All College

By Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski (’94)
Classical Education Congress,
Warsaw, Poland
November 24, 2021

I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to address you today on a subject dear to my heart, namely, the immense value of classical liberal education in itself and in the modern world. I thank the organizers of this conference for their gracious invitation. Today, I will speak about successful examples of liberal education in America with which I have had extensive personal experience; along the way I will define my terms and propose why we have an urgent need for this kind of education, as well as the fruits we can expect from a serious investment in it.


1. History and Definitions

As background, I will begin with a brief history of twentieth-century America’s “Great Books” movement that, for us, is basically synonymous with classical liberal education. In the 1920s and 1930s, American educators at a number of universities began to notice and lament their students’ increasing ignorance of the cultural monuments of the past, and embarked on an ambitious program of reviving wide-ranging knowledge of the sources of Western civilization. Professor John Erskine of Columbia University pioneered Great Books courses at Columbia University; he was joined after 1923 by Mark van Doren and Mortimer Adler. Dr. Adler went to the University of Chicago in 1929, where he worked closely with Robert Maynard Hutchins. In 1937, St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland — a school that had been founded in 1784 — was re-founded with an integrated Great Books curriculum, the first of its kind in the United States. St. John’s College still offers this program today, with an additional campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Students sign up for no majors or minors, and have no electives; instead, over the course of four years, they all study together in a required sequence the most influential and decisive writings in literature, philosophy, and science, following either a chronological or logical order; the program leads to a single degree called a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts. In 1952, the Encyclopedia Britannica published an influential library of books called The Great Books of the Western World, in 54 volumes, ranging over nearly 3,000 years of Western thought.[1] In the general preface, Hutchins wrote:

Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was very much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.[2]

Catholic colleges and universities, which were numerous and conservative in the United States throughout the first half of the twentieth century, tended to follow a modified form of the artes liberales, with an emphasis on literary arts and history and an important place for theology, philosophy, and sometimes apologetics (given the historical majority of Protestants in the nation). For the first hundred years of its existence, The University of Notre Dame in Indiana, for example, would have seen its mission as an American realization of John Henry Newman’s 1852 lecture series The Idea of a University, in which Newman argues for a broad and systematic education suitable for the “Catholic gentleman,” that is, the well-rounded layman. After the Second Vatican Council this consensus in favor of the liberally educated gentleman (or lady) quickly fell apart, to be replaced by the typically Prussian or Germanic emphasis on specialization together with an embarrassing interest in current academic fads and trends, mostly of a progressive or rebellious kind. In the summer of 1967, several Catholic university leaders gathered in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, to discuss “the nature and role of the contemporary Catholic university.”[3] The statement they eventually approved was a catastrophic repudiation of the Catholic intellectual tradition and of the requirement of religious fidelity; it came exactly one year before the fateful encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, which unleashed yet another firestorm of revolt from the institutional Church — dramatically exhibited at my other alma mater, The Catholic University of America, in the public and stubborn dissent of the theologians headed by Fr. Charles Curran.

The Great Books movement had begun in the 1920s and reached its apogee in the 1950s; by the end of the 1960s it had already begun to be abandoned by institutions as old-fashioned, passé, irrelevant to a changing world. Similarly, the world of Catholic education that (for obvious reasons) displayed a similar emphasis on the glories of Western civilization and the benefits of the artes liberales also took a sharp turn towards secularization, pragmatism, and utilitarianism. This was the feverish atmosphere in which several “countercultural” and traditional Catholic colleges were founded, nearly simultaneously, including Thomas Aquinas College (founded in 1971, the year I was born — I will call this institution by its initials, “TAC”), Christendom College (founded in 1977), and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (founded 1978).[4]

TAC’s vision is set forth in a compact but profound vision statement called A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education. I cannot recommend this booklet too highly: it is truly a masterpiece in the philosophy of education and deserves your closest attention.[5]

Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski (’94) speaks in Warsaw’s Royal Castle
Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski (’94) speaks in Warsaw’s Royal Castle

2. A Young Man Discovers the Great Books

How did I discover the “seduction” of the Great Books?

In my final year of high school, I enrolled in a philosophy course taught by a teacher who had been trained in the Great Books at Kenyon College and the University of Chicago. Instead of the textbooks we used for most of my other classes, this teacher assigned to us several dialogues of Plato, sections from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and other works, parts of St. Augustine’s The City of God, and questions from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. That was a quite an intellectual feast for an 18-year-old! These readings, which were taught skillfully by the teacher, had a profound effect on me. I was absorbed and fascinated by the arguments, exhilarated and provoked by their obvious challenges to the “self-evident truths” of modernity. After working through Aquinas’s Five Ways of proving the existence of God, I remember being really intellectually convinced for the first time that God exists, that He must exist, and therefore that this is the single most important truth, around which everything else should revolve. The entire course of my life was changed. I knew that I had to continue studying philosophy, and, in general, the writings of the great minds of the West. I didn’t know what “career” I wanted to pursue; most 18-year-olds do not, unless they are already working in a family business, which is rare for Americans. I only knew that I desired the truth, the wisdom, the beauty, of which I had caught a glimpse in these old writings, which to me were fresher and more vivid and more exciting than almost any modern literature I had read.

