Nelson County, Marion County, and Washington County are collectively referred to by their inhabitants as the Kentucky Holy Land, and I don’t think the expression is meant to be entirely whimsical.  Settled in the late 18th century by English Catholics from Maryland, the rolling green country is to this day marked by cattle farms, distilleries, and Marian shrines.  The boy Jefferson Davis received his instruction here at a Dominican priory established by refugees from the French Revolution, while Stephen Foster is said to have composed our elegiac and politically incorrect state anthem at Federal Hill in Bardstown.  My own acquaintance with the Kentucky Holy Land I owe to Southern Renascence writer Elizabeth Madox Roberts, who wove her grandmother’s reminiscences of the Cumberland Gap passage into celebratory poetry and fiction about pioneer life.  Roberts is buried in the cemetery of her little hometown, Springfield.  To pay my respects I have had occasion to visit Springfield, as well as nearby Saint Catharine College, which used to sponsor an annual series of lectures and discussions in her honor.

I say “used to” because as of July the college has closed.  As a penalty for Saint Catharine having added five new degree programs without first seeking federal approval, Department of Education officials decided in 2014 to freeze financial aid to students in these programs.  In retaliation the college sued the government, arguing that the government’s own regulations did not require federal approval for the programs in question.  At first the college administration hoped to weather the storm through fundraising, but then anxieties about the conflict caused a disastrous drop in student enrollment.  By the time the Department of Education conceded defeat and began to release some of the contested money, it was too little, too late.  “The DoE’s sanctioning of the college has not only critically restricted cash flow, but has also irreparably damaged the college’s ability to attract students,” the college explained in a press release.  “With the length of time involved in financial aid sanctions, litigation and other looming capital debt, SCC would not be able to sustain the college’s financial needs even for the coming fall semester.”

That the Department of Education has played such a destructive role in the drama should come as no surprise.  The natural course for someone interested in teaching is to become a teacher, not a federal bureaucrat, so it is inherently unlikely that the DoE is teeming with personnel motivated by enthusiasm for education per se.  At the same time, justified distaste for federal functionaries should not make us overlook a critical fact: Neither low enrollment nor the cutting of government subsidies would have shut down the college had it not already been burdened with debt from “Vision 2025 and Beyond,” a $150 million building program initiated by Saint Catharine’s administration in 2010.  By all means let us denounce Big Government.  But let us also ask ourselves why there was such a hurry to put up a new dormitory, a new health-sciences building, and a new library.  Having been in both the new library and the original, I can’t help wondering if the latter was really all that bad, even if it did smell old and lacked a Starbucks-style coffee shop.

On a different note, it is bizarre to see a Catholic institution’s utter dependence on the U.S. government taken for granted.  Whatever happened to the ACLU’s promise to build a wall of separation between Church and state and make Christians pay for it?  There is really no way of reconciling liberal ideology with government patronage of religious establishments, even left-leaning ones, and had liberal Kentuckians a better understanding of what their own principles are and what they imply they would be marking Saint Catharine’s demise not with expressions of sympathy but a victory celebration.  It serves the trustees and students right, a clear-thinking liberal might say, for furthering their Constantinian agenda with funds picked from John Q. Taxpayer’s pocket.

Just to be clear, that is not my attitude, but then I regard the “wall of separation” as a rationalization whereby the liberal cult’s own supremacy is secured and all competing religions are relegated into irrelevant private nooks and niches.  A juxtaposition of realpolitik and principle is called for on the part of Christian educators, as a university’s academic dean whom I met not long ago suggested.  His view was that by voluntarily declining government support, religious schools could advertise their bona fides to orthodoxy-oriented potential donors.  He not only seemed confident that taking the high road in this fashion would pay off in the long run, but also hinted that there will eventually be little choice, as a scarcity of public funds will motivate secular schools to gang up and push religious schools out of an ever-dwindling government trough.

The prospect of leaner times to come calls to mind another important context of the Saint Catharine College affair.  Blunt and disinterested observers have for some time now taken to speaking of a higher education “bubble,” and according to some of them it is financial aid itself that has driven education costs higher and higher: Colleges continually lobby the government for more money only to raise tuition once the requested aid is made available to students.  College debt now amounts to over one trillion dollars, and there are reports that speculators have taken to bundling this debt into packages and trading it.

In Twelve Inconvenient Truths About Higher Education, Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity sharply challenges the wisdom of a nationalized student loan industry:

The fact that the federal government has recently largely squeezed out private lenders who traditionally provided some counseling of borrowers means we now largely have a one-size-fits-all approach, often with no knowledgeable individuals assisting students making major decisions regarding borrowing.  The fact that loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy means that student loan debt potentially has very long term deleterious implications on the large numbers who either fail to graduate from college or who end up taking relatively low paying jobs.

In other words, even if we gloss over those who do not graduate, we are still left with the spectacle of sociologist-waiters and barista-historians trudging under a load of debt.  Part of the problem, of course, is that half of those going into the liberal-arts system just want job training and have been misinformed about where to get it, while the other half see college simply as a way to escape having to work for a living.  The result is an overpriced academic buffet where students can pick and choose from dishes like Kentucky Literature, Women & Holiness, or Cardiac Sonography—all worthwhile subjects, to be sure, but also ones more appropriate to advanced studies, leisure hours, or a vocational school than to an undergraduate liberal-arts curriculum.

Bent upon casting their net wider and wider so as to catch more customers, colleges and universities have allowed “humanities” to become a synonym for “easy A,” embracing the very philosophy C.S. Lewis warned against in his pedagogical essay “The Parthenon and the Optative.”  One kind of education, remarked Lewis,

begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry.  The other begins in “Appreciation” and ends in gush.  When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like.  He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it.  But the other kind fails most disastrously when it most succeeds.  It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce.  It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can’t construe.  It qualifies him to review books he does not understand, and to be intellectual without intellect.

Even if we set aside the true justification for old-fashioned classical studies—that the classical languages are indispensable conduits of Western identity—it is plain to see that an intensive study of some language has to lie at the core of any earnest humanities program, lest the program devolve into a mere dumping ground for kids who are bright but lazy, or bad at algebra.  If math is the lifeblood of the sciences, language study is the lifeblood of history, philosophy, and literature.  Here I must admit with a cringe that Saint Catharine offered no foreign language courses except for Spanish I and II, and of these only the first was a core requirement.  No other languages, of course, means no Latin, which in turn means that Saint Catharine was the equivalent of a Jewish school that doesn’t bother with Hebrew.

Though it is depressing to realize how little of the liberal arts are to be found at liberal-arts colleges, we should remind ourselves that only a misguided progressive would mistake academics for the road to ordinary human virtue, much less salvation.  If a few Kentuckians are prompted to question the certification racket along with the meritocratic snobbery that keeps it going, then at least some good will have come out of Springfield’s loss.  The common sense, practical experience, and fortitude of the working man are essential for a functioning community, as is the intellectual depth of the educated gentleman.  The imperial bureaucracy we have now is not especially suited for passing down either of these goods to the next generation.  There is no reason to be too gloomy, though, for the farmers, factory hands, and homemakers remaining in and around Springfield still represent a fund of living knowledge, one that is not bound in books.