Higher Education: a mighty passion vs. a mighty orgasm

[Continuing the thoughts I approached in this post]

This is a story about two universities and curriculum: the University of Kansas during the 1970s and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities of today. I am going to highlight the differences between these two samples in an attempt to demonstrate one of the ways in which we as a nation…as a people…have lost our way. Perhaps it’s on my mind a lot more lately because my oldest child is a junior in high school and we are in the “planning for college” phase.

Example 1: The University of Kansas of the 1970s

Once upon a time, there were three college professors, John Senior, Franklyn Nelick and Dennis Quinn, who started a classics program at the University of Kansas. The program, called the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, was meant to install the truth of Truth and Beauty in the students. It wasn’t a Catholic program but the themes were Catholic by their nature. Somehow this program survived several years in the midst of the chaos of the early 1970’s.

It all began in 1971. At the University of Kansas, students were complaining that they were subjected to a highly fragmented program that lacked any connection to the fundamental questions of existence. In the context of this general crisis, Senior, Quinn, and Nelick put in place a program of instruction in the Humanities. Before all else they were educators who understood that the student uprisings of the late 1960s were the indications of a deep crisis, of a search for meaning, by youth who had been unsettled by modernity—and especially in its contemporary incarnations. They knew that it was imperative to respond to this deep thirst.

Was this elementary? Yes, it was elementary good sense, and it was one that no one then was even imagining. College teaching had all too often been reduced to a cramming of the cranium with a mixture of varied ideas, thrown together without any order. But how was this to be done when one was merely a professor in a university? Senior, Quinn, and Nelick delved into the great experiences of humanity as found in the classics and gave their students a renewed taste for reading and for thinking deeply, that is to say, they taught them to quench their thirst by going the sources. John Senior and of his colleagues themselves took this path in their own teaching, and they took it resolutely. During their lectures, students were not to take notes, but instead, they were . . . to listen. They were to relearn the use of their senses both exterior and interior, by seeing, imagining, memorizing, and understanding. Twice per week, for an hour and twenty minutes, they assisted at a unique spectacle: listening to a conversation that unfolded among Senior, Quinn, and Nelick.

This was in no way talk for talk’s sake, but a true conversation, taking as point of departure Homer’s Odyssey or Plato’s Republic and establishing links and connections with other classic works of literature, history, and philosophy. According to the testimony of the students, this spectacle was fabulous, and silence reigned in the room except when the students broke out into genuine transports of laughter . . . . Silence and laughter: it was a useful apprenticeship in being human for an era that both took itself too seriously and had forgotten the value of contemplation. Between the two conferences, groups of students gathered to learn poems by heart. They also met their professors at night to contemplate the stars, to take courses in calligraphy, and to learn old songs—including drinking songs—which they sang in chorus. The goal was to reeducate the senses in order that these city-dwelling students might have the chance to encounter the real.

PEARSONIHP2It was understood that what was at stake for the students was before all else to task of recovering a mode of being and of taking hold of a way of learning, rather than merely being familiar with a great number of things. Their direct model was the instruction of the middle ages and the medieval lectio—in the sense of a public reading—that gave the professor the occasion to offer a direct commentary on the text. The sense of nuance was thus given directly by the tone that was employed in reading the text aloud. The three professors loved to use the analogy of a classical jazz group improvising on a well-known theme. That is exactly what they did. And, of course, the students had the chance to ask questions after the lectures, to meet the professors, and to form deep friendships, under the aegis of the IHP motto: nascantur in admiratione – “Let Them Be Born in Wonder.”

Professor Anthony Esolen of Providence College wrote about the time he received a copy of the IHP brochure from a former University of Kansas student who entered the school as a freshman in 1974.

I can hardly look at the cover page without wanting to weep, it is so achingly sweet, so emblematic of how much we have lost. An old man in the foreground, mounted on a swaybacked and skinny horse, wielding a lance and a buckler, looks up at the stars—at Ursa Major and Polaris. It is clearly Don Quixote and poor old Rocinante. The stars are framed by a Roman triumphal arch, whose frieze is decorated with scenes from ancient Greece: a man teaching a youth to play the zither; a naked sprinter; a chariot race; a woman dancing; and two Muses with stringed instruments. Below them, on the sides of the arch, are two medallions, one depicting a medieval monastery, the other, what I’m guessing is the cupola to Independence Hall.

The Pearson Integrated Humanities Program must have violated every educational truism of our time. Two hundred freshmen and sophomores, for six hours a week for two years, sat in the company of three professors, John Senior, Frank Nelick, and Dennis Quinn, who discussed art, poetry, music, history, philosophy, and Scripture with one another, while the students overheard them and eventually learned to participate in the discussions themselves. The students also recited poetry, learned to waltz, and were introduced to such words as truth, faith, honor, love, courtesy, decency, simplicity, and modesty, not words much used in an Age of Iron, but then, Don Quixote was sent into that time precisely to bring back something of the Age of Gold.

