Faith on the Edge of a Cliff – Thoughts of a Wyoming Catholic College Student – Episode 2

Photo by clarita,

Photo by clarita,

Last month, I introduced this blog series by describing my enthusiastic discovery of Great Books schools, specifically Wyoming Catholic College, which I will be attending in the fall. This month, I bring up some common doubts and challenges I’ve encountered in advocating a classical, Catholic, liberal education.

The Great Books—or a great waste of time?

Over the past year or so, I’ve had many peers, relatives and adult friends ask me what I want to study in college. When I would reply I wanted to attend a Great Books school, their faces would typically go blank. After I would try to explain, their expressions might shift to a mild concern. What was a “Great Books school,” they’d ask? Why didn’t it have any majors—only a liberal arts degree? Wasn’t I worried about not being able to choose my own courses? What did I expect to do for a career, once I finished with this…unusual method of education?

I’ve had trouble explaining my motives fully to my concerned acquaintances. For the full explanation requires a pouring out of my heart. My desire to go to a Great Books school is so wrapped up in my faith, my love of truth and beauty, and my poetic view of the world, that it isn’t reducible to a single sentence—or even a single conversation. But I do want to address these doubts and questions—not least because they have crossed my mind as well. So I will attempt to answer them here, briefly.

  1. What is a Great Books school?

A Great Books college is one which presents an ordered, integrated curriculum, comprised of the reflective study of the works of the best writers, artists, philosophers and scientists of Western history. The purpose of this education is not only to teach the student about his cultural heritage, but to actually engage him in the conversation of his ancestors, on the perennial human questions: Why do we exist? Is there absolute truth? What is goodness? Who is God? And so on. From poetry to politics to metaphysics, a Great Books education nourishes the imagination, steels and disciplines the mind, and morally orders the soul.

There are a few secular institutions, such as St. John’s College in Annapolis, which still follow this purpose and curriculum. In the case of Wyoming Catholic College, of course, the traditional array of great authors is taught in the context of revealed Church doctrine. The ultimate purpose of the College is to set its students on the path to Heaven. That’s quite a mission statement.

  1. Why does a Great Books school have no majors—only a liberal arts degree?

In higher education today, specialization is rampant. Colleges typically only prepare students for a particular task in society—doctor, lawyer, technician, scientist, etc. Even the traditional humanities have become fragmented disciplines for specialists, tending towards the analytic. (An example: once in a public high school library I saw a poster advertising the school’s digital research tools. The poster displayed a rather bewildered Shakespeare sitting in front of a computer, wondering, “What are they saying about me now?” Right—because the study of Shakespeare is no longer about what Shakespeare has to say, but what specialized literary critics have to say about him.)

The purpose of a Great Books education is general education. These are the principles, the faculties, the insights, the common experience of all humanity. For we are human beings before we are workers of any kind. Catholic liberal education through the Great Books nourishes our uniting essence as free, rational creatures of God. If that doesn’t deserve (at least!) four years of study, I don’t know what does.

  1. Isn’t it troubling that Great Books students cannot choose their own courses?

Flannery O’Connor, writing on how literature classes ought to be taught, once quipped, “And if the student finds that this [teaching method] is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable…His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

In this light, the typical university’s lure of “self-directed education” is revealed as ridiculous. What right have I, the as-yet-uneducated student, to determine the form and content of my own learning? Humility is required for education—a joyful openness and zeal to wrestle with ideas one never would have considered on one’s own.

There is another advantage to taking the same exact same classes and reading the exact same books as every other student in the college. Common knowledge and interest form culture; when the common interest is the joyful pursuit of wisdom through the Great Books, a community of learners is born who really care about truth, beauty, and the practice of virtuous life. It is this kind of people who quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) change the world for the better.

  1. How does a Great Books school prepare the student for a stable career?

The primary purpose of a Great Books school is general education, not vocational training. That said, of course we all need to make a living, and to serve our fellow men. Technical training has a place. It is a good and useful one. But unless firmly fixed in a society with a strong moral order, even useful disciplines lose their ultimate meaning, opening doors to greed, exploitation, evil and suffering. We do need skillful men and women in our society, but first we need them to be good men and women.

I maintain that a liberal education not only teaches that necessary virtue, but it also lays the foundation for any and all vocational training a student may undergo after he graduates. Any career—medicine, business, education, the fine arts—requires for success a keen, disciplined mind, clear problem solving and communication skills, and a patient and persevering spirit. These qualities a Great Books school cultivates; it develops a person’s innate human potential, before sending him or her to a particular task in society.

In conclusion, while I do not yet have an exact career plan after college, in all honesty, I’m not worried. I was more worried about studying for an unsatisfying career and being miserable in it. I simply wanted to learn—to know things—to humanly flourish. I will be doing that at Wyoming Catholic College.


