Book Review: John Senior and the Restoration of Realism

By Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick
The Sooner Catholic
How do we educate our children to delight in existence, distinguish truth from error, communicate effectively, develop their talents to serve the community and earn a living? How do we inspire them to cultivate virtue, savor beauty and serve God?
Professor John Senior spent his professional life teaching students how to know the good, the true and the beautiful, and writing about how to educate the whole person.

One of these students, Father Francis Bethel, O.S.B., introduces the unfamiliar reader to this inspiring man and his educational philosophy. His book, “John Senior and the Restoration of Realism,” follows Senior from boyhood through his conversion and maturation as a teacher, taking care to explain his corresponding intellectual development. The chapters on his proposed method for education are thorough, complete with extensive quotations from Senior’s own work.

Senior, a native of Long Island, N.Y., grew up singing around the piano and reading good books, but without religious instruction. His love for books continued through his schooling, where he studied under a pioneer of the Great Books movement, Mark Van Doren. Through his study of literature and art, he searched for meaning in life, dabbling in Buddhism and the Symbolists. This philosophy is that “the universe is one, single, eternal, ineffable substance.” In other words, there is no distinction between different people, or people and God, different religions or even truth and error.
Senior’s conversion began with reading the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas and his common sense view of distinction and truth. Senior came to see that the Eastern philosophies aimed at getting rid of the division between something that is and something that is not, while Saint Thomas affirmed this difference. “Truth follows upon the existence of things,” as Senior wrote; all, contrary to the view of the Symbolists, is not one. Catholicism and Buddhism are not, at root, the same; Catholicism says that there is a person who will fulfill the deepest desires of our hearts, while Buddhism aids the practitioner in eradicating these desires.
Senior saw that the existence of the world pointed to the Creator, and through Saint Thomas, came to know him in the person of Christ. He and his family entered the Catholic Church.
His conversion affected his teaching. He saw that many of his students did not believe in truth, and, therefore, they were unable to distinguish between truth and error. Many of his colleagues affirmed this disbelief, teaching that truth is relative to each person and not determined by reality. Through his teaching college students, he saw that it was not always possible to correct an incomplete or bad education in the early years. Instead, as Bethel writes, “Senior’s writings as a whole conclude that disbelief in truth and first principles arose at least partly from the fact that students were disconnected from reality on the experiential level. The problem is not only that television, for example, stimulates sensuality and hedonism by its content. The precise point here is that its inherent artificiality weakens our grasp on reality.”
Consequently, Senior saw everyday contact with real materials and natural things as vital to education. “The child needs to discover reality in its manifold and harmonious riches, to be introduced to it through delight,” Senior wrote. The chapters on elementary education outline Senior’s ideas for how to do this at different ages as well as corresponding development in language, literature and music.
Because many of his students at the University of Kansas were deficient in these areas, Senior and his colleagues integrated into the curriculum waltz lessons, star gazing and contact with farmland. Through the Great Books and contact with reality, Senior’s students experienced wonder at the world God made. They were inspired to seek truth. Though Senior did not directly teach the faith, more than 200 of his students entered the Catholic Church. A number of his students, including Archbishop Coakley and the book’s author, became priests or entered religious life.
This is a book for parents, teachers and educators of all types. Though the more philosophical chapters may prove difficult for those without philosophical training, the book’s insights are important enough for anyone invested in the education of the next generation.