This spring, graduates throughout America will exit their institutions with diplomas that signify little about real learning. But Wyoming Catholic College, my institution, is immune to this disconnect.
When 31 students graduated from Wyoming Catholic on May 12th, they held a weighty diploma. Why? Because the college’s core curriculum has sacrificed neither great books nor—and here’s the surprise—Mother Nature.
The goal of a genuine liberal arts education should be to deliver students from false opinions and awaken them to beauty. It is unlikely that this goal can be achieved if a student isn’t immersed in beautiful language, language not inspired by a social agenda but by the wonders of the natural world. An underappreciated victim of political correctness, prose has become as light as the diploma of most degree-granting institutions.
I made this point recently while attending a meeting of academics and entrepreneurs who share a common concern over the health of our culture. One of the panels discussed the state of higher education. The panel lamented that, among other losses, are the study of Latin, the dearth of integrated curricula, and the impoverishment of dialogue (a casualty of technology).
As I listened to the usual litany of higher education’s failure to achieve its proper objectives, I realized that the commitment an educated person must undertake in immersing himself in classic texts is not only rare but undermined by most colleges and universities. Pressures foreign to learning for its own sake dictate admission policies and course requirements.
For instance, Yale’s application process welcomes students who have participated in walkouts; the sit-ins of Reed College students have prevailed over their Humanities professors so that the great works of the Western tradition have been dropped. Throughout academia, invited speakers are disinvited under the pressures of political correctness.
I shared my colleagues’ disgruntled views over those and many other developments but was dismayed to find that the central loss of our age was not being addressed by the panel. Those of us in the academy must restore realism.
That brings me to Wyoming Catholic College.
The school is only 10 years old, but like just a few other colleges, it is thriving without federal aid. Our Board of Directors unanimously refused dependence upon the government to protect our freedom to exercise our faith-based principles. That wise refusal, however, does not necessarily make us a desirable choice. What does make us worthy are the distinctive aspects of our curriculum.
Our students not only learn conversational Latin, they speak it in the Wind River Mountains and in the Tetons. Each freshman begins his or her academic adventures with a 21-day backpacking trip in the wilderness before opening the first book (the Iliad) upon returning. Those freshmen embark on a January hike in these same mountains, building igloo-like huts called quinzhees. The purpose is not to make them buff (though they are) and trained in wilderness survival (though this, too, is the case). The purpose is to give them a firsthand experience of the splendors of nature, God’s first book.
Images dead in poetry come alive with the ardor and beauty of living together, spending time in a small group where each member must learn to lead and to fend for himself. In this detoxing period—far from computers, noise, and distractions—young people encounter beauty, danger, and friendship. Decisions matter because everyone’s safety depends on how accurately the leader for the day reads a map, confronts a grizzly, or deals with a storm.
Back on campus, horsemanship is required as well because experiencing and learning to harness a large animal teaches the students docility of a very different kind than that found in the classroom.
And the classroom is a formidable undertaking for even the best students, who read over 120 great books together through their four years. They learn music, art history, writing, and they learn to deliver speeches in a required oral rhetoric class fashioned on Greek principles and Roman techniques of eloquentia. They memorize four gorgeous poems every semester, sharing them with their classmates as they continue their fall and spring adventures in kayaking, canyoneering, and hunting.
Our curriculum is the most challenging I have known, requiring eight semesters of theology, six of philosophy, eight of humanities, six of mathematics and science, music, art history, and, yes, Latin. Our enrolled students and graduates include Catholics, Protestants, and other believers, as well as agnostics; all thrive in the intellectual environment cultivated by this curriculum. The great questions of life are asked and addressed seriously and dispassionately.
Students are awake and alive to wonder both intellectual and natural. When we begin to read the Iliad (and later, the Odyssey) in those first few weeks after they return from the wilderness, what we professors find is that their imaginations are quickened and that the metaphors in the poetry they read have become real.
You may be wondering how much the college costs. Tuition is $23,000 yearly and with living expenses and books added, the total cost is just under $33,000.
It is noteworthy as well that our students deposit their cellphones into a safe when the academic year begins—a space these devices will occupy until the students depart for home on semester breaks. “Not me!” some 17-year-olds exclaim, but after a few weeks, these new students notice a profound change in themselves. It is amazing how attuned our undergraduates are to one another, to their professors, and to their studies.
The people in our scenic mountain town of Lander, many living here because of the wilderness opportunities it provides, praise the courtesy and deference of our students. Visiting lecturers are astonished by the attention of our audience. The school sells a t-shirt in its coffee shop; tongue-in-cheek, the front reads, “Wyoming Catholic College,” and on the back: “The only college in America where you can’t carry a cell phone, but you can carry a gun.” (More accurately, if students have a gun, they must deposit it in our gun safes, unless on hunting trips or learning to shoot).All thrive in the intellectual environment cultivated by this curriculum. The great questions of life are asked and addressed seriously and dispassionately.
The college recognizes that the problem with cellphones is the way in which our memory is endangered because of them. As St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “The seat of the mind is memory.” And as the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James said in an 1892 lecture, “‘The art of remembering is the art of thinking.’ Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptual thinking.”
Another great insight of our founders was the decision to stock our students’ memories with the best language of the great tradition. Here’s an experiment my husband, Dr. Glenn Arbery, president of Wyoming Catholic College, suggests to visitors. Find a room crowded with our students and speak the first four words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.” “The world is charged….” He smiles, “What happens next will impress you.”
Language has an extraordinary place in our education because our aim is the restoration of the world and the transformation of culture through Christ the Word. To use words as though any cliché were good enough to render the truth of things is to betray the necessity of cutting through the thick rind of habit into fragrance and seed. Poetry is crucial: that’s why we have students memorize poems from the moment they arrive at Wyoming Catholic, including the deceptively simple lyric, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Robert Frost explains what he does in a wonderful short essay called “The Figure a Poem Makes,” full of potent aphorisms. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” he says. Frost says that when he writes, he discovers something he did not realize he knew, and then “Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing.” If the writer discovers nothing in the process of writing, the reader will feel nothing.
That freshness is the achievement of words in a revelatory mode. Our highest hope is that the whole curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College carries our students into a world whose meanings they can help renew. When they graduate they carry not merely a diploma but the whole weight of Western Civilization. And they bear their burden with joy and hope.
Virginia Arbery holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Dallas. A Richard Weaver Fellow and a Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, she has taught at the University of Dallas and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, among others.