So I asked my teacher where I could go to study more books like these, and he said: “Thomas Aquinas College in California.” My parents (may they rest in peace) did not want me to go to a tiny college that (at least at the time) had no worldly reputation and was, moreover, very far away (a distance of nearly 3,000 miles from where I grew up, on the opposite coast of the country). For the sake of keeping peace within the family, I agreed to try out a different school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. After one year there, I was so disgusted with its immoral environment and academic incoherence that I left and started over again at TAC. But I did learn one very important lesson at Georgetown. I was enrolled there in a special Great Books honors program. Instead of beginning with the ancient Greeks, however, the program began with 19th-century literature and philosophy: we were reading Blake and Wordsworth, Hegel and Feuerbach. Most of my fellow students had never read any Great Books at all, so they were utterly confused. It was like stepping late into a long conversation, knowing nothing of what had been said — and then being expected to participate. This taught me the crucial lesson that there is an order in learning. The order can be seen in two ways. There is the order of understanding: we must perfect our intellectual abilities in sequence — for example, starting with logic, then moving to grammar and rhetoric; starting with natural philosophy and rational psychology before we move to metaphysics, and doing ethics before politics. And there is the order of history and culture: we do well to study the earlier poets, artists, and thinkers prior to the later ones, because of the “Great Conversation” in which they are engaged — the later alluding to, interacting with, and creatively developing the earlier. Every thinker, poet, or intellectual in the West has entered into a living conversation that began long before him and will continue long after him. Even nihilists, deconstructionists, and absurdists depend on the tradition they critique or parody, like parasites on a host organism. If I may paraphrase Aristotle, the only way to avoid entering the Great Conversation is either to rise above it in mystical silence and union with the God who is beyond human words, or to sink beneath it into bestial grunting, shouting, and screaming. In the arts, this descent takes the form of cheap sensationalism or effete political gesturing. To be human is to be attuned to other men, to be a student who copies and learns from great models, to be a partner in conversations that extend beyond our minds and our time-period. One can think or make art well only within a tradition.

3. A Student at Thomas Aquinas College

I realized, therefore, that I must go to TAC after all, and start over, in order to get a thorough, coherent, well-ordered education. Entrusting myself to my teachers and to the curriculum, I devoted the next four years of my life (1990–1994) to reading and discussing in class the works of such authors as Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plutarch, Livy, Horace, Cicero, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, T. S. Eliot, and the like. We read their works in translation, but without abridgement. I’m not especially good at mathematics or the hard sciences, yet I had to learn how to demonstrate at the blackboard every proposition of the single greatest work of geometry, Euclid’s Elements. I studied the mathematical works of Archimedes, Apollonius, Descartes, Lobachevsky, and Dedekind; the astronomical discoveries of Ptolemy, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein; the biological theories of Galen, Linnaeus, Harvey, Darwin, and Mendel. In order to understand how atomic theory was built up, piece by piece, to its present form, as well as to appreciate its limitations, we followed its unfolding in Lavoisier, Avogadro, Dalton, Gay-Lussac, and Mendeleev. In this way, I learned “from within” how the greatest minds of the Western tradition had arrived at their discoveries, how they explained them, and why they were important for shaping the world in which we live, and (more importantly) for understanding reality — that is why we have minds, after all, to know the truth, so that we can be liberated from ignorance and error. In the theology tutorial we read the Bible from cover to cover, followed by major works of Boethius, St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, St. Anselm, St. John Damascene, and St. Thomas Aquinas. In the philosophy tutorial we read the major works of Aristotle — the one of whom John Henry Newman said:

Do not suppose, that in thus appealing to the ancients, I am throwing back the world two thousand years, and fettering Philosophy with the reasonings of paganism. While the world lasts, will Aristotle’s doctrine on these matters last, for he is the oracle of nature and of truth. While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In many subject-matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle; and we are his disciples whether we will or no, though we may not know it.[6]

Of course we also read representative works by most of the other major philosophers of the Western tradition, including those unhappy souls, the modern existentialists and nihilists. We spent two years learning Latin, which initiated me into an entire world that would otherwise have been closed off, especially the Roman liturgical tradition to which I have subsequently devoted many of my published books and articles.

As a result of this education, I do not have to blindly trust superficial, second-hand, and often incorrect summaries of intellectual or cultural history offered in textbooks or by the newspapers. I have the equipment necessary to make reasonably good judgments about assertions and arguments put forward by authors and speakers. I know, for example, how the architects of the scientific revolution reasoned — the truths they saw and, equally, the errors into which they fell. I know why the modern world is trapped in the ideology of materialism, because I studied the works of the philosophers who led us to this dead end. I know what the ideologies of capitalism, socialism, and communism stand for, because I studied their original propagators; this is why I can easily recognize ideological features in the words and actions of today’s ruling class.

