Lander, Wyoming, is not an easy place to get to. I got there in February by flying from Washington to Denver and then sitting around the Denver airport for hours, while the local commuter airline that flies to the airport nearest Lander tried to get its small planes refueled in 15-below-zero weather. While waiting, I was informed that the flight schedule of this particular airline, which will remain nameless, is more subjunctive than indicative.
Yet the wait, the aggravation, and the bitter cold were worth it, for they were part of getting introduced to a new venture in Catholic higher education that’s unfolding in Lander: Wyoming Catholic College, where students read Thomas Aquinas in the original Latin, take a mandatory freshman course in horsemanship, and go on a three-week, survival-skills trek through the Rockies before they crack a book. Oh yes: At Wyoming Catholic, students are not allowed to have cell phones, but the college provides a gun room for their rifles. A visitor from the Ivy League found this combination disconcerting. I found it charming.
Wyoming Catholic College will celebrate its first commencement on May 14 — outdoors, of course — with one of its founding fathers, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, in attendance. Bishop Ricken came to the diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, straight from the Roman Curia, which must have been something of a culture shock (or a relief). But he quickly caught the adventurous spirit of the place and decided that Wyoming, which has something short of 70,000 Catholics, needed a Catholic college. Starting such an enterprise these days is an act of faith. But Bishop Ricken, who is not short on faith (or hope, or charity), found partners with a similar pioneer attitude and a similar passion for classic Catholic liberal arts education (cowboy style). Thus Wyoming Catholic College was launched, before the good bishop was translated to a diocese where one of his principal catechetical challenges is explaining why the Lombardi Trophy is not a fit object of Christian worship.
Wyoming Catholic is a by-product of the most striking exercise in unintended consequences in the history of federal higher-education funding. In 1970, Washington’s largesse led the University of Kansas to create a pilot project in classic liberal arts education called the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, or IHP. The program was led by John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick, three brilliant teachers who believed passionately that higher education meant immersion in the classic texts of western civilization and civilized conversation about them. Many IHP students soon discovered that wrestling with the literary and philosophical classics of western civilization meant encountering, and thinking seriously about, the Catholic Church.
Conversions, intellectual and religious, followed. Those conversions later produced numerous vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and two bishops. Authoritarian liberals on the KU faculty killed the IHP in 1979. But for several glorious years, your federal tax dollars were building a wholly unexpected vocations factory. As the late Peter Rossi used to say, there are many ironies in the fire.
The people who designed the curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College are disciples of John Senior and the IHP approach to liberal learning. The program they offer students is, obviously, not for everyone, just as reading Aquinas in Latin on horseback (metaphorically if not literally) is not for everyone. But serious students who want to be stretched intellectually, who want to deepen their friendship with Jesus Christ, and who love the outdoors should give Wyoming Catholic College a serious look.
Nature makes me sneeze, which is one reason why I’m a confirmed urbanite. I appreciate the beauty that surrounds Lander, however, and I wish the school and its students the very best as Wyoming Catholic sends its first graduating class out into a world that can use more young men and women steeped in the Western classics, serious in their Catholic faith, and ready for just about anything. The school is in the midst of a capital campaign; resources invested in Wyoming Catholic are resources invested in the kind of higher learning from which both Church and society benefit.
George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.