New President of Magdalen College: College Should Be Like Rivendell
Ryan Messmore says college’s ‘intellectual, spiritual and social fellowship’ is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings locale.
Ryan Messmore became the fifth president of Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts (formerly Northeast Catholic College) in July 2021. Nestled in the mountains of New Hampshire, the small Catholic college features a Great Books program and is recommended by the Cardinal Newman Society and the Register’s annual college guide. Messmore previously served as the president of Australia’s Campion College and worked to promote liberal arts higher education in that country, where it is less familiar than in the United States and Britain. He holds a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, an MPhil from Cambridge University, a master’s in theology from Duke Divinity School, and a B.A. in public policy and religion from Duke University. He shared about his academic background and his hopes for his tenure via email on Aug. 2.
Tell me a bit about your background? What led you to academia?
I am a triplet, which sparked my interest at a very early age in the doctrine of the Trinity! In fact, this would become the subject of my doctoral studies at Oxford. I first came to love reading and discussing big ideas as an undergraduate at Duke University. This passion propelled me into graduate school, where I studied Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School, systematic theology at Cambridge University, and eventually Trinitarian political theology at Oxford. While in graduate school, my wife and I sensed a call to serve the work of small, Christ-centered learning communities, which led me to a career in higher education. When we entered the Catholic Church in 2008, we were drawn to the sort of small, Catholic liberal arts colleges that arose as a response to the Church’s call for a New Evangelization.
What drew you to Magdalen College?
When I first visited Magdalen’s campus, nestled on a New Hampshire mountainside, I thought of Rivendell. In The Lord of the Rings, Rivendell is a beautiful, inspiring place of strategic conversation, music and fellowship before embarking on a challenging mission. Likewise, Magdalen is a place where students immerse themselves in formative intellectual, spiritual and social fellowship in preparation for pursuing life and careers in an antagonistic culture.
During my initial visit, I was also struck by the unique humanities program in which all students read the same books at the same time, participate in team-taught classes, and engage in a single, campus-wide conversation. While observing a class, I witnessed faithful scholars like Anthony Esolen bring together literature, history, theology, poetry, philosophy, music and art into a single, unified course curriculum. I then went to daily Mass and had my spirit lifted heavenward by the beautiful voices of the Magdalen student choir — one of the true distinctives of the college. By the time I had a meal with the students — which Magdalen’s small size makes possible on a regular basis — I knew I wanted to be a part of this special community.
What are some of your goals as president?
I want to share with more people the power and purpose of this enchanted college because I believe our society desperately needs it. This entails strengthening the bonds with our local community here in New Hampshire as well as increasing our awareness among potential students across the country. I want to be proactive in making the argument for a faithful, Catholic, liberal arts education in a society marked by increasing secularism, pragmatism and moral confusion.
Are you looking to grow the college in any way?
I want to grow enrollment, but not beyond the ability of the president to know every student by name and to share regular meals with them. This is the approach that Jesus implemented with his disciples: spend several years forming a small group of students in the context of a shared life and then send them out as witnesses to the truth in all corners of the world. So, while we desire to add more members to our collegiate family in the short term, Magdalen will always remain relatively small because we will always remain personal in our approach.
Why is a Catholic liberal arts education something that is important to preserve?
For two main reasons: because of who students are and because of what society needs. First, students are not just brains on sticks that need to be filled up with data, and they are more than mere bank accounts with legs that need to acquire money. They are, instead, human persons, made in the image of God, with enormous potential to think, create, work, love and worship. A good education, therefore, needs to develop the whole person, including their spiritual dimension. A Catholic college like Magdalen holds together faith and reason, which are, according to St. John Paul II, “Two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
Second, our society desperately needs people who can discern propaganda from truth, stand up for what is right, articulate their convictions winsomely, and exercise responsible leadership in their families, churches and cities. A liberal arts education is well-suited for developing such habits. By teaching students to think critically, communicate effectively, and understand the world in which they live, this education liberates students from ignorance and opens for them a broader world of opportunity.
As someone who has worked in liberal arts academia on three continents, what do you see as the differences between the English, American and Australian approaches to this style of education?
The liberal arts tradition is much more familiar in England and the United States than it is in Australia. Undergraduate education in Australia is heavily ordered to job training, with students specializing in a particular career field immediately after graduating from high school. A decision to study the liberal arts Down Under is therefore often more intentional than in the United States, where attending a four-year liberal arts college is something that many grow up expecting as a traditional pathway. My graduate-school experience in England consisted of more independent reading and writing, with one-on-one tutorials with professors, whereas my graduate education in the United States consisted of more classes and exams. In part because of my time at Oxford and Cambridge, I’ve tended to favor small-group discussions and written papers as effective modes of liberal arts learning.
Who or what are some of your leadership influences (books, saints, mentors)?
I have long admired St. John Paul II as a servant leader, both within the Church and on the international stage. He was courageous, humble, thoughtful, faithful, energetic and a great communicator. A book I wrote on love, sex and marriage was heavily indebted to his Theology of the Body. As a scholar who resonated especially with young Catholics and loved skiing, St. John Paul II seems a very fitting co-patron of Magdalen College in New Hampshire!
Being a theologian interested in the Trinity, love and political community, I also count as influences St. Augustine in the West and the Cappadocian Fathers in the East. More recently, I’ve been formed by the works of C.S. Lewis, Alasdair MacIntyre and Oliver O’Donovan — I taught a course on Lewis, wrote my dissertation on O’Donovan, and had the privilege of studying under MacIntyre when he taught at Duke. Finally, I have spent much time in prayer with Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Campion, Mary Magdalene and Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity.
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