liberal arts

Painting by Jef Murray

Almost half of a decade ago, I applied for an interesting position–to be the first head of a new liberal arts program at a Catholic college in New England. The college is old and venerable, but it’s gone through the typical changes toward the worse experienced by most small religious colleges in the last four decades.

In the last several years, however, the college has acquired a sharp new president and provost, and the school is turning around in every good way. Should it continue on this path, it will be a leading liberal arts college once again.

 I gave everything I had for this position, but the college administration and faculty committee wisely recognized that my vision outstrips my administrative gifts.

As I understand it, I came in second out of three finalists–but, of course, I don’t know this for a fact. Still, it’s somewhat soothing to the ego.

Regardless, I have been honing my thoughts and vision (if you will) of what a good liberal arts program would look like, especially for a Catholic. While I have immense appreciation of a Great Books approach, such as that found at St. John’s, I’ve been far more influenced by a cultural approach to the liberal arts as understood by my heroes, Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, and Jacques Barzun.

In my proposal offered to the college faculty and administration at large, I argued for something I still believe in, but, which I understand, is perceived by even advocates of a return to the liberal arts as somewhat radical.

In the freshman year, as even the best students need to acclimate to the demands of serious reading and writing, I proposed a year long course that started with myth and the Occidental imagination. The freshman year would be devoted to the study of:

  • The Iliad and the Odyssey
  • The Aeneid and the Eclogues
  • The City of God
  • Beowulf and several Anglo-Saxon poems
  • The Divine Comedy
  • Paradise Lost
  • Utopia
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Four Quartets

This would be it. The student would encounter only these works and only these authors.

With lectures, seminar-style discussions, and intensive paper writing, the student would be immersed not only into liberal education but also into the most telling thoughts of each of the great epochs of western civilization. She or he would learn not only the art of story telling, but also enter into the “Great Conversation” as well as wrestle with the problems of the Greeks, Romans, Medievals, Reformers, Counter-Reformers, and moderns. Throughout the exploration of each of the above authors and works, students would confront the most pressing problems and concerns of each epoch, with the always predominate questions of:

  • What is man?
  • What is God?
  • What is God’s relationship to man?
  • What is man’s relationship to man?

Alas, if such a college ever adopts such a program, it will most likely not be by me. Still, there is always hope.

Imagine what we could do if we could introduce generations of first-year college students to western civilization through its greatest stories and become its leading citizens.  Such a course proposed would at least be a start in doing such a thing.


This afternoon, returning from one of the most intense and wonderful weeks of my academic and intellectual career, spent with the truly excellent folks at TAN Books, St. Benedict Press, and Catholic Courses in North Carolina, I’ve had the blessing of listening to Tolkien’s Return of the King, a part of truly one of the finest epics ever written. Though I’ve been reading Tolkien since age 10, he never ceases to inspire me, even when the world looks dreadfully dark.

“Old fool!” he said. “Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain! And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.–J.R.R. Tolkien, ”The Siege of Gondor,” The Return of the King, page 829.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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