In this detailed and provocative study, Francis Bethel examines the life and thought of cultural critic, university professor, and sometime cowboy, John Senior (1923-1999). A privileged young man who studied the occult but became a leading proponent of traditional wisdom and arts—eventually converting to the Catholic Faith—Senior, unlike many of even his conservative peers, argued for something more than mere book learning. He championed the full “restoration of realism,” in which would be brought together the whole man—senses, imagination, emotion, will, intellect, and body.
In doing so, he brought down upon himself a firestorm of criticism. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, American higher education was in turmoil. Student unrest, philosophical skepticism, and the abandonment of the Western Canon were commonplace. Pedagogical revolutions ran parallel to social upheavals throughout Europe and the United States. Within a few decades, the New Left had transformed the fabled ivory towers of academia from places of leisurely learning into citadels of ideology and economic pragmatism. Yet, on the northern fringe of Osage Plains of Kansas, John Senior and two friends launched a quiet counterrevolution.
A former favored student in the 1940s of Columbia professor and literary critic Mark Van Doren, Senior would later author works of cultural criticism, including the controversial The Death of Christian Culture. Yet far greater was Senior’s influence as a teacher and mentor in the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas.
Before it was shut down by the University under a cloud of controversy, the Integrated Humanities Program had educated hundreds of students. Several bishops, an abbot, a prioress, directors of seminaries, lawyers, federal judges, and numerous teachers number among them. In addition, the founding of several counter-cultural colleges and schools over the past quarter-century owe their existence and derive much of the curriculum from the ideas of John Senior. He and his vision would even be the central inspiration behind Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s 2013 international bestseller, The Awakening of Miss Prim.
In this compelling book, Bethel uncovers the roots of Senior’s thought, traces its provocative application, and reveals the possibilities it offers today to an academy wounded by pervasive moral and intellectual relativism, the lass of public credibility, and spiraling costs.