Director of the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture and former Hillsdale College professor John Freeh is introducing the Great Books program to inspire the “pursuit of wisdom” at their center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus.
The Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, according to its website, is an educational program in the tradition of John Henry Newman, aimed at promoting liberal education and study of the humanities. Its partnership with the Newman Center – which originated in 1906 and provides Catholic sacraments, ministries, and programs for UNL students – is allowing the campus to bring a meaningful pursuit of wisdom in the humanities to its students through a program focused on the great books.
“The idea is that, increasingly, the great books are neglected, not studied,” Freeh said. “The wisdom contained in the great books is increasingly lost on undergraduates. This was a chance to introduce a great books program through the means of the Catholic Newman Center.”
One of its two courses offered in the 2019 fall semester is titled “Introduction to the Great Books I: Seekers, Sojourners, and Pilgrims,” and it focuses on answering questions about the meaning of existence, drawing from many authors that formed western heritage such as Homer, Dante, Augustine, and Shakespeare.
Freeh, who taught at Hillsdale College from 2004 to 2010, said the program is like Hillsdale in its value of tradition and the great books, and it differs only in that the courses are taught from a Catholic perspective.
“The emphasis on the cultivation on the student, their own person, their intellect, their emotion, their whole humanity you might say — I think Hillsdale is very good at that,” Freeh said, adding that the Center is also trying to recreate Hillsdale’s “great importance on the relationship between professor and student.”
UNL requires its students to take at least four units of English classes. Since the program is “relatively new,” students hear about it through the experience of others who have taken it, Freeh said. The Institute is currently in its third year at UNL, and it has involved as many as thirty students in a semester.
“It’s interesting that many of our students’ , their backgrounds are not in the humanities but in the sciences,” Freeh said. “So initially there’s a bit of a fear factor when you’re talking about texts by Dante or Shakespeare … because most of our students are from non-humanities backgrounds.”
“I think young people here are interested in seeking after the truth and seeking after answers to the great questions of life,” Freeh said.
Senior Bailey Topenir, a practicing Catholic, is pursuing a biochemistry and microbiology major and a minor in Spanish. She heard from two friends about the intellectual and spiritual focus of the courses and said she wanted to take classes that were centered around her faith. The decision to register, she said, was a “no-brainer.”
“I think the greatest benefit I received is the developed intellect to seek truth,” Topenir said in an email. “The hunger for truth helped me establish a bigger, better understanding of the human condition; I never thought I could learn such beautiful things that are also applicable to my science degrees.”
She said she sees the program becoming more popular in the future once people discover all that the Newman Institute of Catholic Thought and Culture offers.
“I seriously feel like the Newman Institute has helped me be a more understanding and kind person,” Topenir said, “and this spiritual and intellectual growth will be something I will carry with me as I prepare for my future career in medicine.”
Andrew Minarick, who graduated in Dec. 2018 and is Roman Catholic, majored in engineering and said he wanted to add something different to his calculus and statistics schedule.
“The greatest benefit I gained from these courses was an appreciation for the great works of literature,” Minarick said in an email. “Dr. Freeh has a unique gift in helping students dissect challenging materials while pushing them to gain authentic understanding and extract real insights. Growing in that ability allowed me to draw upon the wealth of wisdom passed down through literature over the centuries.”
Minarick added that the program is currently offered to college students, and it more recently has offered night classes to graduated adults, but he said he believes that making it accessible to a variety of people would be beneficial. On college campuses though, he said, it is especially important to have courses such as the ones the Institute offers.
“If anyone looks at the current climate on many college campuses, there is no doubt that reason, wisdom, and eternal truths are being aggressively ushered off campus,” Minarick said. “I think a large majority of students, like myself, want those things to be fully present in our education, and I think that organizations like the Newman Institute will only gain popularity as students get a taste of what a true education should look like.”