After his lecture to a packed house recently, Dr. R.R. “Rusty” Reno was answering questions from the audience, when one student asked him about how Wyoming Catholic College students should deal with the misconceptions others have about the liberal arts at Wyoming Catholic. Dr. Reno said he hated to have to tell him, but most people didn’t even know about Wyoming Catholic, much less have misconceptions about it. But in the serious part of his answer, Dr. Reno compared Wyoming Catholic to a large, well-known university.
In a remark that struck everyone who heard it, he said that the students of Wyoming Catholic College will have a disproportionate influence in the culture. That is, even though our alumni do not come from a big college with a famous name, they are formed so well as men and women, educated so well in the great tradition, that their effect in the world will be disproportionate to the smallness of from where they came.
Those of us who teach here have often thought exactly the same thing. We do not feel ourselves to be part of a tiny, out-of-the-way place, obscure both in its daily efforts and its long-term effects. Rather, we are at the center of a vital renewal of tradition, and we are privileged to see it increasingly take hold in the students. I think of what happened in the Renaissance when the rediscovery of antiquity generated an immense excitement about new possibilities: the present moment was being bathed and ennobled by the upwelling of the great past.
That kind of cleansing goes on at Wyoming Catholic College. What does it wash away? The false present. Most people in our culture are addicted to an artificial consciousness. By getting on their phones or laptops, they enter and become part of what’s going on, the news, commentary, and scandal, the emails and texts, the personal friendships photographed, posted, and tweeted, the gossip about celebrities, the partisan wrangling, the latest gaffes and slanders of politicians, the streaming shows—all of it flowing, image and text, through the vast but personally accessible “mind” of the moment that becomes ours and displaces what might otherwise be going on in us. When I was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, television had already assumed this role. For the generation of my parents, it was radio, and before that the newspapers.
But the false present has a hard time at Wyoming Catholic. I’m struck again by the genius of our founding. All incoming students first undergo a twenty-one-day backpacking expedition into the mountains that removes them from any access to that artificial consciousness—no phones, no Internet, no movies, no video games; instead, they have an intense experience of nature and of each other. Then when they come back down, they plunge into Homer and the Bible and Aristotle; they encounter, with each other, minds and truths that have formed the high and enduring consciousness of the West.
It’s a natural thing to want to know what’s going on—unless it robs us of the moment with those who immediately surround us, who are what’s going on. So when I think of our students with their aptitude for presence, their training in the wilderness, their apprenticeship in the Great Books, their liturgical seriousness, I think of a force for restoration going into the world. When I think how our faculty and staff know each one of them by name, how we all care deeply about them and guide them by our best lights, I think how rare that attention is in the great anonymity of the educational industry.
What lies behind our disproportionate influence in the future is the baptism of the present moment. I am confident that, if we are true to our calling, the years to come will manifest the clarity and confidence our students will bring to the wider world.