St. Justin Martyr


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 over 15 years since my own 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. Some 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. Two introductory talks, followed by conversations on Homer, Plato, Herodotus, Caesar, Cicero, Lucretius, Virgil, the Bible, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, were retrievable in their integrity. For Aeschylus and Thucydides, only one tape for each was recovered.

Also provided is a link to Quinn’s only published book, a treasure chest on the topic of wonder and the fruit of decades of research. It gives us a sort of reference work on this leitmotif of the Integrated Humanities Program they taught. Also, 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’s The Great Conversation. The penultimate chapter of the book (ch. 9) bore the title “East and West.” Here the author 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 of our more familiar Western classics. One would need to include such works as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, 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, over 70 years have passed since that text was written and the intellectual and spiritual encounters between East and West have grown apace. The amount of solid scholarship on the matter is now far beyond what it was in middle of the last century. 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, New Mexico, campus.

My own contact with John Senior began in 1972 as a young student, until – on one of my yearly visits to the States, in 1999 – I imparted my priestly blessing for the last time at his country home, just months before his death. My particular relationship with him has always stood against the backdrop of this very question of the contrast between West and East. When I was his student, some of the first books he ever lent me were by Coomaraswamy, and our correspondence over nearly 25 years is full of explorations of the issues involved.

Later on, after completing my education in philosophy and theology, Senior encouraged me to continue exploring that “bridge” of which Hutchins spoke. Just a couple of years before his passing, he began donating his books to the KU library. He phoned me – again, during one of my annual visits to Kansas – and asked if I could stop by so he could entrust me with four boxes of his old books. They were clearly from his personal library and all on Eastern thought, heavily underlined and annotated by Senior himself. 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, in the famous image of St. Augustine, there are still payloads of “Egyptian gold” to be welcomed into the treasury of our still growing canon of Great Books of the World.

I will allow myself to cross-reference these remarks to one of my own books. It is an anthology of the writings of a student of Thomas Aquinas who was able indeed to build a bridge to the East. (Another, by the way, would be Richard De Smet.) Under the “Writings” menu above, you will find a page dedicated to Bernard Kelly, with a link to my recent publication. 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) which are more or less 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! Other related topics can be accessed under the “Links” menu above.

Angelicum Academy (Great Books program)

Albertus Magnus Institute 

Catholic Productions (Scripture resources)

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

Institute of Catholic Culture

Lyceum Institute (philosophy)  *recommended!*


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.

Note: The two introductory tapes are from two different introductions, but as such are complementary. The first is the initial presentation of the program in the series made for my students in the late 1980s. The second is a similar presentation, but made before an audience of parents and prospective students; it began to circulate as a kind of advertisement for the program (sometime in the late 70s). At that time, the IHP was still functioning (though under duress). The audio quality of the latter was inferior to the rest of the tapes, but after some enhancement is still intelligible.