About Mary Woods

Mary Woods is a homeschooled Byzantine Catholic teen who loves literature, music, horses, and Scottish Gaelic. She is an aspiring novelist, and hopes to participate in the Catholic literary revival after attending a Great Books school for college. She has been published in "Stone Soup" magazine for young writers and won the 2012 Homeschool Legal Defense Association Poetry Contest. She writes about literature and the faith at her blog, "The Pen and the Sword".
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7 Responses to Faith on the Edge of a Cliff – Thoughts of a Wyoming Catholic College Student – Episode 2

  1. Mary – Another excellent article. As the product of a Great Books school who went on to be an international lawyer, community organizer, Catholic lay missioner, author, and vice president of a technology company, I would like to flesh out a few points:

    1) Great Books colleges are inherently interdisciplinary, which helps us to see the underlying links among disciplines, and to function in interdisciplinary settings. This is more and more essential in a complex world.

    2) Great Books colleges provide tremendous analytical skills, helping one to spot fallacies that prevail in most modern arguments (our society doesn’t seem to have discussions any more) – and to see that natural and social sciences have philosophical underpinnings that are essential to understanding them – in the case of the natural sciences, reenforcing the validity (as well as the limits) of the discipline, in the case of economics and social sciences, leading us to question underlying assumptions (such as, in economics, do – and should – people really act out of enlightened self interest 0r – as some would have it – out of greed?)

    3) Great Books colleges are highly participatory, so that the student learns to be pro-active, to present his or her points based on solid reasoning (and not on mere ideology or name-calling), to LISTEN to opposing viewpoints; to understand thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

    Having graduated from Shimer (a great books school) in 1967, I now have nearly 50 years of experience – and my formation there was invaluable. One learns how to learn, that learning is wonderful and exciting. The fact that I was forced to take subjects I would not have chosen (in my case, the natural sciences) expanded my horizons, opened me to new ideas, and prepared me for life – for in life, much of our growth comes through being pushed beyond our comfort zone.

    • Mary Woods says:

      Thanks again for your comments, Arthur! I love that my posts can spark this sort of discussion. You are absolutely right–all of your points are things I’m also excited about gaining from this kind of education. Getting out of my comfort zone might be unsettling, but I know it will do me good in the end. WCC reinforces that in another way through their outdoor program…on which I’ll be writing next month. God bless! -Mary

  2. Great blog posts, Mary. I used to teach at Wyoming Catholic, so I can understand your excitement!

    I would say only one thing about the Great Books, and that is that it’s weak on history, which actually leads to a distortion of an author’s message. Of the 104 volumes in the Great Books series, only six deal with history, and none of them covers history after the classical period. The main reason for this is that the Great Books focuses primarily on philosophy. Here’s the catch: if you study philosophy, Aristotle is at the centre of your education; if you study history, Christ is at its centre. Consequently, Great Books colleges, even if they are avowedly Christian, tend to focus more on the pre-Christian authors, and that doesn’t leave quite enough time to look at the contemporary world–to reflect on how we can maintain and defend our faith in the modern world.

    The other thought I have here is that, while you are absolutely right in thinking that a liberal education produces good people, and that is more important than careers, nevertheless the cost of higher education in this country has sky-rocketed over the last ten years. Most students now graduate with such a heavy debt burden that they can’t start a family, buy a house, or enter the religious life. A liberal education is a very fine thing, but is it really worth that? Especially when you can study the liberal arts just by visiting the local library or bookstore, or finding the books online.

    The curriculum that we offer at Via Nova uses Catholic historian Christopher Dawson’s ideas to produce a truly Christ-centred course of study, while our hands-on approach to small business management (our students work in our bakery in a variety of different roles) ensures that they graduate with the skills they need to support themselves and their families. Furthermore, we do this for a fraction of the cost of any college, ensuring that our graduates will not be burdened with debt, and will be able to enter the religious life, should they so choose.

    Please don’t think I’m trying to discourage you from going to WCC; I think that, keeping in mind some of the shortcomings of a Great Books curriculum, you will still be receiving a far better than average college education.

    • Mary Woods says:

      Dear Mark,

      I do understand your position. I have been blessed enough to receive a full-tuition scholarship to WCC, but I know that for many others, the cost is a huge obstacle. For some, it probably isn’t worth it, and self-education in the Great Books is the best option. But for those who can, and who desire it, I think a full four years of the liberal arts is a wonderful thing.

      It sounds like you’re doing great work at Via Nova, and the fact that you can offer it at a lower price tag than any college is even better! When did you teach at WCC? The current president, Dr. Kevin Roberts, is very much an advocate of evangelizing the faith in the modern world. I don’t think he’ll let any of his students get away with merely hiding in scholarly corners. The Church can’t afford that anymore.

      Thanks for your comment,

      • Hi, Mary.

        I taught at WCC 2009-2013. The students were wonderful, some of the best I’ve ever taught. And I learned a good deal from my stay at WCC, too. Best of all, my son married one of my WCC students, so I got a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter out of WCC!

        It’s wonderful that you have a full scholarship for WCC, and you’re right, it’s awfully sad that more people can’t have the means to benefit from a guided liberal arts education. I’ll pray that you enjoy and benefit from your studies. In the meantime, I’d be happy to look at any fiction you write with a view to critiquing it.

        Please feel free to edit these remarks as you see fit, or not to post it at all; but I’m serious about critiquing your fiction. You won’t find many creative writers at WCC!

        God bless,

  3. Mary,

    Do you know what books you will be reading? I would be interested in that list.