If someone were to comment that Magdalen College’s campus is “kind of secluded,” the college’s president, Jeffrey Karls, might be apt to tell them the location is by design. The campus, outside of Warner, N.H., is quiet, but also close to amenities such as Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and the coast.

“We were looking for a property that would be sort of off the beaten trail so that students, who are oftentimes, and even employees who are oftentimes, immersed in very busy lifestyles, would have a place of peace and quiet with natural surroundings that are some of the best that New Hampshire has to offer,” said Karls.

Students at Magdalen have other ways to be in the present moment, such as limited cell phone usage and curtailed Internet access for social networking sites like Face book. They have more of a set structure than their peers do at Big State U. This includes required campus-based service (such as kitchen work and snow removal), curfews and the occasional room check. The college’s structure is in place to develop lives lived in common while growing in virtue, knowledge and practice of the Catholic faith.

The college was founded by three laymen who were inspired by the documents of Vatican II: Gaudium et Spes, the title of the pastoral constitution on “the Church in the modern world,” is prominent on the college’s seal. The founders felt a call to equip students to live in the world, and, along the way, students at Magdalen have discovered their vocations.

Out of more than 425 graduates, nearly 50 have gone on to the seminary or religious life.

Though the school is small — even compared to other Catholic liberal arts colleges — it has gotten a lion’s share of positive attention, including the Cardinal Newman Society’s designation of “Joyfully Catholic” in its guide to choosing Catholic colleges and a four-day visit in April from Cardinal Francis Arinze. He gave a keynote address at the annual President’s Council Dinner titled “Distinguishing Marks of a Catholic University.”

“I see the faculty and students praying together. The Mass is celebrated with devotion,” Cardinal Arinze, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, told the Register during the visit. “They sing in Latin; they sing in English, and they pray on their own. … That is a sign of a Catholic institution. ... I see them also function as a type of spiritual and intellectual family.”


An Integrated Approach

George Harne recently completed his first year of teaching at the school and was named academic dean. Harne feels that Magdalen provides a program for students in the proper order, laying a foundation for the development of character and a well-rounded education. In contrast, he says, some other institutions have reversed this order.

“I think they build the roof first and not the foundation,” he said. “You may learn a skill or a trade or have a certain major that looks good on paper, but the core, the very core of a person, is never formed and never built.”

The college offers students a Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies and an apostolic catechetical diploma in theology. It also offers an associate’s degree in liberal studies. The academic core examines classical texts and teaches them in a Socratic seminar style that emphasizes dialogue between the students and their instructors. The core subjects include philosophy, theology, English composition, mathematics, science, art and music. It emphasizes authors such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Euclid and Flannery O’Connor. Other opportunities are also available: Juniors can take a monthlong trip to Norcia, Italy.

Recently, the college introduced its honors program, which will allow students to pursue advanced courses in geometry and reasoning, Latin and English composition. They can also study texts that enhance the standard program in areas such as modern cinema and the writings of theologian Joseph Pieper.

In the current academic environment, where higher degrees are becoming more and more expected, Magdalen’s model may be considered ahead of its time, although it’s based on renowned and classical thinkers.


Admirers and Challenges

In a promotional booklet celebrating its 35-year history, alumnus Chris Graveline, class of ’95, wrote about the fundamental truth that he learned at the school. Graveline, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, was named the special prosecutor for the U.S. Army’s cases involving Abu Ghraib Prison personnel. He stated that he depended on the formation he received during his undergraduate years at Magdalen.

“Remembering this truth is critical in all my legal work, as I interact with victims, witnesses and defendants and work toward a just resolution. In the Abu Ghraib cases in particular, my legal partners and I continually returned to the dignity of the human person as we argued the criminal culpability of the soldiers involved,” he wrote.

In Magdalen’s educational model, small class sizes are ideal, yet the school could benefit from higher enrollment. The current campus can accommodate between 100 and 120 students, and some have advocated for 150. During the 2008-09 academic year, the school had 65 students.

Despite the favorability of small classes for students, they do not bring in vast tuition dollars. Magdalen relies on private donations to make up a significant part of the college’s income. Nevertheless, the school is committed to helping students in financial need.

But Karls remains upbeat. “God has provided for us and given us a wonderful opportunity to educate young people in the third Christian millennium,” he said. “And if we continue to serve God faithfully, with all the sacrifices that that requires, I believe that God will continue to bless Magdalen College’s program with the means we need to continue this apostolate.”

Justin Bell writes

from Boston.