An education in the Great Books gives a person something like X-ray vision for ideas. The personal benefits of such an education are impossible to exaggerate: it opens up not just a world of ideas, but the world itself, the shape and story of the world. It gives its recipient an almost “medical” ability to perceive the signs of, diagnose, and treat intellectual wounds or diseases, and to follow or prescribe a good regimen for their cure, with a healthy intellectual diet and exercise. Liberal education is a powerful means of both enchantment and disenchantment. It helps us to revive our wonder at reality, at human history, at the divine and the sacred; it gives us splendid examples of beauty, dignity, and self-sacrifice for the common good. It can also help to purge away the romanticization of evil and error, by showing their roots and their consequences in pure form.[7]

Dr. Kwasniewski (’94) at the Polish Minstry of Education
Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski (’94)  aht the Ministry of Education and Science.

4. What Are the “Liberal Arts”?

Here I would like to comment on an important feature of the education offered at TAC. At least in America, many schools say that they teach “the liberal arts,” but they use this phrase very loosely to refer to something like “humane studies” or “general education.”[8] In the educational tradition of the West, the artes liberales have a specific meaning: they are seven introductory disciplines — described by Hugh of St. Victor as “certain ways by which the lively soul enters into the secrets of philosophy”[9] — that prepare the student to engage with more profound subjects. The trivium (“three ways”) consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, that is, the art of composing a statement, the art of composing or developing an argument, and the art of persuasive speech. The quadrivium (“four ways”) consists of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music, that is, the science of continuous quantity, the science of discrete quantity, the science of the motions of the heavenly bodies, and the science of numerical ratios translated into sound. The neglect of these arts liberales has deplorable effects on students’ competence for higher studies or really for any study.[10]

The trivium comprises the arts of the word: grammar concerns how we name and speak of things, which is a reflection of both the human soul’s faculties and the ontological articulation of the external world; logic concerns the categories to which our terms belong and how they are joined together as statements and arguments, whether demonstrative or dialectical; and rhetoric concerns the good, useful, and beautiful use of language for the purpose of persuasion to the good or away from evil. These three arts are foreshadowed in the creation account in Genesis. First, man names the animals that are brought to him; then he reasons about his condition of original solitude and companionship; and finally he lets the devil’s rhetoric from the tree undermine his resolve to remain faithful to God’s commandment, and attempts, unsuccessfully, to use rhetoric with God. Rhetoric is the most two-faced (or Janus-like) of the trivium arts, and yet social animals cannot avoid speaking to one another in advocacies or rebuttals, since there is far too much in the reality in which we dwell that cannot be simply named or demonstrated. Much of Sacred Scripture is, in this sense, a work of rhetoric, as is the sacred liturgy. The quadrivium comprises the sciences of quantity, taken in the broadest sense: it looks to the principles of all that God created “in number, weight, and measure,” and opens the way to further mathematical and scientific discoveries about the order and structures of the cosmos. The quadrivium shows most clearly the mind’s power of abstraction from phantasms and of deductive reasoning, which elevate us above the merely animal, while placing us at a disadvantage when it comes to the knowledge of the angelic and the divine. “These liberal arts are not the only or even the most important part of liberal education, but they are fundamental to it. Only thinking which is disciplined, vigorous, and animated by wonder produces knowledge and wisdom.”[11]

5. What, Then, Is “Liberal Education”?

In a similar way, many colleges and universities, at least in America, wish to describe themselves as proponents or purveyors of “liberal education.” However, they are not, because they do not understand what this expression even means.

The term “liberal” here implies the claim that this education will free or liberate a person. Liberate him — from what? From ignorance, error, and, to some extent, vice; from preoccupation with immediate gratification and self-interest; from a narrow horizon and a lack of humanitas, of humaneness. In the modern world we see an alarming increase in slavery. I do not refer only to the return of literal forms of slavery such as sex trafficking. I mean primarily intellectual slavery: the slavery of men to their passions, to cheap slogans, to commercial and cultural propaganda, to technology that has become a master rather than a servant. Those who are not capable of using their intellects will adopt the loudest and most repeated slogans, almost by osmosis. Those who do not know how to control their passions for the sake of adhering to the truth will be easily manipulated and drafted into the service of ideology.

Liberal education therefore presupposes and relies upon a knowledge of human nature. Man has a nature that is capable of being perfected — or capable of being diminished and distorted. We are living through an anthropological crisis, a denial that man even has a nature, an essence, that exists as a stable reality and is not determined by our will or our feelings. Man is a unified composite of spirit and flesh, the animal rationalis — an animal, yes, but an animal uniquely spiritual, with the power of understanding the truth and willing the good. His animal nature is permeated with reason, and the exercise of his reason is to some extent conditioned by his placement in the physical world, which is a world of food and drink, of sentiment, emotion, and imagination. Man is an imperfect being, one who is born as a “blank slate,” as Aristotle says, one who must be educated “from the ground up.” We carry within ourselves the seeds, the first principles, of reason — the first principles of practical reason (natural law: do and pursue good, and avoid evil) and the first principles of speculative reason (e.g., the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity) — but we must acquire all of our experience, and then exercise our power of reasoning upon it. Tragically, the pre-rational and rational powers can be left almost totally undeveloped and can easily be perverted by misuse, bad habits, a life immersed in sense pleasures like that of beasts. In other words, as the Western tradition has always known, man is particularly vulnerable to error, ignorance, and vice. We could say that the opposite of Rousseau’s famous dictum is true: man is born a slave, and only by good formation can he be made free.

