When I speak with perspective students and their families I often feel sorry for the bewildering choice they face. Education is an enormous financial commitment. Unfortunately, the best information available is often little indication of whether or not the school is the right choice for them. Worse still most people justify the expense because of the job they hope to have post-graduation. So my advice is straightforward: Don't choose a school because you want a job (there are rare exceptions). Picking a school because you want a job is an outmoded model and an enormous gamble. If you disagree, I invite you to look at people who articulate the dilemma better than I: read Linchpin by Seth Godin, watch the presentations given by Sir Ken Robinson (Sir Ken Robinson @ TED and Sir Ken Robinson - RSA Animation). When we are training students for a future we can't possibly predict, for jobs that don't yet exist, going to school based upon a job you think you want is at best a gamble.
What should school accomplish?
In the recently released, and much buzzed Academically Adrift, the authors argue, supported by what schools themselves claim, that the primary aims should include critical thinking, complex reasoning and advanced writing. To some extent I agree. These traits are critical in nearly any field. The problem is that, at most universities, the ideas of critical thinking and complex reasoning are interwoven with a relativistic world view. Rather than leading students to The Truth students learn that any position can be supported and argued, even if it is fundamentally false. If critical thinking's main accomplishment is promoting a relativistic world view, is it any wonder why little actual learning happens on most campuses?
Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 address to Catholic educators had a slightly better argument:
First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4). This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good, and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of our Lord's disciples, the Church.
This encounter, once embraced, naturally leads students to a passion for their faith. As Benedict continues "Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens the vast adventure of what they ought to do."
As we all know, this encounter isn't always an instantaneous event and the place isn't a singular building on campus. Rather it happens over time and is singularly dependent on God's grace. How then should a school provide the place?
Most schools have as part of their mission the idea of graduating "life-long learners" the only problem is they don't explain what that means or how it is accomplished. My argument, and I think that of Pope Benedict, is that learning happens most effectively through passion. If I get passionate about something, learning becomes trivial. Passion MUST come first for The Truth and second for a vocation.
In order to ignite a passion for any vocation (not just a job) one must understand their strengths and learn the truth that true joy is found through "being for others" (cf. Spe Salvi, 23). When a student discovers a unique talent and they understand how that talent can be used to serve others, try and stop them from learning, growing and doing amazing things.
How does a school ignite passion?
The only way this can happen in school is through the Grace of God and the living example of the faculty, students and administration. Only through the witness of people passionate about their faith AND passionate about their vocation can you hope to ignite the right kind of passion in students. Students must see examples of people who have achieved worldly success and yet live their faith everyday. Only in this type of culture do you build a "place" that students can regularly "...encounter the living God."
How do you pick a school? Look closely at the people you'll interact with every day. Understand their mission and how the faculty, students, and administration live that core purpose. Don't rely on brochures--the names and faces most schools use to recruit are not the people you'll see very often. Will the people you interact with ignite your passion?