John Senior’s great contribution was to forge a middle way between indoctrination and the chaos of complete relativism. Instead of indoctrinating students, the classical knowledge of a Christian culture provided the tools and the framework for true education…
John Senior and the Restoration of Realism by Francis Bethel (Thomas More College Press, 2016)
It was one of those serendipitous meetings that are anything but a coincidence. I was in Oklahoma conducting a Lenten parish mission and asked my hosts if it would be possible to make the three-hour drive to visit Clear Creek Monastery.
We arrived in time for Mass in the new, half-built Abbey church. A short tour with the assistant Guestmaster was followed by lunch with the monks. We had to hurry back so I could speak in the parish that evening, but as we came out of the refectory with the other guests, one of the monks greeted me. It was the Master of Oblates, Dom Francis Bethel. We chatted for a few moments about mutual friends and fellow Benedictines, and as we went through the bookstore he mentioned the book he’d written.
Before I knew it I had a review copy in my hand. Fr. Bethel is one of the men who, as a student at the University of Kansas in the 1970s, came under the influence of Professor John Senior. Senior and his colleagues Franklyn Nellick and Dennis Quinn founded the Integrated Humanities Program. Fr. Bethel eventually entered monastic life at Fontgombault Abbey in France and returned to the United States in 1999 to help found Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma.
Fr. Bethel tells the story of his mentor with monastic simplicity and clarity. Combining biographical details with the outlines of Senior’s thought, John Senior and the Restoration of Realism provides an excellent introduction to the author of The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture. Most memorably, Fr. Bethel brings to life the quietly passionate professor who ran away from home to become a cowboy, and ended up being an eccentric inspiration to a generation of students.
The meat and potatoes of the book is Fr. Bethel’s in-depth exploration of Senior’s intellectual pilgrimage through Eastern religions and the occult to his conversion to the Catholic faith in 1961. Fr. Bethel outlines Senior’s thought and educational theory. Education was not simply about facts, but about experience. The “poetic mode” of learning was contrasted to the factual and purely logical modes of knowledge. This poetic mode involved an apprehension of beauty that led to the deeper appreciation of truth and goodness.
In the Integrated Humanities Program, Senior and his colleagues put their theory into practice. Students learned to savor a fine poem like a fine wine. The poem was an incarnation of truth and the point of reading it was to come to experience that truth—not simply to achieve a discursive understanding of the poem’s meaning, and not simply to analyze the poem’s structure, rhyme scheme, and historical context.
Furthermore, literature, philosophy, history, theology, mathematics, and sciences were part of an organic whole. The subjects were not to be isolated, but integrated to provide a truly classical, liberal education.
The program was a roaring success. Students loved being part of a cadre of counter-cultural intellectuals. While their peers were getting into Eastern religions, free love, and campus protests, they went and traveled together. They delved into the ancient beauty of medieval Europe. They visited monasteries. They learned to waltz and sing and gaze at the stars. Most shocking of all, they became Catholics. Some of the young men actually took off for France and became monks.
Fr. Bethel explains how the rest of the faculty at the University of Kansas were soon opposed to the Integrated Humanities Program. While there may have been some professional jealousy, the real objections were ideological. The professors running the Integrated Humanities Program proposed that there was an overarching truth that could, and should be discovered, and that education was the key to doing so. Even in the 1970s, college campuses were being flooded with the subjective relativism that is the dogmatic orthodoxy in the academy today.
Senior and his colleagues were accused of brainwashing the students. Although an investigation uncovered no signs of intellectual or emotional pressure, their opponents insisted that Senior, Quinn, and Nellick could not possibly maintain the professional objectivity that they believed a college education required. If they believed there was a dominant Truth, how could they educate young people without imposing that truth?
This conflict unlocks a major distinction in the field of education. No doubt the attraction of a purely objective, nonjudgmental approach to education developed as a reaction to a form of education that was indeed no more than indoctrination. For generations, educators—especially religious educators—settled for rote learning of religious texts. Education consisted of memorizing Bible verses or the catechism. The ability to digest facts and regurgitate them for a test to make a good mark was the short and easy way to “educate” the masses.
Subjective relativism—which attempts to present all the viewpoints as equally valid—came from the desire for students to understand, evaluate, and choose a philosophy, a religion, or a point of view. Unfortunately, the intellectual tools to empower that task were neglected, and the level playing field in which all philosophies and viewpoints had equal value meant that none of them had any value. People cannot live without a framework of belief for long, and soon various ideologies replaced the framework provided by a classical Christian culture.
Senior’s great contribution was to forge a middle way between indoctrination and the chaos of complete relativism. Instead of indoctrinating students, the classical knowledge of a Christian culture provided the tools and the framework for true education. The tried-and-true tools of the classical educational method, and the content of the Christian literary and philosophical tradition gave the students the method and means to evaluate the different philosophies, perspectives, and ideologies with which they were presented.
Senior began with reality. Common sense affirmed that some things were real and if they were real they were true—they were not figments of imagination. If there was truth, then in true Thomistic tradition, it could be known, and to know this truth was the point of education.
While his philosophy was rooted in realism, John Senior was also a delightfully unrealistic dreamer. His ideal for a school is a combination boys camp, boot camp, classical academy, and home on the range. He dreamed of a boarding school where the boys would jump out of bed at five to splash cold water on their faces before milking the cows, sing prayers in Gregorian chant in the chapel before a hearty breakfast, and then study Latin and the classics, engage in debate, and read poetry aloud. Science would be done with experiments in the real world. Mathematics would be learned by counting real things, and learning geometry would come by designing and making real things.
Imagine: No TV. No electronics. No cars. No junk food. No junk entertainment. Nothing artificial.
It might be argued that if this is a return to realism, then it is hardly realistic. But big dreams are the seeds of a new reality. Senior’s ideals have been the inspiration for educators and youth workers and parents, even if the reality is less idealistic than Senior’s wonderfully romantic imagination.
Fr. Bethel’s own exile to a French monastery and then return to the American Midwest was partly inspired by Senior, and the rise of Clear Creek and the increasing surge of classical schools across America is a clear indication that inspired dreamers can change the world. John Senior planted seeds that are beginning to bear rich fruit.
Numbered among the graduates of the Integrated Humanities Program are Benedictine monks, abbots, a prioress, several Catholic bishops, a federal judge, and numerous teachers and professors. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are alive and well. They are forever renewed for they are forever young and strong. Fr. Bethel’s tribute to his mentor is an excellent read and a bright inspiration to those who will pick up the torch and “run on the path… their hearts overflowing with an infinite delight of love.”
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