Traditionally, education has been seen as the means by which a man grows into the maturity of his own nature, by which his natural powers are developed according to their right and best use. This vision is unavoidably teleological: it requires seeing what human nature is, what its powers are, and how they are perfected by disciplined exercise on the best objects. Education comprises all the ways in which we form the human person according to its inherent needs and demands.[12] This is why there is nothing more important or more decisive for the individual or for a nation than the education of youth, and why the failure to educate well means the downfall of a people, a culture, a nation.[13]

We are now in a position to say what liberal education essentially is, as distinguished from any other kind of education. In the words of Mortimer Adler:

One view of education is that which takes these individual and functional differences [among men] into consideration and says that men are made better by adjusting them to their occupations, by making them better carpenters or better dentists or better bricklayers, by improving them, in other words, in the direction of their own special talents. The other view differs from this, in that it makes the primary aim of education the betterment of men not with respect to their differences but with respect to the similarities which all men have. According to this theory, if there are certain things that all men can do, or certain things that all men must do, it is with these that education is chiefly concerned.[14]

Dr. Robert Carlson comments on this passage:

Both kinds of education aim at making a man better through good habit formation, but liberal education educates him as an end in himself so that he is a good man and his worth is measured by his goodness as a man. This is an intrinsic end. Illiberal education improves man so that he is a good worker and his worth is measured by the goodness of his work. This is an extrinsic end.[15]

Ironically, the famous utilitarian John Stuart Mill held a highly positive view of liberal education, offering this magnificent praise of it in his inaugural address as rector of St. Andrew’s University:

Men are men before they are lawyers, or physicians, or merchants, or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men, they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers or physicians. What professional men should carry away with them from a University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit. Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers — who demand, and are capable of apprehending principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details. And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included.[16]

More succinctly, John Henry Newman wrote: “A cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it under­takes.” Mill’s and Newman’s remarks remind us that there is a certain practical advantage or utility in liberal education — paradoxically one that relies on escaping pragmatism and careerism. Liberal education is not intended, in and of itself, to “make a better world” or “make the world a better place.” Its specific aim — indeed, its exclusive boast and justification — is that it makes a better man, by perfecting his mind and, to some extent, his heart; it is a leading forth (e-ducatio) of distinctively human rational, linguistic, cultural powers into actualization. But it is not at all surprising that those who have been brought to greater perfection in themselves by such an education will be able to do great things in their lives, in their families and neighborhoods, in their careers, in the public and political sphere, and in their service to their country. The graduates of TAC and of similar colleges demonstrate this in unmistakable ways. Alumni have shown a remarkable ability to excel across many fields of endeavor: not only philosophy, theology, and mathematics, as one might expect, but also law, business, medicine, engineering, politics, social activism, the military, architecture and the fine arts. A large number of alumni become teachers at the homeschool, primary school, high school, or university levels, which is very good news: teachers with such a background are not narrow-minded specialists but generalists who bring to their work a versatile, polyphonic, interdisciplinary mind and an infectious example of the love of learning.[17] In fact, many alumni have gone on to establish new schools or to rescue struggling schools at all academic levels.[18]

Royal Castle, Warsaw
Royal Castle, Warsaw

6. Leisure and Liberation

One of the telltale signs of the lack of an education of man as man in today’s world is the twofold tragedy that afflicts people in many Western societies. On the one hand, they do not work in order to live (and live, in order to enjoy the higher and better things in life), but rather, they live in order to work (and work, as if the only thing that gives meaning and value to life is work or the immediate fruits of work). Josef Pieper memorably spoke of “the world of total work,” which is far removed from the dignity and flourishing of man.[19] On the other hand, they do not know what to do with themselves when they are not working, eating, sleeping, or enjoying other lower pleasures. It is as if their minds have been sucked dry and their hearts emptied of substance. Dr. Robert Carlson observes:

It is important to note that, unlike illiberal studies that prepare men only for work, liberal studies — the permanent studies — prepare them for leisure, which, as Josef Pieper says, is the basis of culture. True and good culture cannot come into existence unless people are prepared by good habit formation to engage in fruitful leisure activities. Leisure, it must be understood, is not simply free time. It is free time put to good use by engaging in activities that aim at perfecting one’s life.[20]

Such leisure activities would include “thinking or learning, reading or writing, conversation or correspondence, love and acts of friendship, political activity, domestic activity, artistic and aesthetic activity,” and, of course, religious worship and contemplation. In short: we can assess the quality of a nation’s spirit by how its men and women use their leisure. If education prepares us only for work, for a job or a career that builds up personal or national material wealth, it is illiberal; if it prepares us to desire and look forward to leisure and to make of it a joyful, beneficial, wise, and friendship-oriented use, then it is liberal. It should be obvious which of the two is superior.

