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liberal arts

Painting by Jef Murray

Almost half of a decade ago, I applied for an interesting position–to be the first head of a new liberal arts program at a Catholic college in New England. The college is old and venerable, but it’s gone through the typical changes toward the worse experienced by most small religious colleges in the last four decades.

In the last several years, however, the college has acquired a sharp new president and provost, and the school is turning around in every good way. Should it continue on this path, it will be a leading liberal arts college once again.

 I gave everything I had for this position, but the college administration and faculty committee wisely recognized that my vision outstrips my administrative gifts.

As I understand it, I came in second out of three finalists–but, of course, I don’t know this for a fact. Still, it’s somewhat soothing to the ego.

Regardless, I have been honing my thoughts and vision (if you will) of what a good liberal arts program would look like, especially for a Catholic. While I have immense appreciation of a Great Books approach, such as that found at St. John’s, I’ve been far more influenced by a cultural approach to the liberal arts as understood by my heroes, Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, and Jacques Barzun.

In my proposal offered to the college faculty and administration at large, I argued for something I still believe in, but, which I understand, is perceived by even advocates of a return to the liberal arts as somewhat radical.

In the freshman year, as even the best students need to acclimate to the demands of serious reading and writing, I proposed a year long course that started with myth and the Occidental imagination. The freshman year would be devoted to the study of:

  • The Iliad and the Odyssey
  • The Aeneid and the Eclogues
  • The City of God
  • Beowulf and several Anglo-Saxon poems
  • The Divine Comedy
  • Paradise Lost
  • Utopia
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Four Quartets

This would be it. The student would encounter only these works and only these authors.

With lectures, seminar-style discussions, and intensive paper writing, the student would be immersed not only into liberal education but also into the most telling thoughts of each of the great epochs of western civilization. She or he would learn not only the art of story telling, but also enter into the “Great Conversation” as well as wrestle with the problems of the Greeks, Romans, Medievals, Reformers, Counter-Reformers, and moderns. Throughout the exploration of each of the above authors and works, students would confront the most pressing problems and concerns of each epoch, with the always predominate questions of:

  • What is man?
  • What is God?
  • What is God’s relationship to man?
  • What is man’s relationship to man?

Alas, if such a college ever adopts such a program, it will most likely not be by me. Still, there is always hope.

Imagine what we could do if we could introduce generations of first-year college students to western civilization through its greatest stories and become its leading citizens.  Such a course proposed would at least be a start in doing such a thing.


This afternoon, returning from one of the most intense and wonderful weeks of my academic and intellectual career, spent with the truly excellent folks at TAN Books, St. Benedict Press, and Catholic Courses in North Carolina, I’ve had the blessing of listening to Tolkien’s Return of the King, a part of truly one of the finest epics ever written. Though I’ve been reading Tolkien since age 10, he never ceases to inspire me, even when the world looks dreadfully dark.

“Old fool!” he said. “Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain! And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.–J.R.R. Tolkien, ”The Siege of Gondor,” The Return of the King, page 829.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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14 replies to this post
  1. Brad,
    This is a good start. I would include Genesis and John's gospel, and find a way to work the historical narrative around the authors and maybe a few others. The problem with "great books" is that, devoid of context, they can be made to mean almost anything. I know, for example, that the St. John's faculty is often frustrated by that, and at Columbia, where this concept was invented after WWI, they have turned Vergil into a flaming liberal.

  2. Thanks for writing telling this story Dr.Birzer. To Mr.Willson's point, while it is almost news to me that progressives have read any great books, I constantly find flaming liberals who are rich in context with zero content. Here's to the vision for true liberal arts education!

  3. A perfect choice of passage from Tolkien Dr. Birzer. I've tried to explain this to many of my christian tolkien loving friends, that the arrival of the Rohirrim at Minas Tirith is the fictional version of the eucatastrophe many had hoped would happen in 1453 at Byzantium, that Europe's Anglo Saxon knights would not abandon the last city of the Romans.

  4. John, a Catholic understanding of the world was meant to be taken for granted (at least as I was envisioning it). So, a study of Virgil and the Eclogues would naturally lead into a discussion of St. John's gospel, etc. Year two would be philosophy; year three theology. This is all, of course, sheer fantasy. I tried it once in reality, and I lost!

