Association of Benedictine Colleges and University


Benedictines and Higher Education
American Style II

by Hilary Thimmesh OSB


Part I

In the following centuries monks were frequently students at the universities, sometimes at such Benedictine houses of study as Durham College at Oxford where one monk, Uthred of Bolden, became noted as a professor in the late 14th century. There continued to be learned Benedictines, particularly in historical subjects as with the Congregation of St. Maur. However, they did not constitute faculties. There was no Benedictine theological school in Europe until the Collegio Sant'Anselmo was founded in Rome in 1687. With such exceptions it is accurate to say that before the 19th century education under Benedictine auspices was limited to schools for boys whose teachers did not need to be scholars or learned authorities although some no doubt were but good pedagogues grounded in the liberal arts and patient with struggling learners. This tradition continues to the present day in Great Britain, on the continent, and in a number of Benedictine houses on this side of the Atlantic.

The Benedictine colleges and seminaries that began to appear in the United States in the 19th century thus had an ancient tradition of monastic learning and pedagogy to draw on but not a university tradition. At first they hardly needed it. The first Benedictines came to America in the 1840's. True to ancient practice they avoided the cities and settled in rural locations where they could be essentially self-sustaining while ministering to their fellow Catholics and undertaking missions to Native Americans and others in spiritual need. To conduct schools for the local children and their own candidates seemed as natural as to plant crops, bake bread, and keep a dairy herd. That the monks would prepare their own candidates for ordination seems to have been taken for granted in the pioneer communities. At the start the lines between high school and college, college and seminary were somewhat blurred, as was the case, incidentally, with some of the Jesuit schools founded in that era in response to the needs of a rapidly growing Catholic population. (Between 1818 and 1855 the Jesuits founded nine colleges and universities that continue in existence. Twelve more were founded before 1900, an astonishing accomplishment.)

Monasteries founded after the Civil War took a more structured approach to their schools from the start. Belmont Abbey College, founded in 1878, is a good example. It was not of course a four-year college to begin with, but in those halcyon days before accreditation and state university systems a college was what its founders claimed it to be. The college curriculum was still predominantly literary and historical, even at the leading secular universities. The German model of graduate research and scholarship was an adornment welcomed in college professors but not yet expected of them, monastic or lay. And of course lay professors were rare at Benedictine schools. Enrollments were small and the life of the students took place within the monastic precincts. Religious and moral formation thus went hand in hand with academic instruction in a style of holistic education generally continuous, both in its orientation to the humanities and its setting within the monastic community, with the teaching that had been congenial to the monastic vocation since the time of Charlemagne.

We can say, then, that although Benedictines had not historically conducted education at the university level, the colleges and seminaries that they founded in America in the 19th century drew on along tradition of Benedictine schooling and preserved its broad features. These were that it was centered in the humanities, that it was integrated with the work and prayer of the monastic community, and that much of its effect resulted from the personal influence of the members of the monastic community who shared the life of the students as their teachers, mentors, and as necessary disciplinarians.

This characteristic synthesis of academic schooling and shared experience has often been praised as an educational model, sometimes for reasons that perhaps did not occur to those who were involved in it. I remember being surprised that Alfred North Whitehead saw St. Benedict as the patron of technical education. This sounded all wrong until I realized that he was comparing Benedict's monastery with Plato's academy to symbolize the two different attitudes toward the aims of education: Plato's exclusively intellectual and unconcerned with the actual practice of the arts and crafts, the work of slaves; Benedict's intellectual but also practical, prizing the artisan's skills and the dignity of labor. Using technical in its primary sense, Whitehead's appraisal is valid enough and particularly apt as a way to distinguish not so much the curriculum as the context of historic Benedictine education in communities where the labor of minds and hands was equally respected.

Last, we now come to interesting questions about how Benedictine education is faring today after a century of great change in American higher education, Is it still recognizable in its broad features? Does it enjoy some advantages in addressing the needs of contemporary society? What challenges do the sponsoring monastic communities face? I can only offer my own thoughts on such questions and hope that they will prompt a productive response.

To begin with, the curriculum no longer consists primarily of literary and historical subjects. Even our relatively small colleges offer many hundreds of courses. Traces of the old monastic humanism can be found among them but the sciences and career-oriented disciplines business, computer science, education, social work, pre-professional programs of many sorts dominate the scene. Theology and philosophy have hung on as general requirements by the skin of their teeth, sometimes under other headings, in a sort of last homage to the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum. We are all the heirs of Harvard President Charles Elliot's elective system, inaugurated in 1883, which was meant to allow students to choose courses according to their career plans rather than to hand on a common culture.

From one perspective the resulting curriculum is pervasively secular. Can it nonetheless be given a Benedictine imprint? I think so if paradoxically we can go back far enough to be thoroughly contemporary: if we bear in mind that medieval monastic schooling embodied an idea of Christian education which built on secular learning and antedated both scholasticism and the 16th century divisions of Christianity; that, as Whitehead observed, the monastic tradition positively embraces the world of work; that the much vaunted Benedictine esthetic was not cultivated for its own sake but resulted from the interplay of forces organic to monasticism: order, simplicity, stewardship, inner joy, delight in creation. All of these suggest the possibility of a new curricular synthesis under Benedictine aegis, one that draws on influences stro ngly at work in contemporary monasticism revitalized understanding of Sacred Scripture and liturgy, ecumenism, peace and justice concerns, care for the environment, community values and takes as its organizing principle a Christian humanism based in theology and ordered toward human cooperation in shaping the world for good. In short, I suggest that we need not be nostalgic for medieval monastic culture but can learn from it to incorporate secular learning into a Christian vision of society worthy of Benedictine tradition.

