An education into the real

Wyoming Catholic College was brought into being via the dream of a community college professor who was looking back, back to his own halcyon days in the Senior IHP program, with a view to the future of education.

That program was a kind of retreat, almost a monastical program. Its aim was to rekindle wonder, to remove the scales from the eyes of jaded, modern young people. In learning to see poetically, they might detect an enchanted cosmos—not a pagan enchantment—a cosmos redeemed, replete with the uncanny wildness and magic of grace. The hope and purpose was that by becoming in love with logos, young people would search for, know, and love the Source, the Logos.

Through poetry in the classical sense, encompassing literature, drama, poetry, song, and philosophical and theological texts, the eye of the soul would brighten and the heart awaken: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour.”

This professor, Dr. Bob Carlson, lived and worked in Wyoming for many years and began to see in Wyoming herself another means to “teach seeing.” He knew, as another founder, Fr. Robert Cook, put it, that young people must first be detached from the pampered culture of relativism so overwhelming in suburbia and urbia, and that one powerful way to start the detachment necessary for the healing of sight is to put young people in the outdoors for extended periods—without screens and computers and cars and movie theaters and malls.

Bishop David Ricken, the third founder, saw the project from the perspective of evangelization and renewal of culture, realizing that only young people who had learned to detach from a corrupt culture and had gained the vision to see logos could become the leaders of the new evangelization he supported. His impetus was the final stage.

In sum, each founder represented a stage in the process of the institution: Fr. Cook’s call for detachment would come first, via nature and a return to a certain kind of old-fashioned discipline; Carlson’s poetic sight would be gained, in our particular modern context, only after this detachment, as students were immersed for four years in the college’s poetic culture; Bishop Ricken’s call for graduates to re-enter the culture and revitalize it via the discipline, detachment, and vivid Catholic sight of God’s cosmos would be the final stage, the fruit.

Bishop Ricken, if I remember correctly, had been told by a devout person he trusts that “Our Lady wants a college in Wyoming.” WCC is the only four-year institution in the state beyond the public university, and Wyoming indeed is one of the few states that is both isolated and morally and culturally conservative: “Wyoming is what America was” is a popular saying here that sums it up well. This is a state where detachment and discipline meant survival, and still does, due to the harsh climate and relative isolation.

WCC students experience this first-hand out in the wilderness and even on their walks from the dorms to the classrooms, during experiences working on local ranches, and just living and breathing and talking with the Lander pioneer stock. Living here is no tropical vacation. Wyoming also has a poetic spirit, a spirit of adventure and romance. Wyomingites come from those adventurers who survived the trip from civilization, those like Pa Ingalls and the fictional Virginian who either chose the life of the wilderness or had to flee to it. It is a land of honesty, of courageous, kind people; the stark beauty and open, silent, vast, brooding spaces hold a lesson, like the desert did for the Desert Fathers. Wyoming herself provides the first stage—of course Our Lady would ask for the College here!

The WCC student is to have a mind and heart freed from ideology, superficiality, egoism, materialism, individualism; freed from servile fear bred in ignorance and sloth; and thus free for that sight to which the poetic is the precursor, the sight that goes beyond information and knowledge to wisdom, the sight that takes in, receives, and adores the order of the Real in all things. We are talking about a holistic gaze that penetrates to the roots of the wounds and evils in our souls and in the world, and can thus work effectively to heal them.

The Wyoming part, the outdoors part, the detachment and discipline, gives young people the courage and determination to deal with opposition and persecution; the poetic enkindles, engages, and channels eros, with its inexorable passion for the infinite, culminating in agape and Christ-like compassion. It also provides one of the most powerful rhetorical tools for persuasion: the ability to help others vicariously to experience reality. The liberal arts as a whole give a strength and clarity of vision that emerges only from a well-integrated, multi-perspective, and extensive apprenticeship in their various disciplines. But however extensive, it is still a mere beginning, a provisional guide for that road to wisdom that ultimately must be negotiated by and in the student’s heart.

The outdoor program begins the process of detachment and discipline discussed at the outset, and instills the initial poetic wonder. The teachers in the first academic semester reference this experience, draw it out, and illuminate connections, such as the successes and failures of Greek heroes away from home. As language skills are developed in Trivium, students become aware of the many uses of these skills in poetics, Latin, the outdoors, philosophy, theology, and science.

Philosophy draws the lines between grammar, logic, the categories, the ideas of the Greeks, and those insights that emerge from the students’ own visceral experiences in the outdoors. Humanities reveals the order—and the consequence of trespasses against this order—of logos, an order that is also revealed in nature through careful observations in field science, and in the soul, as Aristotle’s account of the categories displays. Students learning Latin begin to hear for themselves the traditional prayers of the Body of Christ, and they find the language is living, indeed. This is just the first year.

Wyoming Catholic College is not a safe education, and not only because of the wild outdoors they must negotiate. It is just as important that students learn how to ask the right questions, to learn how to find the answers for themselves with the tools and modeling we give them, as it is that they are guided to and instructed in the truth of things.

Reality itself is the Teacher. At best, we can point to her, help identify inadequate or counterfeit images of her, and introduce the students to her most trustworthy guides. But students must reach out and embrace her on their own. Thus, open-ended dialectic and cooperative student-led enquiry have a vital place in this education, for they not only teach students how to become independent truth-seekers and knowers, but help reveal the present ignorance of both themselves and their teachers—a necessary prelude to wisdom and wonder.

The Real exceeds anything and everything we can say about it. Students who are merely instructed are not thereby educated, and thus not well equipped for the path to wisdom, a wisdom that must deal with the myriad of situations, philosophies, errors, claims, and complex human beings in the world who desperately need a versatile, living, loving, receptive, vulnerable, and sacrificial response and model.

THADDEUS KOZINSKI is academic dean and an associate professor of humanities and philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College