Alan Ryan

June 6, 2003

Charles Clarke could learn a lesson about the purpose of universities from US institutions that have religious affiliations.

To the agnostic outsider, the religiosity of the US comes as a shock.

Although church attendance is not what it would be if everyone who said they had been to church in the past week had actually gone - 60 per cent of the population claims to have been, but the bottoms on the pews represent between 30 and 40 per cent - it is a lot higher than in Britain; and well over half of all Americans say religion is important to them, while only about a sixth of the British do. This religious-mindedness carries over to the higher education scene.

A quarter of US colleges and universities have a religious affiliation, and not only because there are many tiny missionary colleges with low academic standards. Take Brigham Young University in Utah. You'd be unlikely to go there unless you were a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints - 98.4 per cent of their students are Mormons. But the place is enormous and its standards are high. The admissions office tells applicants they need at least a B+ average in high school and an ACT score - the western states' equivalent of the SAT - that puts them inside the top fifth of school-leavers; and they provide much the same undergraduate education as any other very large university - they have 30,000 students. You get it very cheaply, too, though you may well have morally earned it by having spent a year or two on unwelcoming doorsteps spreading the strange beliefs of the Prophet Josiah Smith.

The range is enormous. At the other end of the scale in size, style, inclusiveness and cost is an institution such as Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. It is a very small private liberal arts college, with only 440 students spread over the four years of its courses. Its tuition fees are half those of places such as Amherst or Williams - about $14,000 a year compared with $26,000 - but by the time you've tacked on board and lodging, books and travel, you're looking at an annual bill of $20,000 (about £13,000), less than two-thirds the price of Harvard University or PrincetonUniversity, but 50 per cent more than the University of California, Berkeley. About two-thirds of the students are Lutherans. A sixth are Catholics. It would not be an obvious place for the 84 per cent of the British who don't think religion matters. But if you went, you'd get a careful and thoughtful liberal arts education much like you'd get at the well-known colleges on the east coast.

Catholic institutions in particular span the whole range. Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan, looks after 215 students, while Boston College belies its name by being only slightly smaller than Cambridge University, with 9,000 undergraduates and 4,600 graduates. Boston costs the same as its Ivy League peers - some $36,000 a year by the time you've paid tuition, board and lodging - while you would get a Catholic liberal-arts education at Ave Maria for a bit over a third of that.

So, what makes parents and students support such places? Judging by a recent report on the public view of higher education, it is two things, and they ought to frighten Charles Clarke. The first is that US parents and their children want a good general education that will enable students to take their place in the world as not only employable - though that matters a great deal - but as good citizens. They think, rightly, that an education in how to think analytically, how to write coherently and how to work with your fellow creatures is better value than narrowly vocational courses. US parents are much less impressed by an institution's research standing than the university presidents and research-minded professors tend to be. They are sceptical about the value of athletics - which helps small liberal arts colleges, though it isn't reflected everywhere. Boston College is a basketball powerhouse, and St Bonaventure University's president recently got the sack because its basketball programme was mired in scandal. Shock was widespread: sports scandals are commonplace, but among the Franciscans?

The second thing that the public wants is "values". And the great virtue of religiously affiliated schools is that they are unabashed about asking large questions. If you want to debate the Old Testament's enthusiasm for genocide, or David Hume's deft demolition of religious belief, or the possibility of a wholly secular ethics, and so on ad infinitum, this is where you are most likely to find "Great Books" courses and teachers who are passionate to teach them. It is this, not religious indoctrination, that fuels most of the talk of "teaching values", the hope that higher education will help students to think seriously about something beyond the next pay cheque.

Alan Ryan is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University.

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