“Magdalen is for those who have an inkling that the world is enchanted with beauty and meaning and want an education that will help them explore it at a deeper level.” So argue Prof. Anthony Esolen and Pres. Ryan Messmore in a recent interview with the Cardinal Newman Society.
When asked about the special value that Magdalen College provides students today, Prof. Esolen responded, “We are ‘building soil’ at Magdalen: making the cultural ground rich again. We honor and we study the great and good works from the past, not just as detached ‘great books’ to be read and put on a shelf somewhere. Rather, we engage them as embedded in a long history of thought and art and human institutions, as bearing the marks of the cultures that produced them, and that have contributed in their own ways, and in irreplaceable ways, to our civilization.” Dr. Messsmore added that “[W]e not only approach certain texts and authors with the respect they deserve, but we also do so in an incarnational way—meaning face-to-face, in-person, in the context of a faithful learning community. … In an impersonal world that stokes fear and divisiveness, Magdalen offers a different mode of living and learning. We prioritize small-group conversation; we take the sacraments seriously; we celebrate large feasts and holidays as well as small, campus-wide traditions; faculty and staff eat and work and worship along students. In so doing, we daily embody the sort of cultural richness that Dr. Esolen rightly notes is hard to find in our larger culture.”
The two Magdalen scholars also commented on what has gone wrong with liberal arts education in so many American institutions. In failing to defend any transcendent truth, most higher education institutions cut the liberal arts off at the knees. According to Esolen, the only place for the arts to go is cynicism or angry political action. Messmore added that many institutions also answer problematically the fundamental question of the liberal arts: What does it mean to be human? They therefore have trouble articulating what it is they are claiming to liberate. As Esolen notes, “To sum it up, I’d say that the American approach to the liberal arts is utilitarian at best and therefore servile, not free; and that otherwise it turns the liberal arts into political action, which is worse than servile. It is treacherous.”
In contrast, Magdalen helps students to live happy and productive lives by forming their souls and elevating their minds. The College also cultivates within students certain habits and a certain framework that catalyze true happiness. According to Esolen and Messmore, such habits include good communication, close reading, critical thinking, and faithful living. Messmore explains: “Our students have developed the habit of taking time for prayer and daily Mass; they have developed the habit of putting others first and serving a larger good; they have developed the habit of asking good questions and discerning what they hear in response. When they approach something new in life, they do so with wonder and curiosity, anticipating that it has a deeper purpose and meaning than what others might see at first glance. These formational habits and ways of viewing the world are perhaps the most crucial things an education can provide students.”
To learn about what Magdalen alumni do after graduation and what kind of student flourishes at the College, read the full interview at Cardinal Newman Society.