For some years now, there has been a genial quarrel between those who use e-readers like Nook and Kindle and those who prefer real books with actual pages. John Senior, if he were alive today, would undoubtedly denounce my Kindle. Dr. Senior was the most prominent of the founders of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, a program that strongly influenced the founders of Wyoming Catholic College. In his book The Restoration of Christian Culture, he argues forcefully for the rejection of television, in fact of anything that substitutes for experience of the real, which would obviously include the Internet.
What he would say if he knew I was reading his book on my Kindle, I can’t quite imagine. When we started on our trip last week, my wife raised a critical eyebrow at Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons as it hovered over my briefcase; it’s a book with sufficient thickness and heft to rival a brick (without the holes). I left it behind and slipped my Kindle into my briefcase. I knew that on it I had Dr. Senior’s book, C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra trilogy, and dozens of histories. (Are they really there? A debate for another time.)
In his first chapter, Dr. Senior advocates reading aloud, singing at the piano, and in general being present to each other in real situations, with real conversation. Unless we recover the real, he argues, there is no use trying to restore Catholic culture through mastery of the concepts of Thomism, because the abstractions will have no grounding. In his Integrated Humanities Program, as an admiring French commentator put it in 2012, “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 re-educate the senses in order that these city-dwelling students might have the chance to encounter the real.”
That simple genius about re-educating the senses informs the experiential dimension of Wyoming Catholic College just as fully; it underlies the major sections of the Philosophical Vision Statement; and it explains our emphasis on the outdoors, on horsemanship, on memorizing poetry, on learning to dance, on participation in the choir, and other unique dimensions. What this education resembles most of all, it strikes me, is Lewis’s description of the habits of the rational animals called hrossa on Malacandra, his name for Mars in the Perelandra trilogy.
Unlike the philosophical sorns, the hrossa (who remind the narrator of otters and seals) live in beehive-shaped huts and sleep on the ground, somewhat like our students on their outdoor weeks. In Ransom’s estimation, they “seemed to have no arts except a kind of poetry and music which was practiced almost every evening by a team or troupe of four hrossa. One recited half chanting at great length while the other three, sometimes singly and sometimes antiphonally, interrupted him from time to time with song.” The hrossa face death with equanimity, largely because they conceive themselves and their lives poetically, as the Homeric heroes did. They know that if they perish in battle, they will be remembered forever, and they will become an inspiration for those who follow.
The sorns, whom Ransom later meets far up toward the surface of Malacandra (rather than in its valley depths), are of course very different. They are skeptical about the hrossa’s willingness to die, for example. They are emotionally cooler, more abstract, less poetic. Lewis’s insight here seems very much like Senior’s: in order to ascend to the rarer atmosphere of the sorns and their more comprehensive understanding, Ransom first has to be immersed in the dense, poetic, sense-rich world of the hrossa. Of course both modes of knowing—hrossa and sorn—characterize man, as does the capacity for using tools characteristic of still a third rational species on Malacandra, the pfifltriggi.
After talking to a former student in the Integrated Humanities Program last weekend in Philadelphia, I suspect that Dr. Senior would be less concerned about my Kindle than about the idea that our hrossa-nature can be reconciled with our deracinated sorn-hood in the course of a four-year curriculum. Essentially, he told me, Dr. Senior was talking about starting civilization over. The poetic education he advocated would take decades, “even centuries.” The real world needs to be remade in the senses, become wholesome in the imagination, and sweeten in the memory before it can lead once again toward a grasp of the higher truths.
At present, clearly, inhuman rationalism and technology have us in their thrall. But with grace and the poetry of experience, we can make a start back into the given, back into the real. As I’ve said before, it’s the long game of education. That it has present rewards is evident in our students, but a cultural transformation is what we are about.