: “We love students from Hillsdale College.” I won’t brag about our many successes, except to say that we recently had three students clerk on the Supreme Court in two years (a remarkable achievement for a school our size). All three of them had different majors. All three of them went to different law schools. All three of them clerked for different judges. All three of them are faithful Catholics. Do you think graduates like this are making a difference in the world, as doctors, lawyers, husbands, wives, parents, etc.?

Perhaps your child loves his faith, and really wants to study theology? That may be his vocation. But I would be very careful that he is not motivated in this by the idea that the study of theology (and, say, full time ministry and evangelization) is the only way to be a real Christian. I’m not saying he does think this, but I think quite a few people tacitly do hold this view. As you know this is a clericalist view firmly rejected by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium, with its wonderful chapter on the universal call to holiness. Moreover, any theologian worth his salt will tell you why excellence in theology is impossible without a sound liberal arts education. (See Von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, with its history, poetry, philosophy, etc.).

In sum: (1) Be careful to examine pressures towards premature specialization (narrowness) or professionalization (short term utility); (2) keep educating yourselves and your children on the value of a real liberal arts education; (3) go visit the colleges that you might be interested in attending. There’s just no substitute for meeting students, sitting in classes, seeing the student culture, etc.

I hope nothing I have said here gave offense. You are great parents. You are already doing the right things. Please be assured of my prayers and keep me in your own!

Yours in Christ,

Nathan Schlueter, Ph.D.


Nathan Schlueter is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Hillsdale College. His most recent book is Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives? The Foundations of the Libertarian Conservative Debate (Stanford University Press).

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