As Ancient as Plato

By Theodora Carlile

Integral Program Celebrates 50 Years of Enriching Saint Mary's Liberal Arts Tradition

Integral students and tutors sing at their Christmas party.

At Integral's Jubilee, I sat at a table with graduates and current students spanning 40 of the Program's 50 years. I was struck, as always when Program alums gather, by how that thing called Integral (or Integrated, as it was originally named) binds members together in a living way. Any two graduates from any vintage, meeting by accident or design, will surely acknowledge their shared identity with a knowing nod. Is this some secret society — a cult — as my students tell me it is suspected of being among some non-Integral Saint Mary's students? If not, what is the Integral Program? I should know. I've been on the faculty for more than two-thirds of those 50 years and am a graduate of Integral's twin — or perhaps, rather, its parent — the original at St. John's College, Annapolis. Yet I often stumble when trying to answer these questions.

Simply stated, the Integral Program is a four-year, cross-disciplinary liberal arts curriculum centered on seminar classes in the Great Books of the Western tradition. In language and mathematics tutorials and laboratory classes, students explore these and other primary works of literature, philosophy, mathematics and science at a more analytical pace.

However, that brief description fails to explain the knowing nod shared by alums from different decades. Perhaps, in true Integral fashion, we should return to the Program's origins.


In the beginning

Integral's origins are part of an oft-told tale, intertwined in the origins of the Collegiate Seminar and in Saint Mary's formation as one of the nation's Great Books colleges. Among others, Program founders James Hagerty and Brother Robert Smith were inspired by ideas coming out of the University of Chicago and St. John's during the mid-20th century, years marked by a national discussion on the values and goals of undergraduate education. The ideas were revolutionary, yet also hark back to a concept of education as ancient as Plato. For decades, the trend in U.S. higher education had veered toward specialization, even at the undergraduate level. Increasingly, especially in public and secular institutions, professors taught academic disciplines via authoritative lectures and specialized textbooks. The new movement, favoring a more generalized liberal arts education, challenged the trend. Proponents argued that the goal of undergraduate education should be to teach the student rather than to teach the subject.

Faculty members at Saint Mary's — lay and Christian Brothers — participated in the national discussion with the added context of Catholic higher education. While many Catholic institutions espoused an authoritative, teacher-centered methodology, they offered a curriculum emphasizing "the classics" rather than specialized disciplines. Thus Saint Mary's faculty considered how a Catholic college could, while re-enforcing its commitment to the classics of the Western canon, take a radical step toward student-centered, discussion-based education. The results established the primacy of Seminar methodology, with its emphasis on both shared inquiry and the reading of core texts, in Saint Mary's educational mission. Thus was born the Collegiate Seminar — originally named the World Classics Program.

Integral founders took the idea further, developing it into a four-year curriculum which had not only eight Seminar semesters but also eight semesters of mathematics and language tutorials, and five laboratories in physical sciences and music.


The books

Saint Mary's, St. John's College in Annapolis and Santa Fe and Thomas Aquinas College in southern California are the only undergraduate programs in the United States which offer a comprehensive four-year Great Books curriculum with no textbooks, no authoritative commentary and no lectures. The curriculum — from mathematics to history, philosophy to natural science — centers on chronologically arranged classic texts.

One could ask why we read old books, ancient stories, discarded scientific theories, arcane philosophy and histories by Herodotus, who has been called both "the father of history" and "the father of lies"? Why do we choose to encounter the difficult, the peculiar and the outmoded when so much has been done to correct, to facilitate and to mediate such material for our own times? Why do students spend a full semester and more reading the Almagest of Ptolemy, which expounds an outmoded geocentric model of the cosmos? And why study only the Western tradition?

Each question could spark a day's conversation. I like to tell my students these books aren't called great for nothing. They are extraordinary in their beauty, power and wealth of content. To read them is to be shaped in their image, to at least begin to acquire the delicacy, precision and authority which they so often model. Moreover, they are our birthright. These are the best we human beings may lay claim to, the best of what we have inherited. Of course there are other world traditions whose classics are equally powerful and beautiful, and the Program considers a number of non-Western writings in seminars and language tutorials. But these only serve to stir, not to satisfy, the questions of students and faculty.

We call the books the real teachers of the Program. However, their central role in the Integral curriculum goes beyond the challenges, the powers, the knowledge and the arts they model as our birthright and legacy. Socrates in the Apology and other dialogues is at pains to deny his role as a teacher offering students the benefits of information, skills, power, beauty and caution. Perhaps he does so because he is claiming something even more profound as his own art. In the Republic, Socrates speaks of ideas which, rather than leaving us satisfied, stir our minds to question. These are notions that are complex and catapult the mind into higher regions of thought. Socrates dubs them "summoners" because they summon the mind and soul upward. So too do these books summon their readers higher by their very perplexities and paradoxes.


