The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) advises trustees and alumni about higher education issues, identifies “oases of [educational] excellence,” and examines graduation requirements at various colleges to answer the question “What Will They Learn?”
In that report, ACTA scrutinizes each college’s curriculum, looking for seven requirements: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history, economics, mathematics, and science. Based on the number of those essentials that are met, the school is assigned a grade. To earn an “A,” a college must have at least six of those seven.
In California, just four out of 71 institutions get an “A”: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Thomas Aquinas College, Pepperdine University, and the most recent addition, Saint Katherine College.
Saint Katherine. This four-year-old private college near San Diego currently has only a few dozen students but, according to founder and president Dr. Frank Papatheofanis, also has no intention of growing to more than 1,000.
In my interview with him, he stressed that “we are committed to small class sizes and personalized education.” Other A-List schools such as St. John’s (New Mexico) and Lyon (Arkansas) have enrollments under 1,000 and, not surprisingly, high four-year graduation rates.
Still, one has to wonder why anyone would start up a liberal arts college at a time when so many historically liberal arts colleges are closing down or re-purposing. In that, Saint Katherine seems quixotic. Or is it brilliant?
A cardinal rule for business success is to differentiate yourself from the competition. Normal people look on in disbelief at colleges riven by speech codes, Title IX hysteria, snowflakes, crybullies, safe spaces, trigger warnings, misandry, multiculturalist tribalism, social justice warriors, and ideological curriculum, a steaming mess that blogger and law professor Glenn Reynolds calls “the education apocalypse.”
So the moment is ripe for something different, and a number of alternatives have sprung up: MOOCs, for-profit schools, DIY courses for autodidacts, and tiny enclaves of academic quality such as Saint Katherine.
Dr. Papatheofanis says:
Small, nimble institutions like Saint Katherine College will be successful once students and families understand the basic purposes behind attending college—teaching and learning. If four more years of relative dependence and anxiety over civil engagement with society are the underlying reasons for attending college, then the scores of families that can afford to pay exorbitant tuition rates will continue to fuel the present model of private education. If students recognize the price they pay for luxury dormitories, four-star cuisine, and resort-like campuses has to be repaid, then small liberal arts colleges will experience a reconsideration and renaissance because the overwhelming focus of such institutions is teaching and learning, and preparing one to become a contributor to their community and nation.
Like several other of ACTA’s “A” schools, Saint Katherine has a religious connection, in this case Orthodox Christianity. I believe that this is significant because most public colleges dismiss, mock, or pathologize religious belief, leaving students with no chance to contemplate metaphysical or transcendent possibilities. In contrast, the Saint Katherine curriculum includes two semesters of theology.
On his school’s curriculum, Dr. Papatheofanis remarks:
As you know, educators have traditionally differentiated liberal from servile learning. The pure form of the former stands at one end of a continuum whereas the latter is at the opposite extreme. One broadly stands for “truth and beauty” whereas the other offers vocational skills and employment. Reality falls somewhere in between in the sense that one can become an educated person and be gainfully employed.
In 1992, Neil Postman presciently wrote in his book Technopoly that “Modern secular education is failing…because it has no moral, social, or intellectual center. There is no set of ideas or attitudes that permeates all parts of the curriculum. The curriculum is not, in fact, a `course of study’ at all but a meaningless hodgepodge of subjects. It does not even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person….”
Saint Katherine does put forward such a vision. Its intellectual center is expressed in its motto: “Inquiry Seeking Wisdom.”
To achieve a balance between “liberal and servile learning,” Saint Katherine employs an “Integrated Interdisciplinary Core” (IIC). Dr. Papatheofanis says:
We read the classics of Western Civilization from the start. We have created an eight-semester IIC that begins in the first year with a course on interdisciplinary learning. That is followed by six consecutive semesters of interdisciplinary learning through the ages, in other words, a historical approach that begins with the ancient philosophers and culminates with The American Experiment. These six semesters are integrated because writers and ideas introduced in one course are reconsidered in the context of another course. For example, ideas of personal freedom introduced by reading Plato are tied to definitions of liberty in the French Revolution which ultimately informed our Founding Fathers.
Saint Katherine thus joins historic universities such as John Erskine’s Columbia and Robert Hutchins’s University of Chicago that embraced a structured, coherent, transformative curriculum in which what comes before serves as ground for what comes after with the aim of graduating students who have absorbed a truly liberal education.
This sounds encouraging to me since I am among those in academia who have looked on in dismay as liberal arts colleges have floundered.
How bad is it? The poet Rosanna Warren once speculated that literature might have to withdraw from higher education entirely and retreat to the salon and the coffee house. And at the Alliance for Liberal Learning conference last November, there was serious talk of scattered “monastery” colleges that might preserve the legacy of the humanities.
That is what Dr. Papatheofanis has in mind when he states:
Our act of preservation is in graduating students who think clearly and communicate effectively—the legacy of liberal arts education. This means focusing on the educated mind and everything that means. People have been and will continue to be drawn to the humanities. That is the legacy of a literate population, and a population that seeks to preserve its heritage. We are certainly engaged in preserving our American heritage, and this remains at the forefront of everything we do along these lines. We teach the very best American poetry, fiction, history, and other academic areas, and therein our students learn about their history and heritage.
The Polish filmmaker Krystof Kieslowski was inspired to create his stunning Decalogue after finding in his travels around the world that more and more people he met seemed not to know why they were alive.
So I asked Dr. Papatheofanis what inspired him to create Saint Katherine College. He replied:
I saw the need to restore the liberal arts and sciences to their place in the Great Conversations of humanity, as well as their legacy of teaching people to think clearly. All incoming students are asked to write a 500-word essay answering the question, “Who am I?” They complete the same assignment in the last month of their first year, and compare the two to learn what has changed in them. In the second year, the question is “Who am I in the context of community?”; the third year, “What am I good at learning and doing?”; and in the fourth year, “What can I give back as a result of what I have learned?” These are self-reflective inquiries that heighten the learning experience well beyond coursework and lab assignments. People equipped to think about and begin to answer for themselves and community some of the Great Questions can only help raise the quality of their life, and the life of the nation.
Amen to that.