Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb. vividly remembers his father asking him what on earth he planned to do with his English degree.
“Open up an English shop?” Bishop Conley said with a laugh.
Most English majors can probably relate.
But even today – decades after his undergraduate studies – Bishop Conley stands by his belief that a liberal arts curriculum is the foundation of a well-founded education and the true calling of the education system.
“We live in an age that is so pragmatic, so utilitarian,” he said. “People go to university primarily to learn a skill in order to build a career and because of that hyper-emphasis on career paths, I think students lose out on really what universities have always been. And that is really the liberal arts.”
“For students to really have a well-rounded education, to be truly educated in the best sense of the world, they need to be familiar with these great works (of Western Civilization).”
A liberal arts education is precisely what Bishop Conley hopes to provide students at the University of Nebraska through his latest initiative in the Diocese of Lincoln: The Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture.
Starting next fall, the institute will offer fully accredited academic courses on Catholic intellectual tradition and the humanities – particularly literature, history and philosophy – through a joint initiative with the St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and St. Gregory the Great Seminary in neighboring Seward, Neb. The courses are designed for students of any major and faith background.
Bishop Conley inaugurated the institute Wednesday with a discussion on wonder and a reading of poetry. However, he was quick to stress that a liberal arts education “is not just a dreamy kind of poetic education.”
“We want this program to be an experience of delight and wonder; something that (students) will long to go and be immersed in,” he said. But “there is a practical aspect to this as well.”
“The broader your education is and the wider read you are in literature and poetry and music … the more marketable your talent is going to be. It’s almost paradoxical! These classic works present to the students what centuries of students have benefited from.”
The institute is named for Blessed John Henry Newman, who founded the Catholic University of Ireland in the 19th century. Bishop Conley described Newman as a champion for the liberal arts in education.
“Newman wanted students to experience the great richness of Western Civilization,” Bishop Conley said. “A liberal education means someone who is liberated by the fullness of the truth.”
Bishop Conley experienced this liberation firsthand as an undergraduate involved in the short-lived Pearson Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas.
“The (program) was the impetus for my conversion to the Catholic faith,” he said. “I used to tell people that I read my way into the Catholic Church. That was true to a certain extent, but when I look back at it, it was more than that. It was the whole experience: relationships, friendships and the community I was a part of. It really had a tremendous impact on my life.”
Students involved in the Integrated Humanities Program not only explored classic literature but also star-gazed, travelled the world, memorized and recited poetry together and even learned how to waltz. Bishop Conley said students can expect similar things from the Newman Institute.
“This is not just an academic program,” he said. “We’re going to offer opportunities that will engage the whole person.”
The Newman Institute’s thoroughly Catholic underpinning will set it apart from the Integrated Humanities program and even the humanities program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the Institute is based.
“We want to teach these courses in the full vision of philosophy, history, art, architecture, music,” he said. “And theology is woven in all of these.”
The Institute will host three additional public lectures this fall with speakers including First Things magazine editor Dr. R.R. Reno and a literature professor from Wyoming Catholic College.
By Kate Veik and Mary Rezac