As students progressed through the program a surprisingly large number of them converted to Catholicism. Several of them traveled to Fontgombault, France to visit the Benedictine monastery there. Several of those joined and years later founded a Benedictine monastery in Clear Creek, Oklahaoma. The monastery was founded by eleven monks in 1999. Today there are about 36 monks and priests and the monastery recently became its own independent Abbey.

Due to the large number of conversions, the University of Kansas was convinced that the professors must somehow be proselytizing the students and killed the Integrated Humanities Program in 1979 but not before the program produced dozens of converts, many of whom went on to become priests, monks and nuns. (Some estimates are that as many as 200 students converted, and professors and students alike state unequivocally that no proselytizing occurred.)

Two former students are now bishops in the Catholic Church: James Conley and Paul Coakley. Archbishop Coakley of the Archiocese of Oklahoma City was raised a Catholic but has said that the IHP played a role in securing his decision to enter the priesthood. Bishop Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln (Nebraska) was raised a Presbyterian and while the IHP experience is not the main factor that attributed to his considering a conversion to the Catholic faith let alone entering the priesthood, he has given it credit for helping him to see things he had been missing.

Archbishop Coakley:

“In a certain sense, the focus was on educating the person, forming the person, not so much on training for a career,” he points out. “It was a very good foundation for life, whether one entered a trade or a career or a religious vocation. Many people found their life’s vocation as a result of that program.”

Some of these religious vocations were discerned at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault in France, a popular student destination. While most enjoyed a sojourn at the Benedictine monastery’s guesthouse before returning to Kansas, six stayed behind and took vows. In 1999, those six graduates returned to their homeland to establish a new Benedictine monastery, Annunciation Priory of Clear Creek in Oklahoma.

Among other Integrated Humanities Program alumni are farmers, vintners, calligraphers, educators, lawyers, magazine editors and many religious. Some, like David Whalen, associate provost of Hillsdale College in Michigan, call the program “absolutely determinative” for their path in life.

In his eulogy for Professor Quinn Bishop Conley said:

Professor Quinn called this kind of learning “education by the muses” or the “poetic mode” of education. He introduced us to reality through delight. This opened a whole new world to us. A world that was filled with mystery and beauty, but also a world that was very real and tangible. This was not mere fantasy or dreamy idealism, as he once wrote in an essay: “Mistake me not: wonder is no sugary sentimentality but, rather a mighty passion, a species of fear, an awful confrontation of the mystery of things.”

This kind of education, education by the muses or poetic education was a participatory kind of learning whether it was through the poetry we memorized and then recited, the songs we would sing before class, the stargazing at night west of Lawrence, the Yankee trade fairs, the magic of the spring waltzes, the banquets and parties at the Castle Tea Room, the trips to Italy and Greece and Ireland — we participated in the thing itself, we experienced the reality of what we were learning. Again, to refer to Newman, we moved from the mere notional assent to the truth, where we understand things in a notional way primarily through the intellect, we moved to a real assent, to real understanding which engages our whole being. “The muses present life fresh, as if seen and experienced for the first time.”

The Muses

The Muses

Yes, I went on a bit longer with regards to the Integrated Humanities Program than I’d originally intended. I guess it’s because it is exactly the type of education I desired when I was entering college and the kind I would love to have available today. There are of course pockets of such learning that remain (Wyoming Catholic College being one of them) in which the classics are read and students learn and discuss rhetoric, philosophy, critical thinking and the debate of ideas. But by and large our modern university system is now all about pumping out vocational grist for the workforce mill. Legions of accountants, lawyers, and MBAs. This in of itself is not entirely a bad thing, but without the type of strength of mind that one gets from at least a class or two of strong thinking that engages the other half…the half of our mind that connects our humanity to the divine…what kind of person are we left with? What happens to that man or woman who spent four years studying to be an accountant and graduates with no prospects for a job? Or who is fortunate enough to find one but be downsized out of it after ten years? It’s all he or she knows, unless she has cultivated other interests of course. But people are busier than ever today, or so we tell ourselves. And just as learning a second language or how to play music is easier when one is young, cultivating the mind and training it up to think and to wonder is more difficult later in life when so much worry and busyness has been crammed inside.

So instead of the classical “education by the muses” today’s educators offer students this:

Example  2: The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities today

The University of Minnesota – Twin Cities (UMTC) is set to hold an event this spring designed to help its female undergraduate students achieve more and greater orgasms.

A promotional poster for the event says it is all about “sexuality and pleasure.”

The university’s official online description of the event entitled, “The Female Orgasm,” describes it as open to both male and female students.