Liberal education frees modern man from two particularly dangerous errors: first, from what we may call “modernism,” characterized by rationalism, scientism, reductionism, and materialism; and from “post-modernism,” characterized by relativism, skepticism, and the self-refuting assertion that truth-claims are mere impositions of power (Socrates was already familiar with such views in the Sophists of his day). The Great Books education offered by a place like Thomas Aquinas College helps us to see that there are perennial questions as well as a certain number of plausible answers to them; we can discover that it has been the love of truth, not the lust for power, that has motivated most of the representatives of the great Western tradition. Liberal education liberates students from provincialism as well as the internationalism that has no patriotism or respect for local culture. It enables us to answer — or to start answering — the ultimate questions. What is really important in life? Does life have a meaning? Is there a “big picture,” and where do I fit into it? What is the common good? How am I dependent on other men, on my country, on my people, on my history, on my tradition? What do I do with my free time, on vacation? Do I have a purpose beyond working and sleeping? How do I handle sickness or incapacity? How do I prepare for death?

Someone might object that the study of the Great Books could, in fact, induce a form of relativism, because the authors of these works frequently disagree with one another over fundamental matters, and do not present a coherent worldview. I think this is a legitimate but not a fatal objection. It is true that a Great Books education with no existential commitments or teleological framework could produce a sophisticated skepticism. This does seem to happen with some secular Great Books programs in America, such as that of St. John’s College, although some of its alumni have converted to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of the founders of TAC were educated at St. John’s College, and while they appreciated the emphasis on the Great Books, they realized that the program as a whole was essentially agnostic and relativistic: it had no center, no framework, within which to place the various authors and disciplines. It was, in a sense, purely historicist. Perhaps, then, we can say that liberal education without divine revelation and without an ecclesial “home” that provides it with a context and a center of gravitation is doomed to be like Icarus, flying so near the sun that his wings melt and he falls to his death.

Liberal education opens up to an infinite and transcendent vista. It can therefore serve as a foundation or preparation for the spiritual elevation of man by grace: it’s not accidental that the greatest Christian thinkers were liberally educated. Gratia supponit naturam. Holiness does not require a perfected intellect — we have many saints who were not liberally educated — but it is clear that normally and ideally, ceteris paribus, we should want the entire imago Dei to be developed according to its own potentialities and possibilities. And it is also clear that those who are to exercise roles of responsibility in society must have this kind of education, otherwise they will fall into the various forms of intellectual slavery mentioned earlier (modernism, post-modernism, internationalism, provincialism).

Contrary to the demented fantasies of the European Union, which wishes to rewrite history by ignoring the contribution of the Catholic Church to every positive and praiseworthy aspect of our civilization — an unworthy fiction that even the French atheist Michel Onfray roundly mocks[21] — it is a simple fact that without the Church, there would be no universities, just as without the Church there would be no hospitals, parliaments, or laboratories.

I would like to respond to one more objection. Some people say: “We already know about all these famous authors. They are from long ago, from totally different situations than ours. They are just not relevant any more. We need to focus our education on today’s problems with today’s solutions.” In response, I say: most people have heard of famous authors and perhaps read about them or read summaries of their works, but few have actually studied these works, and therefore few can be said to be imbued with their wisdom and beauty. Our contemporaries do not realize how remarkably relevant the classics are to the human situation at any time and in any place — one learns this only by embarking on the discovery of the classics. The fictional or semi-fictional figures of literature and the real persons of history amply show the sameness and continuity of human nature and its exigencies: Achilles, Nestor, Paris, Helen, Aeneas, Dido, Anchises, Roland, Dante, Beatrice, Portia, Iago, Hamlet, Don Juan, Don Quixote, Faust, Raskolnikov, Alyosha, Father Zosima, J. Alfred Prufrock. All are human; all subjects of the same virtues and vices, all “relatable.” The “permanent things” of which Russell Kirk speaks are permanent precisely because human nature and its necessary relationship to God and to the ultimate questions do not change. Our problems in 2021 are not different in kind, only in appearance, from the problems that faced the Greek or Hebrew or Roman thinkers, or the medievals, or the early moderns. Our deepest needs are not dependent on technology but reside at the level of the mind and the heart, where our ancestors often surpassed us in virtue, eloquence, and wisdom.

7. Founding a New College

After graduate school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., I was hired as assistant professor of philosophy at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria (today in Trumau, closer to Vienna), where I taught from 1999 to 2006. I would like to mention that the founding president of this Institute, Michael Waldstein, was an early graduate of Thomas Aquinas College; at the Institute he established what is probably still the world’s only Great Books program towards the pontifical degree of Baccalaureate of Sacred Theology (STB). In other words, the students do their graduate-level work not from textbooks, monographs, and professors’ lecture notes, but from the writings of great philosophers and literary figures, Church Fathers and Doctors (Eastern and Western), conciliar, papal, and curial documents, and prominent modern figures such as Newman, Scheeben, Journet, Ratzinger, and, of course, Wojtyła. Students who enroll in the entire five-year program are required to make a beginning in the traditional artes liberales, which, again, is unique among pontifical schools.

