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Monuments to good teaching

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Which was the greater monument, the stones and the inscription, or these alumni and friends?


If you have been to Edinburgh, Scotland, or seen photographs, you are probably familiar with the view from Calton Hill on the east end of Princes Street, looking past the North British Hotel to the castle across the city. In the foreground of this famous view one sees a colonnaded monument, based self-consciously on a similar structure near the Acropolis in Athens. Few tourists, enjoying that splendid view, will study the inscription on the monument, "DUGALD STEWART/BORN NOVEMBER 22 1753/DIED JUNE 11 1828." And even if they did, the words would mean nothing to them.

Dugald Stewart was a professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who also taught economics, science, Greek, and logic, and was a master of public oratory besides. The monument was built three years after his death, by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, at the urging of hundreds of devoted former students, who were deeply affected by Stewart's example as a philosopher and deeply moved by his death. Stewart's many volumes of philosophy go unstudied today. No one knows of his dozens of honorary degrees from top universities in Europe. But the monument to his teaching on Calton Hill remains.

In these days of teaching evaluations with snap questions such as "Does the instructor validate students' opinions" (astonishingly, the answer is supposed to be 'yes'!), one might propose a more solid standard of excellence in teaching: Is this professor such that any students at all would wish to commemorate him after his death? By that standard, Dugald Stewart was the greatest teacher of the last two centuries -- except, perhaps, for an Englishman from the generation after him, John Henry Newman, and now some Americans from our own time.

The Americans are three professors who taught from 1970 to 1979 at the University of Kansas in the "Integrated Humanities Program" (IHP) -- Frank Nelick (English), Dennis Quinn (English), and especially John Senior (Classics).

The IHP was founded at Senior's initiative, with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to address a problem Senior had noticed in university education.

It was widely recognized then (less so now!) that students are harmed by immediate specialization in college -- whether academic or pre-professional specialization. As a remedy, in the post-war era, the best and most enlightened universities (Columbia, Chicago, Harvard) instituted some kind of "core" or at least "general education" requirement for the first couple of years. John Senior studied, in fact, at Columbia with the renowned Mark Van Doren, a leading exponent of "liberal education" and a key figure in the "great books" movement.

But when Senior began his own teaching career in the 1960s at Cornell, he found that even the bright students there were not equipped to study the great books. These children of the suburbs and cities of post-war America arrived at college witless about nature, animals, homesteading, concrete history, and how things worked in the world. Instructed their whole lives in the learning factories called "public schools," their sensibility for beauty, and their imaginations, were stunted. They had never listened to stories, never sung songs with friends, never recited poems from memory, never really danced as at a social gathering, never looked at the stars. In short, they had little to no felt experience of the way of human life that is taken for granted as a starting point in the great books.

Maybe it was Senior's conversion to the Catholic faith, through reading Newman and Aquinas, which provoked action, but he left Cornell for the American west, more congenial to him, first to Wyoming, then to Kansas, where he started the IHP with his two colleagues to address this problem. Students in the program did all those things I just mentioned, while reading great texts in a free and unstructured way, in team-taught sessions marked by earnestness and genuine fellowship. The program was bursting with students within a couple of years.

And then the conversions followed! Nothing about the program was prosyletistic, yet hundreds of students converted or reverted to the Catholic faith, which they could sense was the "home" and "guardian" of what they were learning to love in their studies. Many of these became monks, two have since become bishops, and one a father abbot. The university, worried that some professors somewhere (not progressive professors of course) might be engaged in "advocacy," unsettled by the non-specialized nature of its studies, and perplexed by the strong bonds of affection among its students, shut the IPS down.

Two weeks ago, at the St. Lawrence Center of the University of Kansas -- which through classes in Christian civilization carries on the legacy of John Senior -- a monument in the classical style was dedicated to Senior, Nelick and Quinn, and the IHP. Now 40 years after the IHP was suppressed, and 20 years after Senior's passing, almost 200 alumni of the program and friends gathered from all around the country, to remember their teachers, including those two bishops and the Father Abbot.

Which was the greater monument, the stones and the inscription, or these alumni and friends? Or was it the group of college students who drove down from Wyoming Catholic College, founded on Senior's pedagogy, who recited a poem together in tribute for those gathered?

One suspects that we are seeing, in providence, only the laying down of a foundation for a monument to John Senior's teaching far more lasting than stones.

- Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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