Sandboxes and seminar rooms

Driving through the Cleveland suburbs recently, I had a great life-imitates-art moment: a sign on Interstate 271 announcing two impending exits, one for “Harvard Rd.” and the other for “Chagrin Blvd.”

Please don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends went to Harvard; one of my best friends teaches at Harvard; I’ve even lectured at Harvard. But for too many undergraduates, four years on the Harvard road will likely lead to one form of chagrin or another. Why? Because Harvard College doesn’t take undergraduate education seriously.

It will, of course, tell you that it does and point you toward the recently released “Final Report of the Task Force on General Education,” the result of years of labor by the Harvard faculty. One acute observer, himself a denizen of the academy, notes that as a result of that heavy-lifting, “we now have a useful, readable constitution for postmodern undergraduate education in America. The only problem is that it is a constitution for an intellectual and moral banana republic.”

Too harsh? Try this, from the aforementioned report: “The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle assumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people.” No doubt Socrates thought he was doing something vaguely akin to that. But Socrates “disoriented” young people with all of those probing questions in order to get them to grasp the truth of things. The basic assumption of the Harvard faculty report is that there is no truth-of-things; it’s all “appearances,” all the way down. And for this parents are paying more than quarter of a million dollars?

No doubt there are honorable exceptions on the Harvard faculty — teachers who believe that their responsibility is to introduce some of the brightest young people in the world to the riches of the intellectual life, understood as reason’s quest for truths worth believing because they are, well, true. But for those members of the Harvard professoriate whose views dominated the Task Force on General Education, reason can’t get at the universal truth of things, for there are no such universal truths. The report says that one of the goals of a Harvard undergraduate education is to empower students to “choose for themselves what principles will guide them.” But isn’t the question of what those principles are important? Apparently not, if you’re comfortably perched, with tenure, in the intellectual sandbox of postmodernism.

My general rule for parents who care is that, in the main, it’s better to save the prestige American universities for your son’s or daughter’s graduate education. The undergraduate years are a privileged moment in which students should drink deeply from the wellsprings of western culture, while being formed into mature Christians who have integrated the life of faith with the life of the mind. Nothing does this better — and nothing prepares students better for any professional career — than a classic liberal arts education at a Catholic college or university that takes both learning and Catholicism seriously.

Parents and students looking for just that kind of intellectual, cultural, and spiritual experience at the undergraduate level might well have a look at the Cardinal Newman Society’s new publication, Choosing a Catholic College: What to Look For and Where to Find It. As with any such guide, reasonable people can differ about some of the judgments made about the twenty-two schools profiled, or the selection (or omission) of certain schools; I, for one, would certainly add Providence College in Rhode Island to the list of schools-well-worth-considering. Overall, though, I found the book fair, judicious, and chock-full of useful detail about every facet of life on the campuses studied.

Guides like this are gold and frankincense compared to rubbish like the annual U.S. News & World Report ratings. The colleges profiled are also signs of hope that the intellectual sandbox won’t prevail — which is no small thing. Nothing less that the future of the West is at stake in our continued ability to make rational arguments on behalf of freedom lived for excellence, freedom lived in truth, freedom fulfilled in goodness.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.