Discussion, translation, analysis, demonstration, observation, experiment

The books are the what of the Program, and the methods employed are the how of it. Seminar, the archetypical discussion class at the heart of Integral, is where the Socratic and Great Books methodology is most fully exercised. Inspired or piqued by the reading, students enter the discussion to express views, ask questions, critically analyze and attempt to interpret. They naturally gain a fuller understanding of the text and develop skill in the arts of reasoning, articulation, discernment, listening and questioning.

But the Program is far more than Seminar. The practices of translation, close analysis, demonstration of proofs, and observation of and experiment with "the book of nature" are equally essential. Four years of language and mathematics tutorial, two of laboratory science and one semester of music require students to develop in a more systematic fashion the skills they are honing in Seminar.


The community is the conversation

Tutors, as faculty members are called, seldom give tests and there are no midterms or finals. But students know they are always visible — to their fellow students, to the tutor and to themselves. There is nowhere to hide in an Integral classroom. Each conversation, each demonstration at the board, each opportunity to translate, to observe, to question or simply to listen tests the student more rigorously than any quiz. The issue is not so much the level of knowledge, though that should be a goal. It is rather what is required from every student: a solid preparation for the day's work, a willingness to join and a commitment to nurture the discussion. Every student is also a teacher because the conversation is the education.

Tutors are important participants in the conversation; they organize, guide and nudge students toward understanding the material and recognizing those paradoxical "summoners" at the heart of every great work. As the students are teachers, the teachers are also students. Faculty members have areas of expertise (and many teach in other College departments), but like the students they move from tutorial to tutorial, seminar to seminar. A classicist may teach laboratory science, a physicist could teach Greek.

This community of learners is never bounded by the time or space of a classroom. The books expand it into the wider discourse in which each person is engaged in the great conversation which reaches far into the past and projects to the future.


Integral and Saint Mary's

If these elements — the books, the method and the community — distinguish Integral as unique at Saint Mary's, what distinguishes the Program nationally? St. John's and Thomas Aquinas offer only a comprehensive Great Books curriculum, but Integral is one of many curricula at Saint Mary's. This is significant. Integral students and faculty gain immeasurably by living and learning at an institution with a mission and a community extending beyond, though inclusive of, Integral's mission. Integral students learn to see themselves as unique, yet sharing a relationship and role in the larger intellectual world. Moreover, they benefit academically and socially, sharing in January Terms, having the opportunity to earn a minor or a double major in another program or taking Integral's two-year option and going on to complete a more traditional major. In a like manner, Integral faculty gain by being part of a larger institution with a greater diversity of colleagues.

The College also gains by its embrace of Integral, which lends sustenance to the endeavors of the Collegiate Seminar that shape the College's "core-of-the-core curriculum." While all professors have expertise in their own fields, when teaching Seminar they may be just beginning or returning after many years to Plato, Aristophanes, Augustine or Galileo. Integral serves as a reservoir of thought and experience and a community of fellow learners a bit further down the road that others are about to take.



Integral is not for everyone. I and others may believe it offers the soundest education, but students should choose Integral because they are inspired to do so. The best program is only best when the student is eager to pursue it. But even for those who do espouse the Program an important question remains. Does the Integral Program prepare its graduates for their lives and careers after Saint Mary's?

There is hardly a path of life which one or more Integral graduates have not walked at some point. The greatest numbers go into law or teaching. But graduates have also gone on to become social workers and insurance adjustors, business executives and forest rangers. Graduate schools and employers recognize the virtues of the Program and welcome successful graduates.

But what in particular has Integral given its graduates?

While the Program does not train, it does prepare. There are no better skills for graduate school or the workplace than those learned and perfected in close reading, seminar discussion and tutorials. To be able to reason closely, think critically, listen well and articulate one's own points of view are skills honed in Integral. The broad liberal arts and Great Books foundation is excellent preparation for any graduate program, any specialization.


In conclusion

What then is that knowing nod exchanged by the members of this so-called cult; what is it that Integral graduates share? Perhaps nothing more than citizenship in a community of conversation. They have listened to and traded words with the likes of Aristotle, Emily Dickinson and Freud. They have been challenged and summoned by Marx and Hegel and Isaac Newton. Most importantly, they have looked at the works of these authors, not to dissect and label them as specimens of past thought, but rather to engage them as still living voices of an ongoing community of speech and inquiry.

Theodora Carlile is an Integral Program tutor and former director of Collegiate Seminar.