In more recent years, the Institute introduced a one-year “Studium Generale” program, consisting of Great Books courses in liberal arts, literature, philosophy, Scripture, catechism, social teaching, and law, combined with retreats, pilgrimages, and cultural excursions.[22] It is intended as a “gap year” between high school and further university studies or vocational training. In my opinion, this program presents a creative solution to the increasingly serious problem of the lack of rootedness, among Europeans, in their own classical Western and Catholic intellectual tradition, and I believe it should be emulated elsewhere.

In 2006, I was hired as the first professor and director of admissions for a newly-established liberal arts Great Books undergraduate college in the western Rocky Mountain state of Wyoming. Although many of the eventual faculty and staff of Wyoming Catholic College (which I will call by its initials “WCC”) would turn out to be graduates of Thomas Aquinas College, nevertheless from the beginning the “character” of the program was intentionally different — similar, to be sure, but not identical. Both colleges are faithfully Catholic; both have a four-year integrated all-mandatory Great Books curriculum; both emphasize small class size, a heightened teacher-student interaction, and the importance of discussing the texts rather than simply having lectures.

The differences, however, are noteworthy. Dr. Robert Carlson — the principal academic founder of WCC and the author of its philosophical vision statement Born in Wonder, Brought to Wisdom[23] — was a disciple and longtime associate of a famous American educator named Dr. John Senior, who helped create the short-lived but highly influential Pearson Integrated Humanities Program (which I will call “the IHP”) at the University of Kansas from 1970–1979.[24] Dr. Senior is especially known for his two books, The Death of Christian Culture (1978) and The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983), which encapsulate his vision of education, life, and the fate of Christendom. The IHP had some special features that set it apart from other programs. The students themselves did not discuss the Great Books, but rather listened carefully to animated discussions of these works by a group of three professors, one of whom was Dr. Senior. They memorized a great deal of poetry in small groups, sang folks songs, learned formal dancing, practiced calligraphy, went out stargazing to ignite their wonder at creation, and traveled to Europe to visit monasteries and listen to monks singing Gregorian chant. In this way, the Senior vision was always more “hands-on,” more experiential, emphasizing an education of the “whole person” rather than of the intellect alone. The IHP, although it existed less than a decade, had a remarkable impact on the Church in America, yielding innumerable conversions and reversions to the Faith, many religious and priests, two bishops, an abbot, and founders of many schools across the country.

WCC emulates the IHP in a number of ways: in addition to stargazing, dancing, and poetry memorization, the students spend many weeks during their four years engaged in outdoor activities such as backpacking and hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and rafting, rock-climbing, canyoneering, skiing, skating, and igloo-building. The freshmen spend 21 days in the wilderness, having no contact with civilization. This may seem counterintuitive for a college whose students spend their time mostly studying, discussing, and writing about the Great Books of Western Civilization, but it serves the crucial purpose of populating, invigorating, and revitalizing their imaginations with direct, powerful, and memorable experiences of “God’s First Book,” the natural world. This is all the more necessary in our times, when the outer and inner senses of modern youths are poorly nourished, and at times malnourished, by the limits of the urban or suburban technologically saturated environments in which they grow up. The raw exposure to creation equips them for reading books with greater sympathy and understanding, whether “God’s Second Book,” the Bible, or any of the merely human works in the curriculum. Students can grapple better with the story of the Exodus of Israel or the temptation of Christ in the desert when they themselves have been plunged for three weeks deep in the wilderness, where their character was strongly challenged, where the need for moral virtue was so plainly exposed, and where the interplay between the common good of the group and the private good of individuals was made manifest in a way that seldom happens in society. Nearly all of the students say that the outdoor program pushes them to their limits and makes them realize that they are capable of much more than they thought they were. WCC students also spend a semester learning how to ride horses, and how to take care of them.

Wyoming Catholic College gives more attention to several subjects than Thomas Aquinas College does. The trivium, especially oral and written rhetoric, enjoys a greater prominence. The program includes semesters devoted to the fine arts, that is, the history of the visual arts of architecture, sculpture, mosaics, manuscripts, painting, etc., and the history of music in its various phases. Literature receives a more careful and deliberate treatment. These curricular expansions are obtained by decreasing the time given to the mathematical and scientific subjects that are prominent in the TAC curriculum. Latin at WCC is taught by the so-called “nature method”: in other words, it is learned by speaking and listening to it in an immersive context, so that Latin is acquired as a functional tool of communication. The list of Great Books studied at TAC generally follows the secular canon established at the University of Chicago and St. John’s College, whereas the list studied at WCC includes authors that did not “make the Britannica cut” because they were not deemed “influential enough” — and yet, they were in fact far more influential than most of the authors who are included in Britannica’s set. Examples include St. Benedict, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John of the Cross, and St. John Henry Newman.

