Catholic universities are few and far between in Britain, and at the moment the country lacks an independent Catholic liberal arts college offering degree courses. But Benedictus aims to change that by becoming the first such university in the UK rooted in classical and Catholic intellectual tradition.
To find out more, ZENIT spoke with Dr. Clare Hornsby, founding trustee and director of the new Catholic university. Currently seeking accreditation and funding, she explains how unique and needed Benedictus is, and why she believes the Catholic heart of the new university will “give it the edge”.
ZENIT: What is Benedictus?
Hornsby: Benedictus is the name of an independent college dedicated to the teaching of the liberal arts, based in London. It has been in existence for 4 years and is welcoming its first students to a summer school this August while we work on the final stages of gaining official accreditation for our degree course. We believe that the richness and breadth of a liberal arts education, which offers an all-round preparation for intelligent engagement with every subject, is a solid foundation for future achievement in any career.
The concept of Benedictus is to create the first Catholic liberal arts college in the UK – offering a radically new option for undergraduate education. The liberal arts explore the intrinsic connections between areas of study rather than restricting learning through specialisation. We began the project by setting out our philosophy of education which is that knowledge exists for the sake of itself and that education should be more than the sharing of information; it should be inspired by the search for truth and aim at the attainment of wisdom.
Our teaching style will be unique at university level in the UK – every student at Benedictus will study the same course, reading and discussing the same material together as part of a unique community of learning. Students will learn directly from the original texts and works of art and music. This is inspired by the Great Books tradition well known in colleges in the United States.
The Benedictus identity has been formed by recognising that the intellectual culture of Christian Europe is best studied hand in hand with its artistic culture, since the human spirit has always expressed its search for truth through the fine arts and literature as well as through the study of philosophy and theology. No other liberal arts course places such emphasis on this bond. As Pope Francis said of art, it “bears witness to the spiritual aspirations of humanity, the sublime mysteries of the Christian faith, and the quest of that supreme beauty which has its source and fulfillment in God.”
ZENIT: Why is it needed?
Hornsby: Because there is nothing like it here and the need for true liberal education is becoming more and more urgent! In the UK, the sector is dominated by universities that receive all or most of their funding from the government. There are very few independent colleges – but this is changing; there is now an opportunity for new initiatives such as ours that can offer an alternative to the usual single subject degree courses. Also, the Catholic heart of Benedictus gives it the edge – those who study with us will be part of the continuing conversation of Western civilisation as our course is rooted in the classical and Catholic intellectual tradition and our principles centre on education as the development of the whole person, not just the imparting of information.
ZENIT: Who’s behind it?
Benedictus was founded in 2010, as a result of discussions and conversations between academics based in London. The founders of the project were inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a “New Evangelisation” in Europe through education and his visit to Britain for the beatification of the great 19th century intellectual Cardinal John Henry Newman whose series of essays “An Idea of a University” still remain enormously influential to educators.
The particular identity of Benedictus is a reflection of the differing academic backgrounds and approaches of the founders. My work is in the field of art and cultural history and I’m committed to the creation of a truly meaningful interdisciplinarity in education, where the central role of Christianity is given its rightful place as the unifying factor in the development of European civilisation. My colleague Franz Forrester studied the liberal arts at Thomas Aquinas College in California, one of the most academically successful liberal arts schools in the US, which exposed him to the essential tools of learning necessary to critical thinking and introduced him to the riches of the perennial philosophy beginning with the ancient Greeks and enhanced by the great Christian philosopher-theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas.
Since its foundation, many leading academics have joined Benedictus as advisors and some have worked very closely together to create the integrated curriculum. They include professors from Oxford and Cambridge and other major UK universities and their fields of study encompass all the disciplines that will be taught at Benedictus.
ZENIT: What challenges are you facing in getting it off the ground?
Hornsby: The challenges are enormous. Getting the principles right at the start was an essential foundation that took a lot of time and discussion. Creating networks and raising awareness of our initiative across the UK is an ongoing challenge. As an independent college and operating as a non-profit organization we rely on the generosity of donors and we have been lucky so far – raising enough money to get to where we are now with our curriculum drafted. We are fortunate to be able to launch our first taught course – entitled “Foundational Aspects of European Culture” – as a Summer School for 18-25 year olds to be held in mid-August in London. This is the first liberal arts summer school in the UK and the preparation for this is another exciting challenge for us.
We have also launched the Benedictus Research Forum, a conference in Florence to be held in early July, a gathering of internationally distinguished scholars led by Professor John Haldane, Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture, and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Thomas Aquinas. The theme of the conference is “Western civilisation, its foundations, embodiment and transmissions”. We hope that both these initiatives will bear fruit – with more people aware of our project we can make headway towards raising the funds needed to launch our Foundation and BA degree programmes with a dedicated campus in London.
ZENIT: What is your overall vision for the university in the future? Where would you like it to be in 10-15 years’ time?
Hornsby: We envisage Benedictus in the future as a university college with around 300-400 students, its own home in central London and a core academic staff, augmented by visiting scholars from other institutions. Benedictus was founded in the hope that it could be a small but significant presence in the UK university world and in the wider society of our country, a witness to the principle that all study has an intrinsic relationship to what we can know about ourselves, the world and about God.
On the NET: Benedictus.org.uk