Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts calls her students to a transformative liberal education of the whole person.
This education is ordered to human flourishing and communion, animated by the perennial questions, given shape by the classic books, and nourished by a vibrant liturgical and sacramental culture.
Joyfully Catholic in this ascent toward true freedom and a vision of the Good, Magdalen College calls all within her community to enter the great conversation of authors seeking wisdom that has unfolded across the ages, cultivating a life of virtue, poetic imagination, service, and life-giving fidelity.
Magdalen College offers a liberal education for greatness. This may be a public greatness that human history will mark within its records or the quiet, hidden greatness that sustains families, societies, and the world, just beyond the vision of others. This greatness gives form to a life transformed, one in which students find true freedom, joy, and the wisdom that transcends our age.
Through its deep integration of liberal education and the Catholic faith within a joyful community, Magdalen College offers students the opportunity to pursue wisdom in a spirit of friendship, animated by a communion of faith, bringing the intellect and imagination to their full realization. Our community is unlike any other.
At Magdalen College we educate our students not only for the lives they will live immediately following graduation, but also for the lives they will live two decades later. When our graduates step into the leadership of public, private, and ecclesial institutions, or lead quietly in the private spheres of life, they will be taking up the reigns that will shape and sustain society and the Church through the next generations.
It is for these high and heroic callings that we educate.
The vision of liberal education that animates Magdalen College is irreducible to one of its aspects. It is a complex reality embodied by its students and its teachers over a lifetime, a reality in which the whole is always greater than its parts and in which the human longing for transcendence finds its voice.
We invite you to explore our website to discover the extraordinary education we offer.
The Program of Studies at Magdalen College offers a path to joy that can only be found through knowing in its most complete sense. Aristotle, in recognizing that “all men desire to know,” discerned something in human nature that comes from the created image of God rendered at the deepest core of every human being, something that is universal.
This desire is not for facts or for information, but a desire for wisdom, an encounter with the real, the permanent things, the reality that constitutes both the realms of becoming as well as those of being. This includes things that are the fruit of the intellect and the imagination, of human action and human making, and the things that elude us at the horizon of transcendence where reason and faith meet as wings to lift us ever higher. This desire to know is a gift, one that summons students and teachers to an active engagement in the journey and the joyful gift of ourselves to others. These in turn become manifest in a desire for communion in knowing, one in which students, teachers, and the authors from each generation of human culture participate in a dialogue ordered to the highest Wisdom. We know that Mary is called the “Seat of Wisdom” and here any distinction between the secular and the sacred melts into a unified call to transcendence, a call to conversion that leads us from Plato’s cave, guiding us toward the Good, toward the Wisdom that is the author of all Being. As Pope Saint John Paul II recognized, if we are to encounter and receive wisdom, we must give primacy to enquiry, and the animating principles of our enquiry must be the perennial questions, the fundamental questions about life’s meaning. But we are not relativists or skeptics: with great humility and with the recognition that the fullness of knowledge will always elude us, we insist—against the powers of this age—that we can know.
These three things—the primacy of enquiry embodied in the perennial questions, the classic books and greatest artifacts of culture read as a three-millennia conversation, and the belief that truth can be found—form the animating soul of our Program of Studies.
But make no mistake, our quest will not be satisfied by a syllogism alone. There are aspects of reality that exceed what the powers of discursive reason can comprehend. Thus, our journey through the Program of Studies will integrate the powers of ratio with the powers of active receptivity, echoing Josef Pieper’s emphasis on intellectus, and Louise Cowan’s on the poetic imagination. The meaning of the highly contingent, often discordant, realities that constitute so much of learning may not be harmonized or revealed in this lifetime. Some of Plato’s most important dialogues conclude with a “myth” for a reason.
Thus, the Program of Studies calls students and teachers alike to a transformation through the deep receptivity of the greatest works of culture, works that shed light upon existence and reveal ever-increasing realms of meaning. Liberal education, as embodied by the Program of Studies will expand and enrich both the intellect and imagination, inculcating a resistance to the rationalist tendencies of reduction and oversimplification, tendencies that breed ideologies and human catastrophe. Our world today, including every single person, needs this form of liberal education now more than ever.
Though education takes place at the undergraduate level for four years, we know that learning naturally lasts throughout the fully human life. The fundamental orientation that the Program of Studies offers students will, for those who give themselves to the quest, be sustained in the pursuit of Wisdom through a life of human flourishing. Then, at the end, the desire to know will be transfigured and fulfilled. When, no longer seeing through a glass darkly, we may see “face to face.”
As our mission statement above indicates, the mission of the college is an integrated one, consisting of a primary academic dimension and a spiritual dimension. The latter nourishes and orients the academic dimension while providing the animating principles of the larger collegiate culture and its ultimate purpose. Though these two aspects may be distinguished conceptually, in the lived experience of our community they are one. The natural outgrowth of this mission is a collegiate culture characterized by integral formation for human flourishing oriented to vocation through the free giving of self: “Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself” (Gaudium et Spes § 24).
This “discovery of [one’s] true self” finds one of its most ancient imperative expressions in the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself, ” a Delphic maxim inscribed in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. This call to self knowledge echoes and is transfigured within the theological expression of Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 22, the passage of that document cited most frequently by Pope Saint John Paul II, one of our co-patrons:
“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.”
Thus, the quest for self-knowledge, a primary source of liberal education in its classical articulation, finds its expression in a key document of the Church’s most recent ecumenical council, a council that also gave birth to Magdalen College and its integrated mission.