Another broad characteristic of Benedictine education was traditionally the integration of the school into the life of the monastic community. My hunch is that the monastic communal influence is still considerable in Benedictine education but that it works differently than it used to and needs to be understood in different terms. The farms are gone, in many cases. The workshops where they remain are largely staffed by lay employees. Schedules no longer revolve around the daily horarium of the monastic community. The non-academic aspects of monastery life are not much seen or understood by students or lay members of the academic community. The rhythm of the monastic life its stability, its respect for young and old, its simplicity and ordinariness may all seem rather remote and irrelevant to the business life of the campus.

In other words, integration of monastic and academic life today must take place on a different plane than in the past. Then physical proximity and personal relationships could be relied on to instill habits of piety, a work ethic, and other ethical and moral values by a kind of osmosis. Today the meaning and the values of the Benedictine way of life need to be interpreted to students and to new lay members of our faculties and staffs. To the degree that we Benedictines are successful in doing this and reinforcing the interpretation by our own lived example we can continue to bring to education a communal dimension characteristically if never exclusively Benedictine.

Achievement of this effect is admittedly rendered more difficult by the reduced role of Benedictines in our colleges and to some extent in our schools of theology. This poses a challenge to the sponsoring communities to understand anew why they are involved in higher education and how their commitment to schools they founded in simpler times must change to meet new conditions. Considerations of governance, of allocation of resources, of the education and training of their members are all implied.

Here it may be helpful to recur to first principles, to recall Leclercq's observations about the disinterestedness of the Rule, Southern's acute judgment about the strain of accommodating monastic observance to the tensions of intellectual struggle, Ignatius' adaptation of religious life to the demands of university teaching and scholarship. The challenge, I should think, is not to settle for an attenuated monastic observance or a nominal scholarship, but to keep both our monastic and our academic standards high enough to represent the best tradition of Benedictine learning. We must, too, make allies of our lay colleagues, drawing them into genuine collegiality in a shared understanding of the principles that animate the Rule of Benedict and the history of the Order so that they become, in a sense, Benedictine affiliates.

This should not be regarded as a second-best solution. The quality of disinterestedness in the Rule which Leclercq noted in regard to external missions also makes it the least sectarian of religious documents. In its moral and social principles it is open to appropriation by anyone who prizes an ordered and ethical way of life. In this respect, it is admirably suited to serve as the founding document for education in a pluralistic society. Given the diversity of our enrollment today Catholic and non-Catholic, multiracial and multicultural, adolescent and adult and the diversity of the curriculum with its exacting professional requirements in many areas, one has only to ask the question whether it would be desirable to have an all-Benedictine faculty and staff to know the answer. Even in our schools of theology with their mixed enrollments of clerical and lay students, men and women, and all the more so in our colleges it is important to reflect a variety of experience and intellectual positions. One example by no means the only one the desirability of having good numbers of both men and women on the faculty, makes the point.

The note on which I end is that the monastic communities which sponsor higher education need to understand how they can best continue to shape the institutions they founded. The Jesuit provincials in America addressed this question in regard to Jesuit education nearly twenty years ago. In a broad national consultation they surveyed their resources, made organizational adaptations, noted the values of the Society particularly as these concern justice and peace, and charged each of the Jesuit institutions to draw up its own rationale. More recently the International Commission of the Apostolate of Jesuit Education has published Go Forth and Teach: The Characteristics of Jesuit Education. In a prefatory letter, Father Kolvenbach, the Superior General, notes that this document is not intended to be new Ratio Studiorum but like it can give us a common vision and a common sense of purpose. Most recently, the twenty-eight Jesuit colleges and universities have formed the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education to engage in a continuing conversation about their mission as Jesuit and Catholic institutions and to publish Conversations, a semi-annual review on the same topic.

We Benedictines engaged in higher education would, I believe, gain from a review of our own history as educators and the resources implicit in our tradition. Esteem for learning, a communal way of life which integrates intellectual work with practical skills, the commitment of individual Benedictines as teachers and scholars while they continue to be observant religious: these are the elements of Benedictine education which cannot be overrated and without which questions about administrative control and governance ring hollow. I hope that my greatly simplified historical survey suggests that Benedictines successfully undertook higher education American style in the 19th century, and that my observations about adapting to a new age point the way toward an even more vital Benedictine contribution to higher education in this country in the future.


Part I * Response by Anselm K. Min

The Joy of Learning and the Desire for God: Studies in honor of Dom Jean Leclercq (Cistercian Studies, Nr. 160, 1996).

Rev. Hilary Thimmesh OSB PhD
Saint John's University


The above address was presented at Belmont Abbey College's "Founder's Day Symposium," 22 April 1992.


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