Few people know that in the early 1970s a “great books” program, founded by John Senior and two other professors, flourished at a large state university in the midwest. Even fewer know of its slow demise.
Editor’s Note: Robert Carlson was a student and friend of John Senior, one of three founders of the former Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas. Dr. Carlson was a founder and Dean of Wyoming Catholic College (WCC) and wrote the Philosophical Vision Statement of WCC, which is a brilliant expression of the IHP approach. Alumni and friends of the IHP have, since the program’s closing in 1979, founded both Clear Creek Abbey and WCC, about which The Imaginative Conservative has published several essays. For a better understanding of John Senior’s philosophy, we recommend his books, The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture.
Few people know that in the early 1970s a “great books” program, founded by three professors, two of whom were Catholic, and inspired by the perennial philosophy, flourished at a large state university in the midwest. Even fewer know of its slow demise. The Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas (KU), although widely student supported, was struggling with the administration when, in March 1977, an article in The Kansas City Times was published with the headline, “From KU to French Cloister — What Price Truth?” A cartoon depicted the transformation of a university student from a bearded hippie to a cloistered monk.
The Times reporter began by describing the IHP in an upbeat and innocuous fashion:
Its principal organizer was Dennis Quinn… who with two colleagues—John Senior, professor of classics, and Franklyn Nelick, professor of English—created a freshman-sophomore program in which students study and hear the professors discuss the classics of ancient and medieval literature, memorize great poems, and, if they are so inclined, take special optional courses in Latin and rhetoric.
But the article went on to add that “since its founding [in 1970], the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas has been surrounded by controversy.” IHP evidently stood on fragile ground at the University, because within a year an investigation was initiated. This culminated in a public, three-day, quasi-judicial proceeding in which a KU committee, appointed by the dean, sought to determine whether the IHP should continue to exist.
Dennis Quinn, Frank Nelick, and John Senior, full professors with a combined total of more than ninety years in teaching, were now on trial at a university, not because they had taught poorly, but because they had taught too well.
Granted permission by the university, the three professors took their first perilous step in 1970 when they founded the Integrated Humanities Program. They sought to offset the radical disintegration permeating western culture in general and higher liberal humanistic education in particular. Senior and his colleagues were convinced that the fragmentation of such major cultural institutions as the family, secondary education, and higher education was profoundly affecting students.
What then was to be done? Faced with teaching such students, who had unformed (or malformed) imaginations, short memories, and little wonder, and a fragmented university that served up a smorgasbord of humanistic education, the IHP offered an alternative. Its contention was that an integrated approach to humanistic studies through the teaching of great literature, in which students who sought truthful answers to the perennial questions of human existence would not only make education more meaningful, but would also address the disintegration of our culture and the university itself.
The IHP professors turned to the Western tradition to establish the philosophical foundation of their program. They knew that tradition had engendered three stages of liberal education—poetry, liberal arts, and sciences—and that each stage contributes to the three goals of liberal education—to humanize, to acculturate, and to secure human happiness. The IHP would address the poetic level, which includes gymnastics (cultivation of the body) and development of the soul’s powers (senses, emotions, imagination, memory, and intellect) via the medium of music and story. Stories move the student to wonder, which is the proper beginning of philosophy, and provides the motivation to seek understanding.
Furthermore, the IHP founders understood that if wonder deserts the student at any step in the educational process, that education loses its proper form. It becomes a mechanical art, a burden to the student rather than a joy. Wonder is thus not only the beginning but also the sustaining principle of the best education, because when we wonder, our attention is awakened to the world. This is the first step on the way to truth. The IHP brochure stated the process this way:
These Latin words on the [college] emblem [Nascantur in Admiratione] mean, “Let them be born in wonder.” To be a student is to be alive to intelligence, and the beginning of such a life is wonder. In our own day wonder has been so cheapened by sensationalism and so crippled by skepticism that the college freshman, instead of being as one newly awakened to the excitement of learning, is often, rather as one who has never been born. To such a young person learning is so much drudgery and routine, alien to his real interests, remote from reality itself. To revive wonder may be said to summarize the aims of the Pearson Program. Hence it should be regarded as an elementary or elemental course, where one discovers the love of wisdom; a course for beginners, who look upon the primary things of the world, as it were, for the first time.
The brochure further explained how the faculty put this philosophy into practice, and outlined the responsibility of the students:
[The program] is three professors and… students reading the great books of Western civilization. It is a four-semester sequence of six credit hour courses designed especially for freshmen and sophomores. The first semester is devoted to ancient Greek authors, the second to Roman, the third to the Bible and Medieval civilization, and the fourth to the modern world. The books are selected to represent various areas of the humanities, especially history, literature, and philosophy. Instead of studying these disciplines separately, they are considered in relation to each other and to the whole educational process. Students in the program memorize poetry; they learn the script in which this booklet is written; they waltz; they may speak Latin; [they study rhetoric, stargaze (observational astronomy), and travel to Europe, other aspects added as the program developed in the 70s].
The program fared well at the University of Kansas. Given its immediate rapid growth (student enrollment increased from 20 in 1970 to 140 in 1971, and 186 in 1972) and the great enthusiasm and support for it from students, parents and relatives, visiting professors, and some KU professors and staff, one would think the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at KU would have embraced the IHP and done everything in its power to cultivate it. Instead, in 1971 the College chose to evaluate the program in terms of a pluraversity. And thus the great siege began.
The evaluating committee solicited opinions regarding the program from faculty and administrators at the university. Its opponents realized that the committee had opened Pandora’s box, and they took full advantage of the ensuing madness. They criticized IHP and its professors both orally and in writing. The opposition was composed of a rather loose coalition of faculty and lower-level administrators. The major source of their criticism was a philosophy of education antithetical to that of the IHP.