  5. I always tear up at that passage with a feeling expressed when we return to the gate with Pippin's reaction:

    "When the dark shadow at the Gate withdrew Gandalf still sat motionless. But Pippin rose to his feet, as if a great weight had been lifted from him; and he stood listening to the horns, and it seemed to him that they would break his heart with joy. And never in after years could he hear a horn blown in the distance without tears starting in his eyes."

    I like your proposal, one which would no doubt be developed when put into practice. It looks like it would form a core not only for students but for faculty? To have a faculty who all knew these works well would provide the right foundation for a real academic community.

    Teaching at a Great Books college makes me appreciate it strengths but also recognize the kinds of deficiency of cultural imagination that your proposal would address. We need dozens of such programs with various emphases that draw upon the strengths and passions of the professors drawn to them and help to bring about a complete cultural and intellectual revival.

  6. You should include Shakespeare, not only are his works amongst the very greatest produced by Western civilisation, but, as Martin Lings eloquently showed, his plays (at least after 1599) are profound instances of Sacred Art that rank with Dante.

  7. Dr. Birzer,
    Do you think you could follow this up with a more detailed explanation of the differences between the "Great Books" approach and the "cultural" approach to the liberal arts? I think you might be articulating a distinction I've been trying to put into words lately.
    Many regards,

  8. Dr Birzer,

    I might get my teeth knocked out by somebody for saying this, but I wonder if you shouldn't have opted for more "punch" or greater economy by selecting Sophocles and Euripedes instead of Homer. If the point is to get students to confront the Great Questions, I think one is more likely to get through to the students with those plays rather than epics. The trial of Socrates could then be fit in, too.

    I would slightly disagree with Mr Willson above, also; without any context, many of these books mean nothing. When I was forced to read Homer as a student, it just seemed like a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing. I think it would take truly exceptional teachers to get through some of this material without losing momentum.

    In some ways, I guess I am suggesting the "Disciplined Mind" approach to these kinds of things. The Greek plays and Socratic dialogues are largely self-contained.

  9. Fabulous idea, Brad, and do not give up on it! Rather than swamping students in Great Books, you select just a few volumes to explore more deeply into myth, mythic truth, and the historic self perception of a culture. This, I think, would give students the skills to do it themselves with different works, authors, audiences and epochs later – and even, more carefully, with foreign cultures.

    I am not particularly fussed which texts you use, providing they are great and mythic, but your selection is admirable and accessible and fun as well. You seem to me to have had an earth-shaking thought here; do not shelve it. It cuts to the heart of Eliot’s saving knowledge from information and wisdom from knowledge. First, we are not French Encyclopaedists dazzled by factoids sold by the kilo – we know the ancient power of myth but we moderns swamp our students in mere data and crassly explain deep mythos as ideology to save time. Second, from the Vedas or Homer, to the Buddhist Jataka tales to Christ’s parables, myth is powerful and memorable in conveying truth, and teaching how to distil truth from myth conveys the greatest of the humanist alchemical skills. This is conservative radicalism at its best. Hang onto it, dear chap! Write up the theory behind it. God willing, you will succeed.

  10. Dr. Birzer,
    Thank you for the kind words about your trip to NC for the filming of your Catholic Course, “Catholics in the Public Square.” I believe I can safely speak for the entire team here at Saint Benedict Press and Catholic Courses when I say it was truly a pleasure working with you. Your level of preparedness and lack of reliance on notes made my job as teleprompter operator almost entirely unnecessary! Consequently, I enjoyed the freedom of being able to listen intently to your lectures without having to worry about keeping pace with your every word. How fascinating it was to learn about the role of Catholics in the formation of our country. I am very much looking forward to seeing the final version of your course and I hope you’ll be back in NC to film another one soon!
    All the best,
    Katie Moore

  11. Brad,

    I'd like to echo what Katie said. It was wonderful meeting and working with you, albeit so briefly. The footage has come back beautifully, and your flawless delivery of the material is incredibly impressive. I can't wait to amp up the visual aids and master the video. I'll be sure to keep an eye here on your blog – that is, if I can pull myself away from A Canticle for Liebowitz. Thanks again! Looking forward to next time.


  12. Mr. Birzer, what can you recommend for home schooling parents?

    Our sons are eleven and six. We have read children’s retellings of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid (Rosemary Sutcliffe is the author of at least one or two). We read fairy tales, and of course the Bible because we’re Catholic. Ideally, I would like to prepare them for a college experience which might not include much classic literature, just in case. I hope to home school through the end of high school.

    If you, or any readers, have suggestions, I will appreciate that.

    Thank you!

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