A A Email Print Share

Pittsburgh Catholic Column: August 20, 2007

Some cultural elements foster positive student growth

by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

Catholic universities are committed to the personal and spiritual growth of their students. But serious cultural pathologies stand in the way of that mission.

The material opulence of many contemporary college students can breed selfishness. The prevalence of so many electric toys minimizes time for reflection and prayer. The sexual promiscuity and violence in our media distort student values. Hovering parents can undermine the development of personal responsibility. Health issues, particularly psychological ones, and the temptation to abuse drugs and alcohol often interfere with personal growth.

But there are positive elements in the general culture for contemporary college students and in the institutional cultures of most Catholic universities that foster growth. Here are some of those saving graces of contemporary culture.


Contemporary students on Catholic campuses are not as traditionally religious as past generations. Their secular culture mocks organized religion and promotes skepticism about Catholic doctrine. But they are a highly spiritual generation. As eclectic and as inconsistent as this can be, it is an opening for conversation and exploration of issues of significance. This is a generation of seekers, looking for meaning and depth. They may be Buddhist for a semester, then Evangelical Christian the next; or they may believe that they are both at once. An environment that fosters and focuses this search for meaning serves the interests of student growth and can lead many to a more mature recovery of their own faith.


There is a real concern for global issues in this generation. Suffering in other places, whether it is a tsunami in Asia or genocide in Africa, has a powerful effect on them. Today’s students also have a commitment to diversity and inclusion. No one is wholly free of racial prejudice and gender bias, but compared with other generations of Americans and Catholics they are paragons of virtue on these issues. Injustices that previous generations accepted as matters of fact are deeply troubling and unacceptable to today’s college students. And they care about the environment. These dispositions fit broadly and well with large parts of Catholic social thought.


Students today have a strong service orientation, not only in obvious places like the health sciences, but across the board. Volunteerism is very high. Something novel for this generation is the addition of “service-learning” to many academic programs. This takes a community service experience to an academic level through a structured reflection — an essay, a journal, classroom discussion or some other formal thinking. It is another powerful opening for dialogue on Catholic social thought.


Contemporary culture has given students a special sensitivity to questions of ethics, fairness and individual rights. This is often associated with a heightened sense of hypocrisy in traditional institutions. Of course, this can be overdone and unreflective. But these are areas in which Catholics thinkers have made major contributions for centuries. Dialogue here is an opportunity for supporting personal and spiritual growth.


Two final elements that are particularly in the cultures at Catholic universities are relevant. Student involvement in campus organizations and activities is strongly urged at most Catholic colleges. These involvements play key roles in student growth. They structure healthy relationships in work and play, create opportunities for students to learn from one another and promote mutual respect. They also develop leadership skills.


A second cultural aspect of Catholic universities is the conscious fostering of a sense of community. Many Catholic universities are sponsored by religious congregations for whom community is a core value. Students are encouraged to enter into the traditions of the university and to make them their own. Establishment of community deepens personal relationships, provides a sense of history and mission, and directly supports the personal and spiritual growth of students by making them part of a larger meaning.

This generation of students has inherited some serious cultural liabilities. But they also have some reassuring strengths. Catholic universities committed to students’ personal and spiritual growth must stay alert to the dangers of the former and to the opportunities of the latter.