When Peter Sampo founded Erasmus Institute of Liberal Arts in 2009, he did not want to recreate Thomas More College, the liberal arts school he founded 33 years ago.
“No,” he said with intensity. “I don’t want to build a little Troy” — a miniature facsimile of something left behind. Erasmus, he said, will retain much of the good of his old school, but will be something new. It will be “much more engaged with the outside world,” he said.
Sampo founded Thomas More with Mary Mumbach in 1978 and transformed the school from a partially renovated barn with a handful of students to a flourishing campus housing more than 100 students. After decades of teaching political science and piloting the college, he was ready to turn the reins over to the next generation of administrators.
But a few years later, at the age of 79, he came out of retirement and started all over again. And so Erasmus Institute of Liberal Arts in Canterbury, N.H., was born. There were only eight graduates in 2010, its first year, and the entire student body numbered 18. There are currently only seven professors.
But although the school is brand new, its mission is ancient and enduring. And, as Sampo’s actions show, worth sacrificing for.
“He has such a passion for the kids and for the school,” said Tere Bible, mother of Ben Bible, a junior at Erasmus. “He has this great wisdom, this art for teaching. It’s not just teaching — it’s imparting the love of learning to the students.”
Like the humanist theologian Desiderius Erasmus, Sampo believes that Catholicism will be renewed through the intellect.
We are at risk, Sampo said, of succumbing to “a new age of enlightenment,” which cannot be countered if the students are treated as “consumers.”
As David Brooks recently wrote in The New York Times, “most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”
According to Sampo, the problem that many of his students will face is that “Christianity itself is under assault,” so students must emerge with a firm grasp of their own cultural, intellectual and historical identity, ready “to meet the arguments of [Christopher] Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins.”
Sampo explains that the freedom of intellect afforded by a liberal arts education is the same freedom that is at the heart of Catholicism. Secular classrooms are minefields of taboo topics, he said; but as Catholics, “ideas are never a threat to us. Thomas Aquinas read Aristotle and Islamic thinkers” in defiance of contemporary cultural mores. And St. Augustine urged Catholics to “pillage the gold of the Egyptians,” which was “dug out of the mines of God’s providence” to take what is good and discover its place in Catholic thought.
Sense of Unity
Mumbach, Erasmus’ dean, co-founder and professor of literature, agrees: “We are free to see the workings of grace in Shakespeare and Moby Dick,” she said. She points out that it was the Church that preserved the classics as part of the history of redemption, part of the providential plan.
Erasmus Institute is Catholic in its approach to the intellect in more concrete ways, too. A retired Navy chaplain celebrates Mass and hears confession on campus, and all are welcome to participate in Scripture readings and join a student-led evening Rosary. Not all of the students are Catholic, though: Protestants, Jews and agnostics have all found a home at Erasmus.
While on campus, students are encouraged to see their studies as their vocation — but, said Mumbach, also to be aware that they are “part of an ongoing movement” in history.
The students choose from three majors: literature, political science and philosophy. The core of Erasmus is its humanities program, which runs on a four-year cycle — and the entire student body attends class together, reading the same works at the same time (as many as 50-70 pages per night for humanities alone).
This system fosters a sense of community.
“You’ll see a freshman, a senior and a professor grappling with the morning’s reading together over lunch,” said Sampo. The teachers work side by side with the students, sharing meals or coffee with them — even, in some cases, living on campus.
Every aspect of the school is designed to encourage this sense of unity and shared responsibility.
Sampo notes that students take charge of cleaning and maintenance, which helps them to feel ownership in their school. This is no mere theory: The Class of 2011 volunteered a week of their time after graduation to clean the campus and to ready it for summer.
“It’s not like other colleges,” said Tere Bible. You don’t just “get your classes done and over with and forget it. My son has such respect for the teachers, it’s incredible — he’s really invested in the school. It’s a great place.”
The Value of Education
But in these difficult economic times, does it make sense to invest in a liberal arts education? Sampo laughed at the question. After receiving a skills-based education, “people graduate trained for a specific job,” he said, ‘but there are no jobs.”
Mumbach adds that a liberal arts education is “the most pro-life activity possible” because it is not utilitarian. It nourishes the person himself, “for his own sake, and not for how useful he can be.”
The “liberal” in liberal arts means that a non-utilitarian education frees a person, said Sampo, “from unexamined opinions and provincialism.” It frees one “to transcend our own times. You can have a conversation with Aristotle. Under God, we are all contemporaries.”
And the students meet some of these timeless contemporaries on their own ground: The annual Rome program is central to Erasmus students’ cultural and historical understanding of their place in the world.
“It wouldn’t be Erasmus without Rome,” Sampo said, smiling. All Erasmus sophomores will spend their entire second semester in a small town 20 minutes from Rome, adding art and architecture to their classical studies, immersed in the daily life of the Eternal City.
For a taste of the scope of studies at Erasmus Institute, the school offers a two-week program for high-school students in July. The program includes apologetics, literature, politics and philosophy, all taught by former students of Sampo and Mumbach. There will also be Mass and confessions available, as well as sports and other activities, including a seashore trip and a tour of the Freedom Trail in Boston.
Simcha Fisher blogs at NCRegister.com.