A Good Word on Education: By the Late John Senior

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
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Dr. John Senior (1923-1999) grew up on Long Island.  He studied under poet Mark Van Doren at Columbia University, where he became Catholic in 1960.  He taught at Hofstra, Bard, Cornell and the University of Wyoming.   Senior later held a post at the University of Kansas, where he and two other professors lead the popular Integrated Humanities Program from 1971-1979.  A former student wrote of him: “John Senior, like Socrates, had the uncanny ability to get young people to think, to wonder, and to change course in midstream. How he did this owed a great deal to his own sense of wonder and appreciation of God’s presence in our lives. It was an attitude and a mission he shared with his KU colleagues, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, the three of whom made up the faculty of the university's Integrated Humanities Program” (Patrick Martin, "A Tribute to John Senior," The Catholic Thing, April 9, 2009).


Senior, Nelick and Quinn sensed that the student unrest of the 1960s and 70s was related to the fragmented curricula of most universities.  Students were unhappy because there was no connection between education and life’s most basic questions.   When I was a university Chaplain, I not only noticed the same thing, but students explicitly said so.  In my opinion, Senior was prophetic in his diagnosis and proposed cure for today’s pandemic dissatisfaction with the academy.    


In 2008, I read Senior’s book, “The Restoration of Christian Culture” (published in 1983), which a St. James parishioner had given me not long before she passed away.   As I perused through the pages, my mind’s eye needed to adjust to the book’s disturbing brilliance.   I readily admit that it’s among the stronger medicines in the “pharmacy” of my bookshelf.   I wouldn’t prescribe it to everyone.  At times, it’s eloquently polemical and disconcerting. Like many good remedies, it can be occasionally annoying and disorienting. But it restores health.  Moreover, my admiration for Senior and his book does not amount to a wholesale endorsement or agreement with everything he says.  This disclaimer aside, Senior provides insights that you will not find in the mainstream. 

A good primer for Senior’s outlook is the motto of the Integrated Humanities Program that he led with Professors Nelick and Quinn at KU:  “Nascantur in Admiratione” (Let Them be Born in Wonder).  “You cannot teach a young man or woman college subjects unless he has had the experience of wonder in his childhood,” said Senior.  Robert Carlson, one of Senior’s former students, said that it will be necessary to “relapse a bit to our childhood [in order to] recapture wonder, for if we have no capacity for wonder, we have unformed imaginations….Wonder, imagination, thought, and…choice are inextricably linked.  If there is no wonder, then the motive to experience, to imagine, to know, and to choose is missing – and the faculties of imagination, intellect, and will cannot be properly formed.”  Wonder orients knowledge towards love.   As St. Thomas Aquinas said, knowledge that does not end in the happiness of love is worthless.   According to Senior, this outlook is necessary to restore health to culture, education and society. He also understood that, in today’s electronic media soaked world, there is a need for “participatory” and “experiential” education, built upon the insights of the great Christian Tradition.  Therefore, I offer you a few samples from “The Restoration of Christian Culture.” 


On Love

Mystical Rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star … Why is the Blessed Virgin called these marvelous mysterious things?  Richard of St. Victor, a spiritual master of the middle ages says in a cryptic Latin phrase, “Ubi amor ibi oculus” – “wherever love is, there the eye is also,” which means that the lover is the only one who really sees the truth about the person or the thing he loves.   It is the perfect complement to “amor coecus est,” another more famous phrase, that “love is blind” – blind to all this lying world because love only sees truth.   When a young man loves a girl, we ask, “What does he see in her?”  But our Our Lord said, “Let him who has eyes see.”   If you love, you will understand.  “Ubi amor ibi oculus.”   


On Love and Reason

The restoration of reason presupposes the restoration of love, and we can only love what we know because we have first touched, tasted, smelled, heard and seen.  From that encounter with exterior reality, interior responses naturally arise, movements motivating, urging, releasing energies, infinitely greater than atoms, of intelligence and will.  Without these motives, thought and action are aimless, sometimes random, more frequently mechanical, having an order but a tyrannical order, that is, an order imposed from without.


On Christian Economics and Work

We must inscribe this first law of Christian economics on our hearts:  the purpose of work is not profit but prayer, and the first law of Christian ethics: that we live for Him and not for ourselves.  And life in Him is love


On Catholic Controversies

I fear sometimes that conservatives, not just liberals, are like the Pharisees – Catholics, but with a strong, unloving determination to be right; where the Camino Real of Christ is a chivalric way, romantic, full of fire and passion, riding on the pure, high-spirited horses of the self with their glad, high-stepping knees and flaring nostrils, and us with jingling spurs and the cry “Mon joie!” – the battle cry of Roland and Oliver.  Our Church is a Church of the Passion.  Listen to the Holy Ghost Himself, listen to the language in which He speaks to the His Blessed Virgin, the Bride, in the Song of Songs, and to our soul:  “I am come into my garden, O my sister, my spouse, I have gathered my myrrh, with my aromatical spices: I have eaten the honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends, and drink, and be inebriated, my dearly beloved” (Songs 5:1).


A Word to Parents

When a child hits twelve, he is ready for the adolescent experience, and that means the explosions of physical aptitudes and the emotional responses to them — the call to dangerous adventures and to experiments in romance. There is a certain kind of parent who wants to bind a child’s soul the way the Chinese are said to have bound their little girls’ feet to keep them dainty. There are Catholic families who proudly send their eighteen-year-olds up to college carefully bound and wrapped at the emotional and spiritual age of twelve — good little boys and girls…who never get into trouble or into knowledge and love. The Kingdom of Heaven is the knowledge and love of God, and we learn to bear the living flames of that love only through suffering the paler heats of human desire; and adolescence is as necessary to the normal development of the body and soul as the Faith itself. Faith presupposes nature and cannot be efficacious in its atrophy. There is little point in keeping children out of Hell if you don’t afford them the means of getting into Heaven.


On Classical Education

….Wordsworth was right when he said, “Come out into the light of things.”   There is no amount of reading, remedial or advanced, no amount of study of any kind, that can substitute for the fact that we are a rooted species, rooted through our sense in the air, water, earth and fire of elemental experience.  “Nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu” (Nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses).  Perhaps you are tired of jokes about our plastic world, the unreality of Coke, potato chips and television shows.  The Devil’s neatest trick in a blasé world of easy change is to tease us into boredom with the ordinary, saving truths, which are modishly discarded along with last year’s styles.  When you plant even the best children’s literature in even the brightest young minds, if the soil of those minds has not been richly manured by natural experience, you don’t get the fecund fruit of literature which is imagination, but infertile fantasy.  Children need direct, everyday experience of fields, forests, streams, lakes, oceans, grass and ground so they spontaneously sing with the psalmist,  “Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all ye deeps, fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy winds, which fulfill His word; mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars; beasts and all cattle; serpents and feathered fowls….”


On Christian Culture

What is Christian Culture? It is essentially the Mass. That is not my or anyone's opinion or theory or wish but the central fact of two thousand years of history.