"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, February 8, 2016

Literature in the News: A Bishop Who Learned Through the Great Books

When I came across this article on Aleteia on Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska’s being inspired as a young man when he came across the classics in college, I could immediately identify.  From the article:

I grew up in the Presbyterian Church and went to public schools my whole life. I didn’t have a very good education at all. It was during the early 1970s, and there was a lot of experimentation in education, a lot of educational models that were being tried …

But providence stepped in, and I went off to the University of Kansas, and I learned about a program that was being offered there called the Integrated Humanities program. … There was no religious motivation at all for me to get involved in the program; it just sounded interesting.

That’s exactly what happened to me.  My high school education wasn’t spectacular, or inspiring when it came to the humanities.  I was a good science and math student, and went on to college for a physics degree, which I ultimately switched over to engineering.  But my first college (Brooklyn College of the City University of NY) also had started an integrated humanities program, and since I needed a certain amount of elective humanities credits, and since I was intrigued with the program, I entered it, while also doing my math and science.  The integrated humanities program simultaneously presented courses that were interlinked by era, so that you would take literature, history, arts, and philosophy of a particular time all together.  It was here as a Freshman that my love of literature and the arts was formed.

It seems to have made a great impact on Bishop Conley as well:

The program was started by two English professors and one classics professor. They were seasoned, tenured professors, and they were very good teachers. They had discovered that students really had not been exposed to the great things of Western culture — literature, poetry, music — things that were part of the staple of education a generation or two before. They were frustrated as university professors that you couldn’t presume that students had [studied] the fundamentals.

So they chose as the model “Let Them Be Born in Wonder,” the Latin phrase, nascantur in admiratione — the idea being that these students had never been exposed to wonder, so as teachers, let’s introduce them to these beautiful things that had always perennially been taught through the ages. It was a freshmen/sophomore program.

We read the great Greek classics, beginning with The Odyssey, all the way through to the Romans, in the second semester. We read The Aeneid, among others. And in the third semester we read early Christian authors, passages from the Bible, The Confessions of St. Augustine, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. The last semester we began with The Canterbury Tales and continued with the early Moderns and ended with the modern day.

What happened was, students, as in my own case, fell in love with this beautiful literature, the characters, everything else surrounding it, because not only was this a literary program, we had a lot of extracurricular things: we’d go stargazing, learn about the constellations and how they worked into the literature we were reading, especially the pagan authors. And we would have, every year, a spring waltz, where the students would come together and organize a beautiful experience of waltzing. We’d hire the university orchestra, reserve the university ballroom and have waltz lessons, since nobody knew how to waltz. It taught us manners. It taught us how to treat women as ladies, and men became gentlemen in the process. It was a poetic exposure to beautiful music, beautiful dancing.

This is what I’m trying to do with my blog.  I’m trying to share my understanding of the Great Books to whoever may be interested.

Bishop Conley has started what he calls the Newman Institute at the University of Nebraska:

It’s an institute for Catholic thought and culture. It’s something that has come from my own experience at a big public land grant university. The University of Nebraska is similar. … There are others that are doing this, and quite successfully. Catholic studies institutes are springing up at different universities across the country. And all of them have the same goal — that is to expose students to the great ideas, great books, great treasures of our Western culture and Catholic tradition, on a secular campus …

That sounds great.  If you’re going to college for a Humanities degree, make sure you go to an institution that is focused on the great books of western culture.  It will shape the rest of your life.

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