Nearly every college and university in the country advertises itself as educating future "leaders." I am not as impressed as perhaps I should be.
First, since everyone claims to be training "leaders," it's hard to believe anyone is. A system with a hundred leaders and no followers is like a hundred generals and no soldiers to do the fighting, or like a hundred administrators and no teachers. (Welcome to the modern university!)
The prospect of training everyone to be a "leader" is a symptom of our hyper-individualistic culture. Everyone is marching off in his or her own direction, expecting others to follow, while everyone else is off marching in their own direction with no one to follow. It's not an organized cohort, it's disorganized chaos.
But the other, more troubling reason I find these ubiquitous claims to be educating "leaders" unconvincing is that colleges and universities are so obviously doing precisely the opposite: forming followers.
Consider the manifold effects of contemporary "woke" culture. Colleges and universities have shown little resistance to the spread of this cultural virus. Even people who favor these developments should be concerned about the wholesale surrender of our major academic institutions to current social and political movements. Why? Because the tides shift. Institutions that surrender today to one tyrant will surrender tomorrow to the next.
When Hitler came to power and turned Germany against the Jews, one might have hoped that the great German universities would have become prominent leaders of the resistance. But they didn't. For the most part, their policy was "go along and get along" or "get on the bus and see whether we can drive."
So, too, with many in the contemporary academic world. Whatever happens to be "the 'in' thing," they're doing it. Then they're leading it. Because they are, as they never cease telling you, leaders. But seeing where the pack is headed and then stepping out in front is not "leading," it's "following from the front" (the absurd reverse of the bizarre claim to be "leading from behind").
Campus culture has become disturbingly predictable. Of course they're terrified of climate change and white supremacy and Republicans; everyone at The New York Times and NPR is. And of course they're for "trans rights" and of course they sponsor drag shows, they're all the rage. It's "the thing."
When it wasn't "the thing," they weren't doing it. When it's not "the thing," they'll stop. If you doubt this, just ask the people who used to rage against "the man" insisting on annual performances of "The Vagina Monologues" when that was "the thing." No one does that anymore. Too cis-gender or something. And so, just as quickly as the crowd cheered it, the crowd abandoned it.
It is a bit like the situation at Mass when the intercessory prayers match whatever happens to be on the front page of The New York Times. When there was an earthquake in Haiti, and it was in the news, my parish prayed for Haiti every day. When it moved off the front page, we stopped praying for them.
The situation is still truly horrible there now, but since it doesn't fit anybody's narrative, and it's not prominent in the news, there's no mention of Haiti in the intercessions. The Church should really try to be less shallow than the surrounding culture. That would be leadership.
The contemporary college and university campus does not educate students to critically analyze each of these "pop-up" movements in its turn, sorting through what is legitimate and valuable while distinguishing that from what is mere emotional manipulation; instead, campus culture encourages students to follow the flow wherever it happens to be going.
If you wanted to educate leaders, you would have students read Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, not because you would want them to agree with everything in them—which would be impossible anyway because they disagree among themselves on major points—but because you want them to begin to think critically about big questions.
You want them to study logic so that they begin to recognize good arguments from sophistry. And you would have them read Aquinas because, besides being a brilliant thinker, he is as good an example as you will find of someone utterly fair to his interlocutors. He puts the objections first, and never merely dismisses them. If there is truth to be found in them, he will find it and show it.
Were you training leaders for the future of this country, you would give them a working knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and the Federalist Papers. You would teach them the history and culture of their country, so they learn to love their country with all its warts, determined to build on its virtues and fight its vices.
Then you would require them to attend local city council, county, and school board meetings so they stop thinking of governance as something far away and "federal." But almost no one does this. Most are determined to show that they are "leaders" by following whatever Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford are doing.
A similar tunnel vision seems to have infected many churchmen. Of course the Synod on Synodality will focus on LGBTQ questions. It's "the thing." The problem with tunnel vision is what you don't see. Spend all your time on LGBTQ fights, and guess what? There's no time left to talk about what the Church can do for families under tension in contemporary culture; how the Church can provide a solid, thoughtful education to the next generation; how Catholics can raise their children and be good neighbors in an increasingly toxic culture; how the Church will even survive as the forces that oppose her increasingly gain power.
America's bishops could courageously go their own way and decide to meet these challenges head on. They could lead instead of waiting for Rome to do. . .well, something. They would have to because, from the looks of it, Nero is fiddling again while Rome burns.
Randall Smith. "Forming Future Followers." The Catholic Thing (July 11, 2023).
Reprinted with permission from the The Catholic Thing.
Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.Copyright © 2023 The Catholic Thing