The Pursuit of Higher Things: Belmont Abbey College’s Honors College

In our pragmatic and materialistic society, earning a degree in the classical liberal arts is not generally included in the pursuit of the “American dream.” Rather, Americans seek after a degree that will be “useful” and will ensure solid employment after graduation. Very few are thinking about earning a degree in an education that is pursued “for its own sake.” Nevertheless, if we listen to Josef Pieper, who wrote Leisure, the Basis of Culture, pursuing a liberal arts education is of fundamental importance for overcoming our attachment to the “workaday world,” enabling us to enter into true leisure, which allows us to contemplate the world and experience the fullness of our humanity. Belmont Abbey College is fulfilling that very vision through its new Honors College, beginning its first semester this coming fall, which offers a focused study of the Great Books and the Western Tradition.

Recently, I interviewed two of the founding members of this program, Director Dr. Joseph Wysocki, who is the assistant dean of academic affairs, and Assistant Director Dr. Joshua Hren, an assistant professor of English. The Honors College at Belmont Abbey was preceded by the Honors Institute, which, founded by Dr. Gene Thuot and rooted in the Great Books, was smaller and offered fewer courses. This new program was born of a desire to increase the attractiveness of Belmont Abbey College to “intellectually serious students,” said Dr. Wysocki.

“We all recognize the problems of relativism and scientism, which John Paul II discusses in Fides et Ratio,” said Dr. Hren, “but equally pernicious is the spread of pragmatism. …This college, this curriculum gives students a much higher and broader vision of what human life can and ought to look like, including the questions that the persons should be asking and answering on a daily basis.”

How does this new Honors College accomplish that lofty goal? Dr. Wysocki discussed three main principles behind the program. First, he explained that they deliberately chose to limit the number of Great Books on the reading list to encourage slow and deliberate reading of texts, rather than forcing the students to acquire an (impossible) encyclopedic knowledge of many authors. Thus, the program might spend five weeks with Homer’s Odyssey, rather than a fast-paced read in two weeks. Second, three main perspectives guide the program when choosing texts: ancient, Christian, and modern. As Wysocki explained:

During the first three years, these three perspectives are organized dialectically such that they are in conversation with one another. Ancients such as Homer and Plato or moderns such as Locke and Rousseau, disagree with each other on a number of points, yet they exhibit a certain approach to a number of these questions. The ancients focused on excellence or virtue as necessary for human flourishing; the Christian perspective adds sanctity and an understanding of one’s final end of being in the City of God; the moderns add concern for liberty and human happiness through maximizing liberty.

This kind of relationship between thinkers across the centuries is explored in the first three years of the students’ study. The third and final principle behind the Great Books program concerns the fourth year of study, in which students take topical courses under the theme of “Crises of the West.” Dr. Wysocki reveals the rationale behind this unique approach to study: “It is an attempt to bring the wisdom of the Great Books to bear on the moral crises of our times; there are courses on the drama of human atheism; love, friendship, and marriage; and we make a study of 20th and 21st century thinkers, such as John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Charles de Koninck, among others.”

The Honors College at Belmont Abbey College has a customized offering for the student who is somewhat interested in studying the Great Books, perceiving the value that they offer to the intellectual life, but does not want to commit to a full degree in the liberal arts. Students are able to pursue three different options. Those who are interested can pursue a full 120-credit degree in the liberal arts. The second option would allow an ambitious student to pursue a double major, but he or she could also receive a major in liberal arts along with a minor, taking 90 credits in the Great Books Major in designated courses from the first option and 30 elective credits. The third option would allow students to pursue a traditional major with 75 credits in a Great Books core plus a Great Books minor. This option is an excellent choice for those who are interested in pursuing medical school or other professional fields after their undergraduate program but are still interested in the liberal arts.

As with similar programs elsewhere, the Great Books program at Belmont Abbey College does not have any textbooks, but only primary sources. When asked about how the program makes use of what Matthew Arnold termed “the best that has been thought and said”, Dr. Hren explained:

As a whole, we have surrendered education to the rubrics of Power Points and textbooks, which means that major things are limited, or left out and lost completely. One of these things is the primary source. …If you have a textbook that’s just selectively quoting from primary sources, then you have to ask questions about why they left out big blocks. Primary sources are interpreted for the students, and often tailored to the moral or political trends of the times; students are given a palatable tour of The Republic, or the City of God; they are told in numeric fashion what happens in the Confessions, without being able to pass through moment by moment and join in St. Augustine’s questions. …It is much more satisfying at the deepest level to begin to learn to ask the questions with the authors and to wrestle through the difficulties of the primary text, without having them oversimplified for you, because you need to learn to cultivate those abilities on your own.

The importance of the primary sources is abundantly clear: students are able to engage with the texts themselves, talk about them with other students and their professors, and ultimately learn how to think for themselves, without being told what to think (an ability that is in decline in our modern times).

The best part about this Honors College is that it is entirely within the context of a Catholic community. The Scriptures are approached as Divine Revelation, and the great saints and theologians are read within the Tradition of the Church.

Belmont Abbey’s program is also unique in that it will offer two retreats for students going through the Great Books program: the first retreat is prior to their freshman year, in which they will spend time reading and discussing the Rule of St. Benedict. After their sophomore year, they will have a weeklong beach retreat, in which they will read, discuss, and write about a particular Shakespeare play (along with many side trips to the beach). Students in their junior year will also be offered a stipend to study abroad in Ireland at an abbey with courses in medieval history. Moreover, the students will engage in cultural activities such as attending symphonies and operas, and will engage in evening seminars with their classmates and professors.

In a world that is increasingly focused on materialism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism, and in a world where the time and space for contemplation is rarely if ever allowed, the unique Honors College at Belmont Abbey College is assisting students to recover the loss of the liberal arts, which are pursued for their own sake and by their very nature allow for contemplation. A whole new generation of students will be exposed to the Great Books of the Western Tradition, and invited into the ancient “Great Conversation” about the meaning of life, humanity, and how to respond to each unique culture and time.

VERONICA ARNTZ graduated from Wyoming Catholic College with a degree in the classical liberal arts. She is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in theology from the Augustine Institute.

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