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Alumni remember Kansas university’s humanities program, credited with Catholic conversions


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John Burger - published on 09/04/19

Pearson Integrated Humanities Program has two bishops, several monks among its grads.

A humanities program at a state university that’s been credited with many conversions to the Catholic faith was remembered at a reunion over the weekend.

Attendees included two Catholic bishops, who remembered their transformation from long-haired young men of the Woodstock era to devotees of Catholicism because of the new approach to education they encountered at the program.

The University of Kansas established the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) in 1970, with a pilot year beginning 50 years ago this fall. The project was led by three professors who were Catholic but who did not preach the faith in their capacity as professors. Rather, John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick tried to drive home the relevance of classical literature to modern life.

“The professors saw that the modern students who came to the university might be very bright academically, but their memories and imaginations were so affected by the modern world. They were sort of bankrupt when it came to the imagination,” Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, told Catholic News Agency.

In a 2016 interview with Aleteia, Bishop Conley said the professors chose as the motto of the program the Latin phrase, nascantur in admiratione, “Let Them Be Born in Wonder” — “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.”

“They were able to introduce these great ideas that colored and flavored the imagination, and students fell in love with learning and fell in love with wanting to know more of truth, goodness, and beauty,” Conley told CNA.

The news agency explained:

Students read epics of Homer and Virgil, the philosophy of Plato, Greek and Roman historians, and the Bible. They also read St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Don Quixote, and Shakespeare. Twice weekly, students would listen to the three professors discuss the texts together. As part of their weekly class, students would also engage in discussions, and conduct poetry recitations. Students took an immersive Latin class, which was based on rhetoric, rather than a more systematic approach to the language. IHP was also renowned for its extracurricular activities, and seemingly unconventional methods of education. Students were encouraged to attend stargazing sessions, ballroom dances, and medieval banquets. Before every lecture, an upperclassman would teach the students a song, usually an English ballad or American folk melody. … Patrick Callahan, a classicist and the coordinator of a leadership and ethics program at Emporia State University, said class lectures were complemented by experience, poetry memorization, and an effort to inspire within students an attitude of wonder. He said Senior advocated for “poetic learning.” “The idea of a way in which we can come to know the world in a poetic way through the imagination,” Callahan explained.

The best known of the three professors was John Senior, who was born in New York in 1923 and died in 1999. His journey to academia is itself quite a story:

As a child, he wanted to be a cowboy. When he was 13, he ran away from home to become a ranch hand. He worked in the Dakotas and in Wyoming, and he was shaped by his life on the plains — sitting around campfires, singing songs, and gazing at the stars. When he attended Columbia University, he came under the influence of Mark Van Doren, a poet and an English teacher. Searching for meaning, Senior explored religions and philosophies, among them communism and eastern spirituality. He eventually discovered the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Henry Newman. Senior became Catholic in 1960. Later that decade, he left a job at a college in Wyoming and began teaching at the University of Kansas.

Kyle Washut, academic dean at Wyoming Catholic College, told CNA that Senior pushed for tangible experiences.

“The love of ‘the real’ is also really important for John Senior. There is a sort of moral formation from being rooted in the land, rooted in this real direct experience, either through that raw encounter with nature or through a vicarious, poetic experience,” he said.

“[A person] has to go out and experience that world, look at that world, know that world as [their] own and then … engage with more careful reflection on that world,” Washut added.

Quite a few conversions and religious vocations are attributed to the program, which was in existence for 10 years. Some students, after graduation, traveled to Europe and discovered the Abbey of Our Lady of Fontgombault in France. Some of them entered that Benedictine monastery, and, in 1999, they returned home to establish Our Lady of Clear Creek Benedictine Abbey in Clear Creek, Oklahoma.

Conley and Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City were roommates at the University of Kansas and at that time had little interest in Christianity. Coakley said it was not until he entered the program that he came to appreciate the Catholicism of his youth. Conley was Presbyterian, but his readings of Augustine and Newman in the program led him to Catholicism. CNA reported:

They described themselves as “70s kids,” who wore long hair and listened to rock music. But they said that because of the IHP, they were captivated their freshman year by a world of beauty—full of literature, poems, music, and nature. It was the world of the IHP.

“It was an incredibly effective program, in terms of awakening a sense of wonder in students and a love for learning.

“The overarching theme was to immerse the students into the good, the true, and the beautiful, so that we might ask the big questions: ‘What is life all about?’ ‘What is death?’ ‘What is eternity?’ ‘What is evil?’ ‘What is good?’” Conley said.

“We students began to look deeper into those perennial questions. And for many, like myself, it led us to our faith and to the Catholic Church,” he added.

When asked about their favorite aspects of the program, both bishops said they enjoyed the literature, the poetry, and the adventures, but they especially appreciated the joy of a community unified by its pursuit of truth.

“This community was formed based on really deep study of those perennial truths as they were taught through literature, art, music, [and] architecture,” said Conley. “I was with others who were on the same journey searching for the truth. That combined experience really changed my life.”

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