The Legacy of John Senior
The legendary educator believed, “The liberal arts college begins with wonder and ends in wisdom.”
Earlier this year, at the Eighth Day Institute Symposium in Wichita, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Fr. Francis Bethel, O.S.B., a monk of Clear Creek Abbey. The subject of Fr. Bethel’s talk was his experience of studying under John Senior in the celebrated Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas.
For those who might be unaware of this inspiring and pioneering program, it was established by Dr. Senior and two colleagues in 1970 and was destined to have a profound influence during its short-lived existence. Many of the students who studied in the IHP had profound life-changing experiences, in many cases leading to conversion to Catholicism. It was, in fact, this aspect of the program which led to its closure, the University of Kansas becoming alarmed at the number of undergraduates who were embracing the Faith as a logical (and theological) consequence of embracing the humanities. The program was, therefore, quite literally a victim of its own success.
“In an integrated program of studies,” Senior wrote, “every subject is seen in the light of each and all, and especially of the good, the true and the beautiful.” He insisted, furthermore, that “the purpose of [the] humanities is not knowledge but to humanize.” This was countercultural and indeed revolutionary. It was an insistence that the purpose of a healthy education was not simply the accumulation of known facts but the growth of the human person into the fullness of his humanity. In short and in sum, the humanities help us to become fully human.
At the heart of John Senior’s vision was a Thomistic understanding of the path of true perception. St. Thomas taught that humility opens the eyes of wonder, and that it is wonder that leads to contemplation and to the dilation (dilatatio) of the mind and soul into the fullness of the presence of reality. “The liberal arts college begins with wonder and ends in wisdom,” Senior wrote. The problem was that “the Freshman has had wonder pretty much crushed out of him” by the secular education system itself. As Fr. Bethel expressed it in his book, John Senior and the Restoration of Realism (Thomas More College Press):
[I]n secular colleges like the University of Kansas, professors faced a student body of modern Hamlets and Descartes, skeptical and doubtful of the true, the good and the beautiful, of being itself. KU students had turned their backs on reality, as it were, and the first thing to do was to help them turn around again, to convert them, so that they could look with their eyes, mind and heart and see what was really there.
This required a genuine humility on the part of the student, a willingness to start anew, to see things in a fresh and reinvigorated way. As the IHP’s brochure explained, the program “should be regarded as… a course for beginners, who look upon the primary things of the world, as it were, for the first time.” This overarching philosophy was encapsulated in the IHP’s motto: Nascantur in admiratione (Let them be born in wonder).
There is much more that could and should be said about the legacy of John Senior and the Integrated Humanities Program which he co-founded, but the final words, the final testimony, should be left to the Most Reverend James D. Conley, Bishop of Lincoln, Neb., who, like Fr. Bethel, had a life-changing experience when studying under Senior in the IHP: “John Senior was a gifted professor of classics, a writer, poet, thinker and a student of culture. He was my godfather and, more than anyone – besides Our Lady and the Holy Spirit, of course – he led me into the Roman Catholic Church. …Dr. Senior loved his students and we loved him.”
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