John Senior and the Restoration of Realism
by francis bethel, o.s.b.
thomas more, 452 pages, $34.99

H

igher education has survived the end of the American century, if just barely. American colleges and universities are like a naval mothball fleet that’s still afloat but not seaworthy. Some schools are headed for deep maintenance; others will become scrap metals for the building of newfangled institutions. Only the indestructibly rich schools can sail for blue waters, and even they might not have a better clue where they are headed, except slightly up or down in the national rankings. The tableau of higher education must prove especially troubling to the forty-four million Americans holding student loan debts that are amortized unto perpetuity.

Suspicion that higher education has lost its purpose is long-standing—and it always turns out to be more justified than not. The anxiety was there at the beginning of the twentieth century. Provisioned with monies from the Gilded Age, the model of a German research university began to flourish on American soil. Opening their portals to middle-class students and soon after to the precocious children of immigrants, research universities sent forth their graduates to teach the gospel of specialized knowledge. In short time, however, it became evident that specialization beginning at freshman year was an inadequate way to form undergraduates. A century ago, Columbia University began a core curriculum for undergrads in response to the broad moral, social, and political debates that broke out with the First World War. Two decades later, during the Depression and the Second World War, the University of Chicago installed its common core curriculum, which, like that of its Columbia parent, was designed to expose undergraduates to big questions. Respected humanistic scholars—Karl Jaspers, Mark Van Doren, Jacques Maritain, Christopher Dawson, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Dorothy Sayers—insisted that democracy, if not Western civilization, depended on recovering the old arts or “ways” of learning, the so-called liberal arts.

The most important proponent of reform of undergraduate studies by way of the liberal arts was Mark Van Doren (1894–1972). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Van Doren is remembered chiefly as an inspired teacher at Columbia, whose students included Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Merton, John Berryman, Jack Kerouac, Lionel Trilling, and Whittaker Chambers. In the early 1940s he became known to a wider public through his book A Liberal Education (1943).

Van Doren’s diagnosis of the problem of undergraduate education was elegantly simple. He believed that the intellectual oxygen of general education was being squeezed out by two institutional forces. Within the university, undergraduate learning had come under the sway of specialized, graduate research. In the broader culture, education was being reduced to a kind of vocational training. Millions of American youth, too, were being instructed in complacency by the routines of mobilization and military training, accompanied by mass propaganda. Van Doren’s proposal that undergraduates study the great books across disciplines and do so under the guidance of a truly educated mentor was motivated by a civic humanism that aimed to reform not only college curricula, but individuals who need to be shaped for lifelong learning and responsible citizenship.

This was a bold diagnosis. But neither Van Doren nor the other proponents of humanistic reform, such as Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, grasped its implications. Great books programs and core curricula could not achieve their aims unless the university as a whole was reformed. This was not about to happen. In 1963 Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote The Uses of the University, an ambivalent book about the way it had become impossible to reform American higher education. By the 1960s, universities had become drivers of American scientific, military, and economic progress. They were increasingly swollen with federal monies and made answerable to new and quite diverse social and political constituencies. At best, Kerr said, enlightened administrations might be able to trim some of the excesses and to give a light nudge in the direction of educational coherence. He saw something that the humanist reformers did not.

This brings us to the remarkable career of John Senior (1923–1999). An undergraduate and doctoral student of Van Doren’s, Senior rarely appears on the celebrity list of his mentor’s students. His relative obscurity is due to the fact that he never published a book on education, and even today he is known chiefly through the report of his own students, whom he taught not in the limelight of New York or Chicago, but in the midland of the country at the University of Kansas. Yet Senior not only had his mentor’s gift of poetry, but also the irreplaceable know-how of teaching by example. Students need to be properly formed for the liberal arts. If they lack character, exposing students to dialectic, rhetoric, and great books was like putting “good champagne in plastic bottles.” It “went flat.”

The story is well told in John Senior and the Restoration of Realism, which is written by one of Senior’s students, Fr. Francis Bethel, a monk of Clear Creek Abbey. There, in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, a handful of Senior’s former students who had been monks in France for two decades returned to America to found a successful Benedictine community. Bethel’s book belongs in the genre of intellectual biography. He poses three questions essential to any teacher, but which most students rarely ask: What does the teacher know, how did he learn it, and how does he teach what he learned?

