Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Big News in Catholic Education

The College of St. Mary Magdalen in Warner, NH announced the incorporation of the Erasmus Institute, also of New Hampshire, into the college.  The delicious irony here is that the Erasmus Institute's co-founder, Dr. Peter Sampo, also co-founded Magdalen College in 1973.  He was its inaugural President serving in that capacity from 1974 to 1978.  Thus, Monday's announcement signals a homecoming of sorts for Dr. Sampo (below on left), and a rededication of the college to it's founding principles.  It also allows the college to offer two tracks of liberal education: a traditional four year great books program on the one hand, and a more focused program in philosophy, literature or politics for upperclassmen on the other.  The college will also now provide the possibility of studying in Rome for a semester.  Sign Noman up--or, more likely, the Nochildren!

Dr. Sampo left Magdalen and founded a rival college in New Hampshire, the Thomas More Institute, in 1978.  Apparently he and Magdalen co-founder John Meehan held different and irreconcilable views of Catholic higher education.  Nowife is a graduate of Thomas More (now The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts) as are a number of Noman's in-laws.  So, most of what Noman knows about the Meehan-dominated Magdalen is hopelessly one-sided and contentious.  Magdalen developed a reputation for being a Catholic Moony sort of place where the accent was laid on teaching students to fold their clothes and order their books properly, and on counseling full-bodied girls to hide their figures, rather than on leading students to develop a life of the mind within the context of a Christian-friendly metaphysic.  Noman's sense of Magdalen's dispensation was that of a deformed Catholic morality that futilely attempted to instill virtue by eliminating personal freedom--rather than by drawing and gently instructing it--in order to smother every predilection before it broke out into sin.

Dr. Sampo (and Dr. Mary Mumbach) had a different view.  Noman remembers being stunned when Nowife told him she had been assigned 80 pages of the "City of God" for homework on her first day of college.   Augustine's reflections on time and eternity in the second part of the "Confessions" gave Noman the biggest headache of his non-life in his thirties.  80 pages of Augustine, overnight, for a freshman seemed incomprehensible!  Yet, that was the program.  If anything, Thomas More (or TMI) was going to take the life of the mind seriously.  The faith was important, too.  But, its practice was not forced on people.  The college was consequently rewarded with a number of non-Catholic students, many of whom converted due to their experience there.

Both schools produced their share of good, faithful Catholic graduates that became solid citizens and professionals, who formed strong marriages and families.  Both produced grumblers, probalby Magdalen more than Thomas More.  (Nowife says many more; not even close.) Each found its donors, though Magdalen encountered greater fortune in that regard.  It was able to erect a magnificent campus located on 135 acres of lush New Hampshire splendor at the foot of Mt. Kearsage. Its Meehan-era experience seems to be the reverse of most start-up colleges, which begin with ideas and faculty and only much later develop the infrastructure necessary to carry out its expanded activities.  The school has never been widely attended; but neither has Thomas More for that matter.

Something untoward happened at Thomas More after Dr. Sampo retired.  His hand-picked successors took the college in a different direction by reducing the curriculum's emphasis on secular landmarks in the western tradition, and increasing exposure to explicitly Christian authors.  There's a niche for that in Catholic education.  But, it wasn't the one carved out by Dr's Sampo and Mumbach.  The new administration indebted the college beyond its means to repay; a generous donor eventually bailed them out.  Dr. Mumbach who differed with the new regime was unceremoniously relieved of her duties.  All that is Thomas More's story, however.  That school is presently operating under new and apparently capable management.  For these purposes, this history's importance is simply to set the table for the co-founding by Drs. Sampo and Mumbach of yet another Catholic liberal arts college in New Hampshire, the Erasmaus Institute.  (Noman's remaining collegiate inlaws, including two God sons, transferred from Thomas More to Erasmus.)  A quote from its web page explains its view of Catholic education.
We need the radical thinking that formed Dante and Aquinas, both of whom helped the church weather the crisis of their times. By radical I mean getting to the root of things—the significance of the Incarnation, the basis and need for community, the meaning of suffering, death and resurrection, the historical consciousness—all those important matters that we talk about here at the Erasmus Institute of Liberal Arts.— Dr. Peter Sampo, Co-founder  
Meanwhile, in Warner, NH, Magdalen was engaged in a process of self-examination with soul-searching exactitude.  The school broached merger discussions with Thomas More, which ultimately fell apart on two separate occasions.  This experience, however, provoked a reformulation of the curriculum along a great books line, and was sufficient to encourage those desiring change to press for meaningful reform.  In the end, the reform movement gave birth to a re-founding and new leadership.  Dr. George Harne--a Princeton Ph.D and convert to the faith with a scholar's bent, a visionary's purpose, and an administrator's spine--was installed earlier this year as Magdalen's fourth President.  Undaunted by the disappointment of talks with Thomas More, he initiated discussions with Dr. Sampo to merge their respective institutions.  With the help of the heavenly host--special mention goes to St. Joseph, St. Josemaria and St. Mary Magdalen, naturally--those talks reached fruition and yielded the accord announced on Monday.

In business, this type of match made in heaven is referred to as a no-brainer.  In the academic world, where complicated brains quite often yield hair-splitting, deal-breaking distinctions, nothing comes easily.  The respective boards are to be commended for affirming their Presidents' vision.  Each institution gained something it lacked, and needed.  Both are stronger together than apart.  Borrowing a phrase from the social sciences, the merger is Pareto optimal: everyone is better off with no-one being worse off.

Noman had the pleasure this summer of spending a few days at Magdalen's glorious campus, and of enjoying Dr. Harne's generous hospitality.  Altogether, Noman was impressed with nearly everything he saw and everyone he met there.  Changes afoot in Warner are not to everyone's liking, including a sizable number of alumni.  Nobody likes being told that they lived through a mistake, especially one out of which God brought much good.  Noman's guess is that critics will be mollified and eventually won over once they see that a dedication to greater freedom is not tantamount to a retreat from serious Catholicism.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  It takes freedom to overcome the influence of sin, and to turn one's life toward God.  Good habit, without choice, is merely behavior, not virtue.  The traditional means of prayer, sacraments and intellectual activity dedicated to God will still be there--in some respects more so--as will an emphasis on developing a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ.

In sum, it is Noman's great joy to report his opinion that the re-founded College of St. Mary Magdalen is a fine institution of higher learning and Catholic fidelity, poised to become an even finer one: where the life of the mind is nurtured and cultivated in a faith-filled environment free of intellectual molestation, but not questioning.  Besides dedicated professors steeped in learning and an appreciation for the western canon, the campus boasts a church-sized chapel with daily mass, dorms with the eucharist reserved (everyone of them), and beautiful grounds to nurture the soul.  You can't beat that.  Noman suspects that a number of families will agree.  It's URL is

In Noman's opinion, parents and students would be well advised to give this college a very close look and serious consideration.  Magdalen has taken stock of what was noble in its tradition, publicly repudiated all it thought misguided or unfortunate, and embarked on a very bright future with substantive input from its founding President.

St. Mary Magdalen, please bless your school, and No-son #1 who is attending there, quite unexpectedly, as a Freshman.  God works in strange ways.

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