Blessed John Henry Newman succeeded remarkably in many fields, but his own Catholic University of Ireland failed within a few years. Still, Newman is not without remarkable children. I want to share some thoughts in particular on the legacy of John Senior. Senior is unusual in that he actually drew his pedagogy not from Newman’s Idea of a University but from his Grammar of Assent.
John Senior is not well known today beyond certain circles, but he enjoyed a brilliant early career in academia, writing a dissertation in the 1950s under Mark Van Doren at Columbia, landing a first teaching post at Cornell, publishing a promising first book with the university’s press, and serving as editor for prominent journals.
But he was not happy. At Cornell, through reading Aquinas and Newman, he converted to Catholicism and left the Ivies to teach and work a ranch in Laramie, Wyoming. The choice of a poor president at the university there caused him to leave for the University of Kansas, where, with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, in 1970 he founded the “Integrated Humanities Program” (IHP) with colleagues Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick.
The IHP is famous in Catholic circles because in the brief five or so years of its thriving (1972-77) over two hundred students converted or reverted to Catholicism, many of whom later became monks, priests, abbots, and bishops. We take that as a sign that Senior was doing something right, but not because the point of college is conversion. The gate to Harvard Yard says, “Enter to Grow in Wisdom,” and we think that Catholic truth has something to do with wisdom.
The IHP aimed to educate well, not to convert, and all of its texts were drawn from the “Great Books” and great literature. A student in the program would attend: twice a week, with all his peers, a team-taught conversation led by the three professors; once a week, in a small group of ten or so, an intensive session on writing, led by a graduate student; and once a week, also in a small group, a drill session led by older students, to memorize names, dates, and facts.
Most students took an optional course in Latin, taught in the “active” or “spoken” method by Senior, twice weekly. Each semester, students had to memorize ten great poems. There were weekly stargazing sessions; waltzes in formal dress; outdoor expeditions; and trips to Ireland and Rome. Students were encouraged to master calligraphy as an easily accessible art of beauty.
This detail about calligraphy fascinated me. In college, the great sociologist David Riesman told me that he had advocated, to no avail, that Harvard too institute an undergraduate requirement to learn calligraphy, precisely on John Senior’s reasoning. He was dismayed that the college gave no credit to any course for the making of music or art, only courses of theory. Did he draw his idea from Senior?
Worried by the conversions apparently, combined with the non-technical character of the studies, the University of Kansas first strangled the IHP by no longer counting its courses for general liberal education credits. And then suppressed it, by reducing it to a single humanities class, on the grounds that the program was engaged in “advocacy,” not teaching. In his recent book on Senior and the IHP, John Senior and the Restoration of Realism, Fr. Francis Bethel, O.S.B., an alumnus, attributes the university’s actions to the relativism that reigned and still reigns as the unofficial philosophy of the modern university. One might suspect that the petty jealousies and turf battles of academic politics played an equal role.
Senior published two short works on education, The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture. It is time to look at them again. They seemed wild and almost unbelievable when they were first published; now they look almost obvious and too familiar.
Resonant of other great tracts warning of the decline and perishing of Western civilization – Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society seems the closest cousin – well before MacIntrye and Dreher, Senior argues that our best option is to return to St. Benedict’s example. If it took 700 years for the soil of the Monte Cassino community to give rise to a St. Thomas Aquinas, we should understand our necessary project of rebuilding, he says, as involving a similar time-scale.
But isn’t there something that lay Catholics can do in the meantime? Yes, Senior says, attend to the culture of the home. His key educational idea, his main improvement over anyone else, is the insight that students who arrive at college, having passed through our educational factories (the modern school), inevitably conditioned by technological society, will be harmed rather than formed by immediate specialist studies.
They arrive alienated from nature. They need space, and freedom, simply to discover in an unstructured way, and wonder at, what is real. In effect, they never were children. Their sensibility and imagination should be informed before they undertake a higher education that shapes only the intellect.
He speaks to fathers and mothers thus:
To conclude not so much with a proof of anything as an exhortation to experiment: Read, preferably aloud, the good English books from Mother Goose to the works of Jane Austen. There really is no need for reading lists; the surest sign of a classic is that everyone knows its name. And sing some songs from the golden treasury around the piano every night. Music really is the food of love, and music in the wide sense is a specific sign of the civilized human species. Steeped in the ordinary pot of the Christian imagination, we shall have learned to listen to that language by absorption, that mysterious language the Bridegroom speaks; and we shall begin to love one another as He loves us.
Newman would have recognized here a deeply kindred spirit.