It has been somewhat provocatively billed elsewhere in the media as “the first proper Catholic university in Britain since the Reformation”.
But although this new liberal arts college “faithful to the Catholic intellectual tradition” is not actually intent on immediate university status – and will start with just a handful of students – it still hopes to provide an alternative to what its founder and director calls the current “impoverished” offer in humanities teaching.
“The whole idea about Benedictus,” says Clare Hornsby, “is to embrace the idea of knowledge being one whole, and that everything has a part within it. So we present it as a unified experience, which is essentially how civilisation has been built over the years. The modern fragmentation into disciplines has had a bad effect on higher education.”
The not-for-profit institution, likely to be called the Benedictus College of the Liberal Arts, will take up to 18 students paying £12,000 a year for the single syllabus on offer, which will provide “an initiation into the great conversation of Western civilisation” through philosophy and theology, history, science, basic Latin and Italian, literature, music and the visual arts. Notable selling points will be at least 20 contact hours per week (with corresponding demands on students for written work and presentations) and a whole term spent at the British Institute of Florence. An accreditation agreement with an established British university is expected to be announced shortly.
About half the time will be spent outside the classroom, “studying from the object”, Dr Hornsby said, since “cultural expressions in architecture, sculpture and painting are ‘texts’, and we can learn as much from them as from books, particularly in Western art, which has been so much marked by religion. Looking at art is a good way of introducing ideas to young people who might be daunted by a big and complex text.”
Asked about Benedictus’ Catholic ethos, Dr Hornsby stressed that they are not out to convert people and that there will be no banned texts, since many anti-religious thinkers are “just as much part of the Western project as Aquinas and Augustine”. Yet they are also “committed to the idea of a continuing conversation of intellectual life and culture from the time of the ancient Greeks. The men and women within the church who carried that forward, both in artistic and in intellectual, theological ways, are part of that conversation.”
What does not make sense, she argued, was virtually to ignore medieval philosophy – something she claims is common in many philosophy courses – just “because it was written by churchmen”.
More generally, Dr Hornsby stated that education should be about “making the self a better and more integrated person”, instead of “an agglomeration of different pieces” that can tack on skills such as using Excel. She also saw the great works of art of the past as “potent and potentially life-changing objects. Releasing that potential by studying in a particular way is one of our aims.”
Much of this is undeniably traditionalist, but would Dr Hornsby concede that it is also reactionary, embattled against most trends in contemporary education?
Not reactionary, she replied, but probably “countercultural”, since she feels “the current offer is impoverished…The poor humanities are all lumped together and suffering from underfunding, under-motivation and under-resourced students. Something like Benedictus is essential to beefing them up again.”