Where Wonder Cultivated Catholicity

Remembering Kansas’ Late, Great Integrated Humanities Program

Three decades ago, three professors at the University of Kansas sat in the front of a lecture hall and talked about books. Students weren’t allowed to take notes, although the professors didn’t mind if they knitted. They taught students the state song of Kansas, took them star gazing, spoke Latin out loud and introduced the freshmen and sophomores to classic literature and poetry.

The core of this program was its motto: Nascantur in admiratione (Let them be born in wonder). In the midst of this cultivation of wonder, through a diverse and often spontaneous curriculum, many of the students found their way to the Catholic Church.

Although the program has been gone for 26 years, its nine-year lifespan is worth considering in light of the challenges and opportunities facing Catholic higher education today.

The University of Kansas in the 1970s was, like many larger universities, a fine place to be an anonymous underclassman. That began to change when the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, funded by a federal grant, set out to bring together freshmen and sophomores through bi-weekly gatherings to help them form a community. University administrators tapped Professor Dennis Quinn, known for his classes on Shakespeare, to direct the program. They gave him free rein over the curriculum and the selection of professors.

Quinn chose two close associates, professors John Senior and Frank Nelick of the university’s classics department. Quinn and Nelick were converts to the Catholic faith; Senior, an Episcopalian, would later convert as well.

“We very quickly decided what we wanted to do,” Quinn recalls. “We wanted to teach the Great Books, the classics, from the Greeks up through the Romans and through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance into the modern times.”

The first 100 students entered the program in 1970. The program was structured as a voluntary semester-long class open to all freshmen and sophomores. Each semester’s itinerary was unique and each class was unpredictable.

“We didn’t plan lectures,” Quinn says. “We (the professors) had lunch together before the class started and on the way over to class I’d say, ‘Well, what are we going to talk about?’ and they’d say, ‘I don’t know. What book are we reading?’”

Often the curriculum diverged onto unexpected tangents. The professors, noticing that the students had no skill in formal ballroom dancing, organized an annual waltz. They took students to Ireland and Greece. They told stories, required the students to memorize poems and spoke of callings rather than careers.

But the basis of the program was literature — and, beyond that, truth. Few students, the professors learned early on, professed any sort of belief in objective, absolute truth. To this Quinn would reply: “Do you believe it’s true that there’s no truth?”

They read Plato, Herodotus, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as classic books that touched on the Catholic faith without overtly promoting it.

So why, Quinn wonders to this day, do so many former students name the Integrated Humanities Program — which only lasted from 1970 to 1979 — as the defining educational experience of their religious and professional lives?

Callings Heard

Bishop Paul Coakley of the Diocese of Salina, Kan., praised the ground-breaking program in the brief biography released upon his installation last December.

“It was an extraordinary experience, it was an extraordinary time and it was unquestionably the most significant educational experience of my life,” he said. “Our professors taught as if they believed there was a truth and that that truth was knowable.”

Bishop Coakley was raised Catholic, but the Integrated Humanities Program, he says, played a role in securing his decision to enter the priesthood.

“In a certain sense, the focus was on educating the person, forming the person, not so much on training for a career,” he points out. “It was a very good foundation for life, whether one entered a trade or a career or a religious vocation. Many people found their life’s vocation as a result of that program.”

Some of these religious vocations were discerned at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault in France, a popular student destination. While most enjoyed a sojourn at the Benedictine monastery’s guesthouse before returning to Kansas, six stayed behind and took vows. In 1999, those six graduates returned to their homeland to establish a new Benedictine monastery, Annunciation Priory of Clear Creek in Oklahoma (clearcreekmonks.org).

Among other Integrated Humanities Program alumni are farmers, vintners, calligraphers, educators, lawyers, magazine editors and many religious. Some, like David Whalen, associate provost of Hillsdale College in Michigan, call the program “absolutely determinative” for their path in life.

Specifically, says Whalen, the professors’ focus on the three transcendentals — the true, the good and the beautiful — made an impact on his view on life. “I give credit to that experience,” he adds, “for opening my eyes to permanent truth.”

Catholic Connection

Besides the faith of the professors, the only Catholic connection was within the context of literature like St. Augustine’s Confessions or the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Those led to discussions of the faith, but, as Bishop Coakley points out, “How could you study The Canterbury Tales without a discussion of the Catholic Church or the Christian imagination?”

“The class was not a place where proselytizing occurred,” says Whalen, who re-embraced his Catholic faith while in college. “People were not pressured to adopt a particular religion. The professors did not hide what they thought, but they didn’t browbeat people about the Catholic religion.”

Still, students converted — by some accounts more than 100 — and, according to Quinn, not all the parents were happy about it. Of the professors’ possible influence on the conversions, Quinn says, “You teach what you are. Well, we were Catholic, and it came out without us talking about it at all.”

Then again, Quinn reasons, perhaps the program created a community of close relationships where the Catholic faith could blossom.

Bishop Coakley proposes a different rationale.

“You put people in touch with the true, the beautiful and the good and let the Holy Spirit work,” he says.

When the program underwent what Quinn has called a “discreet and slow euthanasia” at the hands of university officials as the ’70s drew to a close, Quinn returned to the English department. Nelick and Senior have since died.

The question “Why?” prompts several possible answers. Perhaps, as Quinn believes, “It was a victim of its own success.”

That success could have been the program’s popularity and the jealousy it engendered in other departments. Or it could have been the disproportionate number of converts to the Catholic faith. But perhaps, like the ancient civilizations that produced the literature of the program, its time simply ran out.

Both Quinn and Whalen say no colleges today are doing what the Integrated Humanities Program did. While some Catholic grade schools and home-school curriculums have tried to incorporate facets of the program, often intermingling the educational philosophy with the Great Books approach, none, they believe, has recreated the program’s atmosphere of wonder that proved so fertile for uncovering truth.

Whether any schools could emulate the Integrated Humanities Program with the same results today remains a question for the future. But Bishop Coakley believes that any such initiative must involve one component outside of man’s control.

“It was the working of grace,” he says of the program’s success. “The years of the program were a special time of grace.”

Dana Lorelle writes from

Cary, North Carolina.