‘Classic’ Comeback at Benedictine College

New Concentration for Elementary-Education Majors Debuts This Fall

Benedictine College exhibit image courtesy of Benedictine
Benedictine College exhibit image courtesy of Benedictine )

The classics continue to make a comeback at Benedictine College.

This fall, the Catholic liberal arts college in Atchison, Kan., is offering elementary-education majors the opportunity to earn a concentration that certifies them to teach the classics.

It’s a green light to teach a new generation old — but still powerful — ideas from Greek prose and Latin poetry and the works of Homer, Dante, Plato, Dostoevsky and other seminal works of Western civilization.

“The benefit of a classical education is the benefit of an education in which students are taught to become independent learners and thinkers through the use of sound pedagogy, reason and the great intellectual tradition of our society,” said Matthew Ramsey, associate professor and chair of Benedictine’s education department.

The program makes Benedictine a key player in a movement to return to classical education, even at the earliest levels of education. The lead has been taken by Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich., which has developed an initiative to create charter-based schools on the Hillsdale model of classical education.

“I think we’re the first Catholic school to do it,” said Edward Mulholland, an assistant professor of classical and modern languages at Benedictine, of the school’s incorporation of classics into its elementary-education degree.

The college’s certification in classical education began thanks in part to the parent of a Benedictine student. The parent, Mulholland said, approached him at an event last school year to discuss the rise in classics-oriented academies. He wondered who would teach the teachers who staff such academies.

“A light bulb went off in my head,” Mulholland said.

Mulholland worked with Ramsey and Joe Wurtz, dean of students, to develop a program that will allow primary-education majors to earn a concentration in classical education teaching.

Such students already are required to take eight hours of Latin or Greek. The new concentration calls for another 15 credits of Great Books courses Benedictine already offers.

The concentration may later be available to secondary-education majors.

Ramsey compared the concentration to the certification Benedictine students can earn to teach theology.

“Those folks get jobs at really great Catholic high schools in the region and across the country,” Ramsey said. “I can’t see any reason that the classical program wouldn’t yield the same results.

“One of our great missions is to fill up the Catholic high schools in the region and across the country.”

Those who earn the concentration won’t have many peers with the same skill set, given the drop in institutions offering classical education.

It once was commonplace in Catholic higher education, but no more.

“I think in some ways there was a concerted effort to destroy it,” Mulholland said. He points to a “renegade faction” (though not at Benedictine) that associated classical education with “being part of the core of Catholic education” and so pushing it away reduced “the Catholicity” of an institution.

As that happened, those trained in teaching classical education faded away. Benedictine held out until the 1990s, when it got rid of its classics major. But that had more to do with the professor in charge of the program passing away than it did with any philosophical u-turn.

But demand for classical education, Mulholland said, has been growing for about a decade. Wurtz agreed.

“Part of it is just a better understanding of the philosophy of Catholic education,” Wurtz said. “Part is driven by this federal government regulatory demand and the environment they have created around education. Parents are frustrated with the failings of schools and the way they see schools indoctrinating kids rather than teaching them. The home-school population continues to grow, and they want access to truth, beauty and goodness. I don’t think they’re finding that at schools, including some Catholic schools.”

Benedictine has bucked the trend. For about 25 years now it has offered a Great Books sequence, which includes tracks in philosophy and theology. That spurred development of a literary-historical Great Books sequence three years ago. Mulholland is also co-director of the school’s Great Books curriculum, which was recently named one of “The 25 Best Great Books Programs” by the Best College Reviews website. In addition, as an alternative to the ACT and SAT, Benedictine accepts the Classical Learning Test.

Overall, the classical-education concentration should appeal, Ramsey said, to students coming from charter programs, classical academies or home-school backgrounds. That’s in line with the profile of students at the college. “The students that we’re attracting are very mission-matched,” Ramsey said. “These are folks who are seeking an authentic, Catholic liberal arts community of faith and scholarship, the pillars we talk about at Benedictine.”

That includes Lucy Leighton, a Benedictine senior from West St. Paul, Minn., who intends to teach at a high school after graduating.

She first encountered classical education at her middle school and then in high school. She studied Latin for four years and Koine Greek for two semesters. “I also engaged in Socratic-style discussions during ‘Humane Letters’ class all four years, reading works like The Iliad, The Republic and The Odyssey, as well as more modern classics like Huckleberry Finn or The Brothers Karamazov.”

Though she won’t take the new concentration, she sees the fruits it could bear.

“Elementary students can benefit from such instruction, in that they will be exposed to a set of rich histories and traditions from which our modern cultures have grown, learning about the roots of democracy from Demosthenes’ speeches or the process of a complete education from Cicero,” Leighton said.

For Benedictine students, earning the concentration should make them more marketable.

“To me, it makes perfect sense,” Wurtz said. “More employers are looking for teachers of classical education. There are not enough grads to support demand. There is tremendous growth in classical education because of home-school or charter programs. It’s gaining ground. The demand for teachers who are fluent in that curricula is going to be growing. We want to position ourselves as a college to be the answer, at least from the Catholic perspective. Hillsdale is doing it and doing it well. We want to do it, too.”

Anthony Flott writes from

 Papillion, Nebraska.

Benedictine College exhibit image courtesy of Benedictine

Read the College Guide here.