Very often, those who are sympathetic to these purposes express doubts about their practicality in our current age. How will students who receive such an education–no doubt extraordinary in itself–find their way professionally in postgraduate life? Part of our answer is to be found in our Career Pathways Program. Through this program, one that takes place during the summer recess and evening seminars during the academic year, the college prepares students for internships and pre-professional programs, coaches them in developing their resumes and preparing for interviews, offers professional seminars in the skills needed to succeed professionally, and assists students in landing their first job after college. The college sees this as not only the right thing to do for our students and their families, but also as a logical extension of our mission: to launch faithful, well-formed students into our culture who will live their faith in the world as wise and generous citizens.
Within the pages of our website, you will find detailed descriptions of our great books curriculum, our majors, our Catholic collegiate culture, and what Saint John Paul II called the “perennial questions” that form the heart of our collegiate activities. In these pages you will find an integration of the very best of the “great books” tradition—its devotion to the reading and discussion of primary texts—with the strengths of Catholic humanistic studies.
The education we offer at the college is not for the faint of heart: the journey to freedom— intellectual and spiritual freedom—is an adventure. But no one at the college undertakes this journey alone. The students, the faculty, and the larger community of the college support one another within and outside the classroom as we seek to become fully human and fully free, thriving in the light of Truth. We hope you will consider what we offer and join us on the journey.
Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.
-Blessed John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University
To all of you I say: bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) by living the truth, which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy. With Saint Augustine, let us say: “we who speak and you who listen acknowledge ourselves as fellow disciples of a single teacher” (Sermons, 23:2).
-Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Catholic Educators (2008)
The study of philosophy does not mean to learn what others have thought but to learn what is the truth of things.
-St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentaria in Aristotelis De caelo et mundo
At Magdalen College, we seek to become wise by perfecting the intellect and imagination of each of our students, understanding that these perfections are essential for the integrated human person. To achieve the full flourishing of such a person, those charged with this primary education of our students—the end to which the institution is fundamentally ordered—work side-by-side with those at the college who invite our students to lives of sacramental discipleship. These goals constitute the college’s integrated mission: the full education of the complete person.
As part of this liberal education, we seek—affirming Pope Benedict’s observation that “first and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth”—to cultivate the conditions within the hearts and minds of our students for such an encounter.
At its core, liberal education at Magdalen College is animated by a classical understanding of human nature and the human telos, rooted in and shaped by ancient philosophy and the Catholic intellectual and spiritual traditions.
Thus, one of the most important and fundamental tasks of liberal education at Magdalen College is to assist our students in understanding our common human nature and its essential elements so that they can flourish in accord with the maxim of St. Ireneus of Lyons who observed that, “the glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.”
Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the statement that “All men by nature desire to know.” This claim that the desire for knowledge is natural finds confirmation by anyone who hears a child repeatedly ask the question “Why?”
But is there a natural mode of learning? Let us reflect further on the child who repeatedly asks “why?” This child is asking the questions of another person, suggesting that learning is fundamentally dialogical. Plato affirms this in his “Seventh Letter,” in which he suggests the importance of dialogue in friendship that strives toward the truth, a striving that ultimately takes the seekers beyond the “limits of human powers”:
“After much effort, as names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another, in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will, with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem, and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest limits of human powers.”
Given this natural orientation to dialogue and its classical affirmation by Plato, the community of Magdalen College aims to embody fundamentally a dialogical disposition, seeking not only “names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense” but also the “sudden flash” of noetic insight that is itself a gift.
At the college we engage in the close reading of primary texts—great books, poetry, plays, important essays and articles, Sacred Scripture, Church documents, as well as significant artistic and musical works—that are recognized as historically and philosophically important. Through the careful reading of these texts, we seek to answer perennial questions such as those outlined by Pope Saint John Paul II in Fides et ratio, including questions about human nature and the political order. In seeking wisdom about these matters, we enter the great conversation that has animated human inquiry for millennia.
Cultivating a sense of wonder in ourselves and in our students, we enter into a dialogue with the books we read and with each other (using a variety of pedagogical approaches), beginning with a careful consideration of common and inherited opinions, the lenses through which we understand our lives and through which we read the texts at hand. While acknowledging the value of the experience each participant brings to our inquiry, we recognize the objective nature of truth, and the opportunity a liberal education affords for the evaluation of the ways we see the world and live within it.
While pursuing the truth of things, we tether the texts we read within history, seeking to overcome any dichotomy between philosophy and history that would allow students to read works without an understanding of the historical context in which they were created and first received. While repudiating any form of historicism that would occlude our access to the transcendent, we recognize that the authors whose works we read inhabited a liminal state, reaching out toward universals while living within the flux of time. In seeking the wisdom that points toward the universal and absolute, we do not discount the value of the particular and the subjective.
Through these primary texts, we strive to clarify the universal principles and experiences that structure all of reality—seeking out “being” within the realm of “becoming”—recognizing that nature and culture reveal their secrets only to those who are willing to discipline themselves for the journey toward truth and who make wisdom their highest aim.
We read closely both the Book of Nature and the Book of Revelation, not in opposition to one another but as complementary sources of wisdom. We undertake a sustained philosophical inquiry using faith and reason (fides et ratio), what Pope Saint John Paul II called the “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” taking up and pursuing unrelentingly the perennial and sapiential questions such as “Who am I?,” “Is there a God?,” “Is there life after death?,” “How then shall we live?” and “What does it mean to be human?”
Observing the relationships that structure reality, the unity of truth, and the nature of things, we seek to build a foundation for the good life properly constituted by and ordered toward the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.