I would say that WCC aims at a certain balance of elements, all of which are necessary for the perfection of the whole person. Its goal is the formation of a Catholic human being, not beginning and ending with the intellect, but beginning (in a way) with the body, moving on into the intellect which is the primary focus of the curriculum, yet continuing further into the “spirit,” into the domain that is most important of all: the student’s relationship with God.[25] Naturally, the intellectual formation is emphasized because that is the raison d’être of a college or university. At the same time, intellectual formation bereft of moral character is potentially self-destructive and, at a minimum, socially sterile, ill-equipped to serve the common good; in like manner, intellect divorced from spirituality yields to curiosity, vanity, and pride. Human knowledge must be completed by divine wisdom, the mind healed and elevated by divine grace. I would suggest that, in a way, WCC’s program aims above all to immerse students in reality, in the many ways it has been and can be perceived and expressed. The formation of the whole person means a formation according to all the faculties of perception, reflection, judgment, analysis, and synthesis — the poetic as well as the philosophical, the supernatural as well as the natural, moral character as well as mental refinement, not only discipleship within a Tradition but also leadership in defending and extending Tradition’s empire.[26]

My remarks are not meant necessarily as a judgment that WCC’s program is superior to TAC’s, or even that either program is fully living up to its own ideals. I am glad and thankful that both colleges exist — in fact, TAC has been so successful after fifty years that it opened a second campus on the East Coast, in Massachusetts, while WCC this year had a record enrollment — and I have seen their tremendous good fruits in my own life and in the lives of others. Rather, I would like to emphasize that within the realm of classical liberal education and the Great Books movement, there is room for a variety of approaches with different emphases or priorities. It is my conviction that it is impossible for any one school to accomplish every worthwhile educational goal; human beings are capax Dei, capacious for God, and that infinite capacity means that education will always be a beginning, an opening, a partial realization of humanity, and never the end, the closure, the total actuality. But a well-ordered liberal education deeply rooted in the great Western and Catholic tradition will profoundly humanize, enrich, and transfigure the inner and outer life of the student who is blessed to receive it. It will open for him a life of moral liberty, conscientious action, beneficial leisure, and friendships centered on wisdom. In this way, it is not a luxury for the privileged, an exotic dish served in the academic marketplace, a strange old-fashioned taste for the past. It is a burning necessity for a flourishing society of free men and women who are not alienated from creation, from their own history, or from their very selves; men and women in whom the image of God is alive, seen, embraced, and on the way to fulfillment.



[1] There was a certain precedent in Harvard University’s 1909 publication of the 51-volume Harvard Classics, intended to make great literature available to a growing audience of leisure readers. But the very different situations — one set released before World War I and appealing to a small audience, the other released in the prosperous period after World War II, with many more people seeking education — helps to explain the difference in their impact.

[2] Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 1:xi. See also Marcus Berquist,


[4] These institutions, it should be said, are among the few that willingly and proudly adhered to John Paul II’s prescriptions in Ex Corde Ecclesiae of 1990, which in turn became a template and standard for the Cardinal Newman Society, which was founded in 1993 to monitor the compliance of Catholic institutions with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, to promote those that did and to put pressure on those that did not.

[5] It is available online for free download:                

[6] John Henry Newman, Idea of a University, Discourse 5, §5. Newman elsewhere describes him as “the most comprehensive intellect of Antiquity…the one who had conceived the sublime idea of mapping the whole field of knowledge, and subjecting all things to one profound analysis” (Rise and Progress of Universities, ch. 16).

[7] To take one example, almost no Lutheran holds exactly what Martin Luther held; they have sanitized it and cosmetically beautified it. Reading Luther himself — as we do at TAC — brings one face to face with the irrationality and arbitrary exegesis of Protestantism, which, as Brad Gregory demonstrated in The Unintended Reformation, is at the root of modern secularism.


[9] Cited in A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education (1968), 2010 ed., p. 44.

[10] In 1947, Dorothy Sayers published an important essay called “the lost tools of learning” (referring to the trivium and quadrivium). This essay could well be described as the Magna Charta of the classical liberal education movement in the United States for primary schools and high schools. For a fuller treatment of the trivium and the quadrivium, see Stratford Caldecott’s excellent books Beauty in the Word and Beauty for Truths’ Sake.

[11]  From my experience learning and teaching at several liberal arts institutions, there is simply no substitute for the trivium and the quadrivium as propaedeutic tools to prepare the way for the higher studies. The artes liberales together with classical languages were once studied by children and young adults, and in an ideal world they would be finished prior to the university level. Unfortunately, this cannot be assumed as it once could be, and that is why most Great Books colleges still incorporate them into their programs.

[12] Jeremy Holmes expresses it this way: “Liberal Arts Education means becoming human: more than a rock, more than a plant, more than an animal — that pinnacle of the material world, the human being…. As plants have a greater world than rocks, and animals than plants, so man’s world is the entire cosmos, and he knows it by becoming it.