Opponents of the program subscribed to “pluralism,” which calls for unqualified openness to all points of view. Pluralism had its root in relativism, which may well be the reigning philosophical view not only of universities today but of modern culture as a whole.
The IHP professors contended that the mind can know objective truth about reality, that the immediate purpose of liberal education is to know truth, and that they as teachers guide the students—with the help of Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Descartes, and other great thinkers in our culture—in their attempt to find truth. But to teach from this point of view, the pluralist says, is “advocacy teaching”—dogmatic, authoritarian, brainwashing, and indoctrination of the worst kind. “It is not consistent with the concept of an ‘open university,’ ” they say. “The mind can not know the truth about reality, the immediate purpose of liberal education is to consider all competing opinions, and the function of the teacher is to present both sides—or all sides—of every issue.”
Dr. Quinn, sometime later, commenting on this view of the open university, says,
Pluralism as an ideology has entered the inquisitorial stage. One simply cannot teach, for example, that anything is inferior or superior to anything else. Pluralism dictates the utter uniformity of equality.
And he cautions,
The lover of truth comes to be seen as the leader of a rival faction hungry for monopoly, a dangerous revolutionary who is out to overthrow the whole pluralistic establishment. There can be but one solution: Socrates must die.
The question for the opponents of the IHP then became, how do we kill Socrates? How do we annihilate the program? The evaluation of the IHP that began in 1971 ended in March, 1973, at the assembly of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with its opponents thinking they had successfully buried the program. The assembly voted that no part of the 24 hours of credit earned by IHP students be accepted as fulfilling university requirements for credit in the humanities. This meant that IHP students would “have to take the whole College of A&S program, plus the [IHP], in order to graduate—thus doubling their number of class hours in humanities during freshman and sophomore years.” No reasonable KU student would do this, the opponents thought.
They were wrong. The program continued, and even flourished, during the “too brief pause” from 1973 to 1976. During this time the IHP professors continued their dynamic teaching. They also attempted to build good will among their colleagues and to assuage the criticism lodged against them, especially that of their being isolationists. In spite of the professors’ efforts, however, the pluralists continued their opposition to the IHP, nibbling at it like a bunch of ducks, as Professor Nelick said.
At the end of the three-year interlude, in the spring semester of 1976, with KU’s permission, the entire program went to Ireland. Shortly after that semester came the first whiff of public controversy, occasioned by the religious conversion of some IHP students in Ireland. These conversions were a harbinger of a great and final siege by IHP’s academic opponents.
Prior to this time the religious issue concerning the IHP had been simmering inside the university, indeed, almost from the very inception of the program in 1970. However, with the publication of a news article and the fact that a few disaffected IHP parents complained to powerful organizations outside the University—the ACLU and JCRB (Jewish Community Relations Bureau)—about IHP’s possible violation of the principle of separation of church and state, the controversy became public. Prominent non-university opponents of the IHP formed an organization called the Committee for Academic and Religious Liberty. Their purpose was to pressure the University of Kansas administration to suppress the IHP.
The IHP was too controversial for KU. It had to be suppressed. But there was a problem. On the one hand, the KU administration had to give the appearance of protecting Quinn, Senior, and Nelick’s academic freedom. On the other hand, it had to placate the program’s opponents by annihilating the IHP. How did it solve the problem? How did the administration cause IHP’s final demise and, at the same time, give the appearance of not violating the sacrosanct principle of academic freedom? The solution was “death by administration,” which Quinn described in a letter as
a discreet and slow euthanasia, performed for our own good. This is the style of murder preferred by good bureaucrats. No blood, no corpse (just prop it up and say it’s not dead) — and no bad publicity. Just a quiet disappearance into the bland uniformity that officialdom calls tranquility.
“Death by administration” culminated in the three-day, public, quasi-judicial proceeding at the University of Kansas in 1978 in which the IHP professors were put on trial for their academic crimes.
On January 20, 1979, the “jury,” the Advisory Committee charged with investigating the IHP, rendered its verdict in its Report of the Integrated Humanities Program Advisory Committee:
In the face of charges of religious indoctrination and proselytizing, the Committee has found no evidence that the professors of the program have engaged in such activities in the classroom.
However, it objected to maintaining the status quo:
It is the opinion of this Advisory Committee that the approach to teaching the humanities employed by the present IHP faculty (whether or not we individually like the philosophy and methodology) can be fruitful and appropriate, provided that it is incorporated into a balanced humanities program. At the same time, maintaining the status quo would be intolerable to both the college and the program.
Dean Cobb then used the Advisory Committee’s objection to enforce the “final solution” by placing the IHP courses under the administration of a new Humanities Committee, which effectively annihilated the IHP.
On April 17, 1979, the University Daily Kansan buried the University of Kansas’s Integrated Humanities Program:
The professors’ epitaph would come from Cervantes:
Here lie the noble fearless knights
Whose valor rose to such great heights
They reck’d the Academy of little prize
And were bugbears in men’s eyes
When death at last had struck them down
Their’s was the victory and renown.
These words from former IHP student Steve Goodman might serve as Drs. Senior, Quinn, and Nelick’s eulogy:
[We] shall always remember the professors, the other students, the experiences of memorizing great poetry, stargazing, reading the great works of our culture, and being constantly reborn in wonder, very thankful that [we] accidentally found (or were found) by the Integrated Humanities Program and had the chance to help in [our] small way, to contribute to the professors’ efforts and to delight in the Truth.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (January 1995).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Death of Socrates” by Giambettino Cignaroli (1706-1770), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.