An Education to Restore Wonder

On a recent fall afternoon, bright and chilly as it can be in the Midwest, a group of parents in St. Louis had the opportunity for an informal visit from the president of Wyoming Catholic College and his wife, who is an associate professor at the school. The Doctors Arbery—Glenn and Virginia—each brought to the group the approach they take to education at the school, approaches exemplified by those whom they were quoting.

For the president, the approach has been through poetry—the sort of wonder poetry can arouse in its readers and listeners. He recited from memory one of the many poems Wyoming Catholic students are expected to memorize, John Keats’s sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” The poet celebrates the strength of a particular translation of Homer, one released around the beginning of the seventeenth century, and his feeling like an astronomer discovering a new planet or an explorer seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

Arbery focused on the latter at the moment when the explorer and his men “Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—/Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” This silence was a testament of wonder over a new discovery—a sort of awe, but one shared between the men.

Wyoming Catholic College, which opened its doors in 2007 and has just received full accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission, offers a Great Books program with something extra added: an outdoors program that takes advantage of the rustic location the school’s founders chose. Before the school year begins, incoming freshmen take part in a three-week wilderness experience in the Rockies. Wyoming Catholic’s philosophical statement asserts that the school “is devoted exclusively to providing its students with a true liberal education, which aims at an intrinsic rather than extrinsic end, is general rather than specialized, prepares a person for leisure rather than work, and creates a free man capable of leading a good life.”

 

As someone who graduated from another Great Books program, one set amid mountains and a national forest in Southern California—a forest aptly named for the Spanish missionary priests who brought Catholicism to the state—I can appreciate the setting and the effort to tie the students directly to the environment. The books students will read over the course of four years at Wyoming, Thomas Aquinas, and other similar colleges provide many opportunities for awe and for silence. I still recall that moment when, as a freshman studying Euclidean geometry years ago, I saw our young teacher respond with joy that Euclid’s elegant proof of the Pythagorean theorem was a sign of order in the universe, and of God’s existence. We students reached a mental and spiritual peak of our own that day and many thereafter.

The idea of wonder reminds me of Albert Einstein’s hesitancy to be called an atheist in a quote I discovered recently, from a 1930 letter:

“We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues,” he wrote. “The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God.”

Einstein was skeptical about the extent to which theology could proceed as a science, just as the more modern Bill Nye, “The Science Guy” has little use for philosophy, mocking it while not realizing that his emphasis on the importance of the senses and “real things” is itself a philosophical statement. Perhaps both hesitated to become too curious or too wonder-filled, or to dig deeper into both the allegorical and literal libraries to reach a higher level of truth and freedom.

The reading list at Wyoming Catholic differs a little from that of my alma mater, offering more in the area of poetry and politics. It is the latter that Dr. Virginia Arbery emphasized at our meeting as her area of interest. For her husband, it may have been Keats, for her it was Publius and The Federalist Papers, No. 57 to be exact: “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

I find it interesting that so many graduates of these newer Great Books schools go on to lives of service—as teachers, as religious, as military or first responders, in medicine or public service, or even as stay-at-home parents raising the next generation to be a leaven in the world. Many gravitate to our nation’s capital, working behind the scenes in the big business that keeps our federal government running. It may take a few generations to make good progress in obtaining rulers who are wise and virtuous and not ambitious or venal, but it’s an important service and Washington is seeing more and more organizations, programs, and collaborations that seek to do this very thing.

The group of parents in St. Louis were happy to hear that Wyoming Catholic College is accredited and growing, thus establishing a firm foothold. Other good news abounds, as well, with my alma mater, Thomas Aquinas, not only expanding its Southern California footprint by more than 700 acres, but acquiring a second campus in Massachusetts, now set to open its doors to students in fall 2019.

On Facebook recently, alumni from my school talked about the difficulty of explaining the school’s curriculum (and the “liberal arts” degree itself) to family, friends, coworkers and potential employers. We’ve reached a time when fewer and fewer on the outside know what the liberal arts are, or the value of them to the individual person, an organization, and the marketplace of ideas. In an age when people are so focused on science and technology via “STEM” subjects, we’ve lost the sense of wonder; its recovery can be achieved, to some extent, by focusing on what both underlies and transcends the material world—whether it’s witnessed from a peak in Darien, Wyoming or in Southern California.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

K. E. Colombini

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K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and four grandchildren.

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