I am writing this in a Benedictine monastery—Minster Abbey in Kent, as it happens—and am reflecting on just how important the name of Benedict has been over the ages, not least in the person of our Pope Emeritus.
And now there is something else. No doubt you all think I have been living under a stone for the last few months (and to some extent I have, that is true, due to not very good health) not to have discovered this before; now I am thrilled to have discovered for myself the Benedictus College project.
A few years ago it was my very good fortune to have encountered the University of Dallas: I did some work for them on their summer programmes in England, as chaplain and doing some history teaching and tutoring. There I encountered for the first time a real 'liberal arts' programme, which was designed to introduce American young people to their own cultural inheritance.
The key to such a programme is almost the antithesis of so much of modern education: instead of trying to pull apart and dissect great writers and artists,
'what's wrong with Aristotle's categories?'
'why doesn't the ontological argument work?'
'what's wrong with Shakespeare?'
'detect the misogyny in Thomas Hardy'
'what does Bleak House make you feel?'
it starts from the premiss that great thinkers and artists are, well, great thinkers and artists that have made a substantial contribution to mankind and have to some extent created all the good stuff we have in the world today. It encourages us to sit at their feet and actually listen to what they have to say before we wade in with our own half-baked opinions (surely the most egregious instance of hubris around today).
This approach has, literally, transformed the lives of thousands of Americans, and inspired them to truly be able to, as it were, stand on the shoulders of giants and see further, as Newton put it. This approach is often distilled into what is known as a 'great books course', which looks simply at the writers and thinkers whose contributions have gone to make up what we think of as Western civilization and thought. This approach is truly constructive, rather than destructive; it creates civilized human beings, renaissance men and women whose lives are immeasurably enriched by what they discover.
So I am absolutely thrilled to discover that this approach is now going to be made available in Britain. It has been talked about for years (it wouldn't surprise me to discover that the energetic Forester family are involved in it somewhere), and now something finally seems to be happening. Do go and explore their website, and I'll bet that, like me, you were wishing you were able to do at least some of the course.
That means, of course, that it isn't cheap; I couldn't afford it. I don't see education authorities giving any sort of a grant for something so obviously useful. And I guess I'm too old, too. But, my goodness, if I were a bishop, I'd be trying to make sure that my seminarians had something of this experience before beginning seminary studies. And if there were an opportunity for mature students, then it would be a terrific sabbatical experience for the jaded. Perhaps Benedictus might think of this as an option.
I'm convinced that once this course becomes established, it will prove highly influential, and begin the great fight-back against the destructive and cynical current educational trends in the UK.