[13] Charles De Koninck: “The proposition liberum est quod causa sui est must be understood not as meaning that the free agent is the cause of himself, or that he is, as such, the perfection for which he acts, but as meaning rather that he is himself, by his intellect and will, the cause of his act for the end to which he is ordered. One could also say that he is cause of himself in the line of final cause, insofar as he bears himself towards the end to which he is called as an intelligent and free agent, that is according to the principles themselves of his nature. But this end consists principally in the common good. The agent will be so much the more free and noble as he orders himself more perfectly to the common good. Hence one sees how the latter is the first principle of our free condition. The free agent would place himself in the condition of a slave if by himself he could not or would not act except for the singular good of his person. Man retains no less his free state when, by his own reason and will he submits himself to a reason and will which are superior. Thus it is that citizen subjects can act as free men, for the common good. Primacy of the Common Good (Collins trans.), 70–71. See also Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri.

[14] WCC’s Philosophical Vision Statement, “Education Defined,” p. 15.

[15] Ibid., p. 15.

[16] Ibid., p. 16. We can, in fact, go one step further, with Robert Hutchins: “The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, undeveloped one, or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one” (cited in the Wyoming Catholic College Catalog, 2020–21 edition, p. 3). Concerning the discipline of law in particular and the effects of several generations of legal positivism detached from a philosophical and religious foundation, see Valentin Tomberg, The Art of the Good: On the Regeneration of Fallen Justice (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2021).

[17] Indeed, graduates of the liberal arts colleges are seeding classical academies all over the USA, taking part in a revival of classical education. For example, many alumni of WCC are now being employed by the “Great Hearts” academies, which are government-supported charter schools with Great Books liberal arts curricula.

[18] It should also be noted that many alumni from the colleges about which I am speaking become priests and members of religious orders — a proportion far greater than is observed at secular schools that offer only specialized programs or a random smattering of “core” courses.

[19] Utilitarianism is the great “demon” in modern education, because we no longer (as a culture) believe in the inherent value of the truth and the ordering of man to it as his good. So in its place we have an almost Marxist reduction of man to worker — a new feudalism, without the benefit of the Catholic Church offering her transcendent blessings.

[20] WCC’s Philosophical Vision Statement, p. 16.

[21] “God is not part of my world, but my world was made possible by the God of the Christians. Pace anyone who thinks France began with the Declaration of the Rights of Man — a notion as stupid as the belief that Russia was born in October 1917 — Christianity has built the civilization I call my own and that I feel I can love and defend without beating my breast, without having to ask forgiveness for its faults, without waiting for redemption after confession, contrition, and getting on my knees. How foolish they who despise Christianity and pretend it never happened, yet are as soaked in it as rum cakes!” (From Benedict’s Peace to Francis’s War, ed. Peter Kwasniewski [Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2021], 68).

[22] For more information, see

[23] This statement, too, is available for free download:

[24] As Senior himself says, explaining the name of the IHP:

“INTEGRATED means ‘united by a reason within the nature of the thing,’ like an organism, rather than externally, like a collection, say of books in a library arranged for our convenience…. the great tradition in philosophy has held that knowledge is analogous, that is one integral structure having many parts but moving together and arranged from within by its intrinsic nature….

“HUMANITIES means those aspects of integral knowledge directly bearing on the human species insofar as it is human — that is, insofar as man has intelligence, memory and will and the properties that follow from these faculties such as freedom, laughter, the enjoyment of poetry and the other arts, the appreciation of formal excellence in nature, workmanship or sports. The humanities are pre-scientific, based on ordinary experience…

“PROGRAM means ‘that which announces the main events’; it is equivalent to ‘agenda’… If there is such a thing as human nature, since many generations have lived, the theater of life, as we might say, plays a long re-run whose ‘program’ is [as] familiar and strange as A Midsummer-Night’s Dream — familiar because it is the story of our own lives, strange because we never wholly understand ourselves; life is a mystery. The Integrated Humanities Program is not a course, not the running through of a prescribed sequence in the humanistic sciences… It is not an attempt to advance knowledge at all, but rather, as the word ‘program’ in the proper sense implies, to read what the greatest minds of all generations have thought about what must be done if each man’s life is to be lived with intelligence, discretion, and refinement.” (From a private document entitled “Integrated Humanities Program: A Definition.”)

[25] One might, perhaps, associate WCC’s approach with the Greek concept of paideia and TAC’s with the Ciceronian cultura animi — the first more holistic, the second more oriented towards cultivating intellect.

[26] One might suggest that WCC is seeking to “breathe with both lungs” of the classical tradition: the poetic and the philosophical (recall the two foci: humanities and theology), which have been seen to be perpetually in conflict, and one of which, in fact, always seems to dominate an institution: the philosophical at TAC, the poetic at Dallas or St. John’s. This is far more ambitious — because more holistic and diversified — than the Aquinas-aimed program of TAC or the “roller skating through the Louvre” relativism of St. John’s. Hence, the readings must be shorter, to permit the requisite focus and to allow time for activities that develop the non-intellectual or supra-rational facets of the person (e.g., outdoor trips; theology practica). Everything, of course, in the end, pertains to human rationality correctly understood, but there are things that are presupposed to the operation of reason and things that carry reason beyond itself and out of itself; there are, moreover, the applications of reason to things to be done and things to be made. All of these dimensions are implied in the phrase “educating the whole person.” Whether this ambitious vision is actualized in many or some of WCC’s students is a different question; nor could one be surprised that success in liberal education is always more elusive than one might wish.