“Orgasm aficionados and beginners of all genders are welcome to come learn about everything from multiple orgasms to that mysterious G-spot,” reads the description posted on the school’s official events calendar.

“Whether you want to learn how to have your first orgasm, how to have better ones, or how to help you [sic] girlfriend, Kate and Marshall cover it all…” it adds.

“Are you coming?” it asks.

(Excerpt source)

Workshop poster

Workshop poster

Can anyone argue that attendance at this voluntary workshop will do anything to further the pursuit of a college degree or to find a job once graduation rolls around? Will listing “Is able to achieve/help a woman achieve more and greater orgasms” on a resume really help a person get hired—especially during our nation’s current tough economic times? To be fair one could ask the same questions about the Integrated Humanities Program. Perhaps a better question would be: Which course or workshop will enhance and affect the whole of your humanity? Which will help steer you through the trials and tribulations of this life and better prepare you to deal with them when they arrive at your doorstep?

Ok, so this is a workshop and not an actual course for credit during a semester. Here are The 15 Strangest College Courses in America.

A quick recap of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas:

  • Founded at Kansas University in 1970 by Dennis Quinn, Frank Nelick and John Senior
  • Two year program for freshmen and sophomores
  • Students learned beauty by listening to the professors discuss the arts
  • Students could not take notes
  • Use of the classics, music and the beauty of creation.
  • Classes were packed – over 2000 students participated
  • Numerous conversions to Christianity
  • Fifteen vocations to the priesthood, including 8 monks and 7 diocesan priests
  • Two bishops
  • Two cloistered nuns
  • Second generation vocations – the children of those students are being trained up in the arts that their parents learned and choosing religious vocations
  • Program cancelled in 1979 due to the opposition of other faculty and some parents.

The full Female Orgasm Program at UMTC includes:

  • A workshop for orgasm aficionados and beginners of all genders
  • Lessons on multiple orgasms and that “mysterious G-spot”
  • Helps female undergrads achieve more and greater orgasms
  • Uses a mixture of interactive activities, lecture, discussion, multimedia, funny stories and Q&A
  • Teaches the links between “befriending your body” and experiencing physical pleasure

As I said at the beginning, I don’t believe that the two examples I cited are the main contributors to us as a nation asking where we lost our way. But you cannot deny that the modern college / university system, a system bloated by professional students, under-qualified and overworked professors, overt political correctness, campus speech codes, and awash in funding from the government trough is also a system that is falling far, far short of what a college education used to be. Instead the definition from Urban Dictionary seems more appropriate:

A magical place where it is rumored that learning takes place, although to those who enter it is often described differently afterward, as a beatiful [sic] land in which beer flows in amber currents next to a golden pasture, where virgins lie naked with gentle smiles upon their calm, inviting faces; but more precisely, a Shangri-La rite of passage into adulthood which involves rampant consumption of alcoholic beverages, flagrant and promiscuous sexual behavior, and a general and fundamental disregard for any form of responsibility by its habitants.

I’ll pass. I prefer this definition from the IHP brochure of 1974:

An ancient philosopher said that to look at the stars is to become a lover of wisdom—a philosopher. Since the Pearson Program aims to make all students philosophers in that sense, we say, with a modern poet, “Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!” Not only are students in the program required to look, literally, at the stars, but they are also expected to look up through poetry and through all that is great in Western civilization. It is by the light of the stars (or “something like a star”) that we discover the world, ourselves, and our destination.










5 thoughts on “Higher Education: a mighty passion vs. a mighty orgasm

  1. Excellent post. I wish college had been more about learning for learning’s sake and not just about trying to shoehorn students into a particular major (whether or not that major will lead to a successful career) or about filling their heads with liberal garbage. That’s part of the reason I opted not to go to grad school — I had the grades for it, but I didn’t want to be a politically correct “professional student.” I wanted to go out into the world… the world that college didn’t really prepare me for.


  2. I found this article because I googled “Professor Frank Nelick”. My favorite living American poet, B.H. Fairchild (look him up!) dedicated his poem Leaving to Nelick, Dennis Quinn and John Senior.

    Obviously Fairchild benefitted from this program as well. And Fairchild is a national treasure…..


  3. As a fellow graduate of IHP I really enjoyed your essay on the Pierson program. I miss arguing with the old coots. I loved all of them. I do think that your comparison with the I Love Orgasms workshop was a tad disingenuous. I believe the program was aimed at promoting birth control and safe sex, issues that weren’t high priorities in the 1970s and only became hot issues in the post AIDs environment. The program was well intentioned but obviously not of the same caliber or subject matter as IHP. I do agree that we need more IHP caliber programs at the University of Kansas and elsewhere. Sadly like most universities economic realities are driving them more to the Vo-Tech model and away from the Liberal Arts model. Man in the image of the machine rather than the image of God.

    Liked by 1 person

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