It’s time to get radical on campuses everywhere. I mean radical, as in a return to roots. There has been enough of the pulling up of roots in so-called higher education. We are enervated; many are disgusted, having given up on liberal arts education altogether. Unwittingly, are we also giving up on the best that Western Civilization has to offer?
What are the roots of liberal education at the university level? The monasteries and the teachings of monks at the University of Paris. As Cardinal Newman points out in The Idea of a University:
Alcuin was the pupil both of the English and of the Irish schools; and when Charlemagne would revive science and letters in his own France, it was Alcuin, the representative both of the Saxon and Celt, who was the chief of those who went forth to supply the need of the great emperor. Such was the foundation of the School of Paris, from which, in the course of centuries, sprang the famous university, the glory of the middle ages.
The middle ages seem an unlikely place for a revolution in thought and education to take place. Yet it was that seed that grew into the great liberal arts university that, until the late twentieth century, flourished everywhere in the West. Newman would explain that the purpose of the liberal arts is to make the free individual (liber) to be a gentlemen or lady, and ultimately to possess wisdom. He distinguished between the liberal arts (cultivation of the intellect) and servile arts (training in physical labor for pay). Newman is also famous for his distinction between real and notional assent, real and notional apprehension of things.
It took the post-war prosperity and a culture of pleasure to finally throw off the verities of Western Civilization, and in that process the throwing away of education in real things in favor of notional things that would serve a progressive agenda. The liberal arts were repurposed to a radical form of groupthink, a new anti-liberalism in education. At its best in the last fifty years, higher education serves only Mammon, getting the graduate good connections and high-paying careers. Thus the liberal arts became servile arts.
When the liberal arts seemed destined for shipwreck, three men stood up and decided to do something radical at a state university. They decided to engage in an Experiment in Tradition.
These three men were John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick, and their experiment was the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas. This writer was a student in this program in the seventies in Kansas. It started small. But I have seen it grow into an international educational movement, with many colleges, primary schools, and curricula based on the educational philosophy of John Senior and the practice of the IHP.
Their revolution was to expose students to real things, to delight in memorizing poetry, song, stargazing, observation of nature, and the great books. This brought out a dormant sense of awe and wonder in students. This was the necessary ingredient to philosophy and all true education, according to Plato and Aristotle, and to Newman.
Students were not taught to dissect the great and good books of Western culture, but instead to understand them, to be receptive to ancient wisdom – in the sense of really seeing as Joseph Pieper explains in Leisure: the Basis of Culture. The emphasis was not on mastery over the world, but on loving the works.
In the IHP students learned that truth was knowable, in nature, great books, poetry, great art, and science. This sort of education allows for experiential or connatural learning, focused on internalizing what is studied, attuned to the senses as well as the intellect. Students came to realize they had been indoctrinated in ignorance of real education, and the IHP provided a remedy. In fact, John Senior said what they were doing was remedial, since students lacked the necessary preparation for a traditional classical education.
Imaginations and love of learning were galvanized. In time, many students converted to the Catholic Church under the influence of Plato and Augustine. Soon vocations to the priesthood and monasteries were coming – out of a state university.
False accusations of brainwashing and proselytism arose.
Other professors and administrators were threatened by this highly successful program. It had to be suppressed. You just couldn’t allow students to run around talking about truth as if it could be known. It was the beginning of what we now know as political correctness, the liberal orthodoxy that admitted of only one direction – “progress” away from the West and the jettisoning of our Judeo-Christian patrimony.
The university held hearings, parading students to testify about Jewish conversions, attitudes about women that were too traditional, education that was too retrograde, not open to new ideas. In short, after nearly ten years of success, this program had to be done in, because it was too “controversial.” The radicalism of the sixties was not too controversial, nor was sexual experimentation, nor the embrace of every odd philosophy and cult. But a return to our roots, or at least an exploration of what was good or potentially worth knowing in Western Culture – that was revolutionary. The experiment in tradition had to be killed, as it were, death by administration.
But as with all excellent ideas, it is harder to kill them than you might think. The great revenge of IHP is that this experiment in the liberal arts bore great fruit, and it continues to bear fruit in numerous vocations to marriage and large families, in two American bishops and numerous monks and nuns, in a monastery in Oklahoma where vocations are exploding, in the founding of a college based on the great books in the great outdoors, and in the many other returns to sanity based on their pedagogical experiment.
Many have retreated in the face of cancel culture on campuses. But it is not a time for retreat. It is a time to re-engage, to start a new revolution of the liberal arts, the kind Newman had in mind, one program at a time, one school at a time, one repurposed curriculum at a time, at the primary level, and in colleges or universities that seem moribund and incapable of a return to education in real things.
Amid the ruins of higher education, must we be like Job, scraping our sores with the potsherds of a forgotten civilization? Or can we again experiment with the wisdom of the traditions of Western Civilization? Just like the long-haired students who had grown bloated on Marxist ideology and drugs in the sixties who heard the ancient music, perhaps a culture bloated on opioids and woke neo-pagan ideology can hear and see once again. A new generation awaits the revolution, hungry to experience wonder and awe at the world seen anew.
*Image: Charlemagne, surrounded by his principal officers, receives Alcuin, who presents him with manuscripts, the work of his monks by Jean Victor Schnetz, 1830 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]
You may also enjoy:
Mary Eberstadt’s The Next American Awakening Starts Here
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On an Illiberal Education