John Senior (1923-99)

Dennis Quinn (1928-2011)


These two Kansas University professors – initially together with a third colleague, Franklyn Nelick (1918-96) – were among a handful of American academics of the counter-cultural 60s who revolted against the debunking of classically and religiously rooted dimensions of our culture. They dared what they called an “experiment in tradition.” (More about this here.) The program they taught in the 1970s changed hundreds of lives, including my own. I dared to approach these two in the 1980s, after the program had been suppressed  – through “death by administration,” as Quinn put it – and see if we could rekindle the fire. They agreed to sit down and revisit their famous lectures, always together, without notes, but this time on tape. They were well recompensed for their work, but it was also clear that, despite their aversion to technology, they immensely enjoyed the opportunity to teach “at a distance.” The original tapes were intended for my students in Europe, so now distance in space is matched by distance in decades.

When these recordings were made, it had been almost 15 years since my participation in the original course. However, I found these later conversations especially engaging, with the two men more seasoned and sober than in the heyday of the program. Many of the tapes are now beyond repair, but a good number of them have been successfully digitized and (with help of my talented webmaster) enhanced in quality. Should more become available, they shall be posted here. An introductory talk, followed by conversations on Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Plato’s Republic, The Persian Wars of Herodotus and, finally, the Bible, were retrievable in their integrity. On Cicero only the third of three tapes was located. On Aeschylus and Thucydides also only one tape of each has survived; still, what is said is well worth a listen. My hopes to locate tapes on the other authors, highlighted below, may have proven misguided. 

Also provided are links to the professors’ main publications. Quinn’s book is a treasure chest on the topic of wonder, the fruit of decades of research. It gives us a sort of reference work on this leitmotif of their Integrated Humanities Program. I suspect most of Senior’s former students would agree that after listening to him teach “free-form,” his written works can hardly capture the magic. Nonetheless, the books do not disappoint, bringing together talks, essays and articles that are full of insights, often poetic in tone, although more polemical than the recorded conversations (I disagreed strongly with Senior about the 2nd Vatican Council, but this need not cloud the enjoyment of his wisdom in other matters).  

A fellow colleague of the program, now a Benedictine monk, has published a remarkable study of Senior’s life and work, also referenced below. 


A celebrated manifesto of the Great Books concept of education was published in 1952. It was Robert Maynard Hutchins’ The Great Conversation. The penultimate chapter of the book (c. 9) bore the title “East and West.” This chapter frankly acknowledged that as the 20th century entered its second half, growing understanding of the non-Western canon of great books would eventually require an adjustment, or at least an expansion of the list beyond our more familiar classics. One would soon need to include such works as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Analects of Confucius, and innumerable others. Hutchins explained the omission by referring to a great Hindu scholar: “If we are to believe such an eminent student of this matter as [Ananda K.] Coomaraswamy, the Western tradition contains within itself elements that permit bridging to the deepest elements of Eastern traditions. Presumably we can build these bridges best if we understand the nature of the ground where the bridge begins.”

Although he later admits that “the purposes that validate the publication of great books lead logically to Great Books of the World,” still, “at the moment we have all we can do to understand ourselves in order to be prepared for the forthcoming meetings between East and West…. The time for that will come when we have understood our own tradition well enough to understand another.” I quite agree with Hutchins. However, some 70 years have passed since that text was written and the encounters between East and West have grown apace. The amount of solid scholarship on the matter is now far beyond what it was in Hutchin’s day. However, to my knowledge, only St. John’s College of Maryland (a pioneer in Great Books education since the 1930s), now offers an “Eastern Classics” graduate program at their Santa Fe, NM, campus.

Since my first contact with John Senior in 1972, until – on one of my infrequent visits to the States – I was able to give him my final blessing at his country home just months before his death in 1999, my relationship to him has always stood against the backdrop of this very question. Some of the first books he lent me when I was his student were by Coomaraswamy.

Later on, after my education in philosophy and theology, Senior encouraged me to continue exploring that “bridge” of which Hutchins spoke. Some years before his passing, he phoned me – again, during one of my short, yearly visits to Kansas – and asked me to stop by so he could entrust me with four boxes of books on Eastern thought from his personal library. Other volumes he was bequeathing to the university, but these books he preferred not to put into the hands of young students. Perhaps a touch of paranoia, but I understood his concern (and was grateful to have the books!). 

I add this only to remind us of the inevitable incompleteness of the full IHP reading list, let alone the far larger bulk of the Great Books edition or the comparable Harvard Classics. One also needs to beware of the attitudes of some few proponents of our great Western Tradition, who tend to demonize all that lies beyond its pale. There is plenty of wickedness right here at home, and even in our own hearts. And there are still payloads of “Egyptian gold” to be welcomed into the light of what is best in our Western canon. 

I will allow myself to cross-reference these remarks to my own book on the writings of a student of Thomas Aquinas who was able indeed to build a bridge to the East. (Another would be Richard De Smet.) Under the “Works” menu above, you will find a page dedicated to Bernard Kelly and my recent anthology of his writings. I was sorry that Senior died before I was able to bring that book to print. I think it might have dotted some i’s and crossed some t’s in his own life story.

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I include here just a few of the educational resources available today (mostly online) in harmony with the ideals of the IHP. The history of philosophy link is to a still ongoing podcast that includes non-Western sources – highly recommended! (links to other topics are available under the “Links” menu above):

Angelicum Academy (Great Books program)

Albertus Magnus Institute  (despite the URL:, this is not the ‘Magnus Institute’ that comes up on google, but rather the Albertus Magnus Institute)

Catholic Productions (Scripture resources)

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

Institute of Catholic Culture

Lyceum Institute (philosophy)


Estes dois professores da Universidade de Kansas–no início com um terceiro colega, Franklyn Nelick (1918-96)–contaram-se entre um punhado de acadêmicos que se opuseram contra a supressão das dimensões clássicas e religiosas da nossa herança na academia contemporânea; eles propuseram um “experimento em tradição.” (Mais sobre isso aqui) O programa que ministraram nos anos 70 mudou a vida de centenas de estudantes (incluindo a minha). Me atrevi a pedir a eles, nos anos 80, a revisitarem suas aulas, após a supressão do programa (“morte por administração,” nas palavras de Quinn), e gravar algumas conversas. As fitas sofreram com o tempo, mas consegui digitalizar um bom número e (com ajuda do meu webmaster talentoso) aprimorar a qualidade sonora. Na medida em que fiquem disponíveis, vou postá-las aqui. Conversas sobre Homero, Platão, Heródoto e a Bíblia já estão prontas.