In the decade following the Second World War, Senior received a serious Columbia education at both undergraduate and doctoral levels. As an undergraduate he came under the spell of Van Doren, with whom Senior would exchange poetry until Van Doren’s death in 1972. Introduced to the heady circle of his teacher’s associates and students, he enjoyed the perks of recognition: an editor’s chair at the Columbia Review and an invitation to review books for The Nation. He also learned how to do the Columbia-style research and dissertation, which he reworked into a book entitled The Way Down and Out: The Occult in Symbolist Literature, published by Cornell in 1959.

That very year, while teaching at Cornell, Senior experienced an intellectual conversion. Up to that time, he had supposed that wisdom was occult. Behind the exteriors of what is given to the senses, reality is “one” thing, even though our perceptions tell us that there are “many.” The surest path, to the poet, is symbolism that represents the ineffable, regardless of the apparent contradictions left intact. The role of the poet, therefore, is not to explain or to enlighten by doctrines, but to provoke a certain experience of the unknown.

Reading Thomas Aquinas, however, Senior became convinced that what is first learned from the senses is not an illusion but “the world’s greeting.” This put Senior’s love of poetry on a different footing and led to religious conversion. At the age of thirty-seven, Senior and his family were received into the Catholic Church. Paraphrasing T. S. Eliot, he entered through the “back door” of oriental mysticism, and found himself at the front door of Christian humanism. It was 1960, and Senior had already checked in to and out of the Age of Aquarius.

What happened next is the most interesting part of the story. He left the East Coast and the Ivy League for the University of Wyoming in 1960, and then, in 1967, for the University of Kansas. In the classroom with young men and women from the range and the prairie, he learned how to teach. “I realized,” he later reflected, “that the scholastic philosophical system, so effective in refuting the rational skepticism of my generation, had had no impact on students whose minds were disconnected from tangible and emotional realities.” Whereas Mark Van Doren once bragged, “I assumed experience even in freshmen,” Senior discerned in the turmoil of the 1960s that his students lacked not only the liberal arts but also a more rudimentary formation in “tangible and emotional realities” that the arts of dialectic and rhetoric presupposed. He reckoned that students needed the remedy of a poetical ars docendi, by which he meant gymnastics and music. The first art assists our natural inclination to gain control over the external senses of the body; the second aims to integrate the internal senses, which are the seat of emotions.

Senior was given a chance to practice what he preached. With a hefty grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Senior and two colleagues, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, established in 1970 an Integrated Humanities Program in one of the five collegiate subdivisions of the University of Kansas. It was a two-year liberal arts program that satisfied basic liberal arts requirements while giving the professors leeway to shape the curriculum. Bethel describes in detail the “living, face-to-face formation of students.” Latin, for example, was learned conversationally by listening and responding. Students learned rudiments of astronomy by observation. While there was the usual reading list of great books, the seminar approach was put aside. Professors team-taught, improvising meditations on the readings. Every step was intended to cultivate a healthy imagination as foundation for whatever academic discipline or major the students might pursue. Thomas Aquinas said that “when we wish to make someone understand something, we lay examples before him from which he can form phantasms for the purpose of understanding.” The trivium, consisting of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, is the first course of liberal arts, but it always presupposed sympathetic contact with real things. For his part, Senior simply wanted to give better formation to the sympathetic contact; as he put it, “we did the poetic work that was skipped.”

The Integrated Humanities Program prospered almost immediately. By the third year, some three hundred students were enrolled. No theology was formally taught, but by an unofficial count, two hundred students entered the Catholic Church over the nine years of the program’s life. Senior was accused of “advocacy teaching.” The IHP was unraveled by the usual academic jealousies and bureaucratic maneuvers. Having enjoyed more success at a mainline university than any other reformer of his generation, Senior admitted that it was hard to “patch up” the university.

His insights are still valid. Most venues of higher education do not educate the whole person. The organization of the university is too fragmented to dictate what students need at any particular phase of their development. One can detect the effects of this approach by observing how smart teenagers use dialectic and rhetoric on the Internet, heedless of tangible and emotional realities.

The “integrative” task Senior knew to be essential must be left to schools of an entirely different scale and character than the ones at which he taught. As he put it, “The ordinary is the province of schoolmasters like myself who from their low vantage, while in the high and palmy ways of science and theology they know little or nothing, know the things that everybody must do first.” That was John Senior, but it sounds like St. Benedict. 

Russell Hittinger is Warren Chair of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.