Liberal Arts: 1937 to Today

by Jamey Norton, Ph.D., professor of English and dean of the School of Liberal Arts | Feb 11, 2013

When classes opened on September 15, 1937, Marian College officially launched its educational mission for women. The mission provided “intellectual, physical, social, and religious” learning. It promoted the advancement of “high scholarship” and the development of the “whole personality” for “fullness of life” in the Catholic, Franciscan tradition. Seventy-five years later, Marian University abides in that noble liberal arts heritage.

In the fall of 1937, as Europe braced for a catastrophic world war, students gathered for Father Romuald Mollaun’s lectures in Philosophy 201, General Ethics, held in Allison Mansion, the university’s only building. Demerits for tardiness, a school policy, meant no student dare be late. Who would want to?  This was, after all, the first of a two-semester premiere course on general and special ethics taught by an outstanding thinker who compiled the class’s textbook,
The Science of Right Living.

One imagines Father Romuald, after prayerful tidings, coaxing student responses with prompts like, “Explain how theoretical ethics rests on natural law.” His words awaken idle wonder to action, and the great teaching and learning begins. Nor has it ever ceased. His legacy of moral education lives today in our liberal arts curriculum, our Center for Organizational Ethics, and our Franciscan values, the mainstay of our intellectual and professional integrity. 

The Franciscan liberal arts tradition advances higher learning through innovative scholarship and great books. By 1939, the Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenburg, Indiana had created the Allison Mansion’s library, a “spacious scientifically lighted reading room,” relief from studying by candle, and had amassed 9,625 volumes, ranging from history and literature to education, philosophy, religion, art, music, science, and social sciences.

The library holdings accorded precisely with course offerings in the 1937-38 catalogue. Circulation records show that students checked out an average of 693 books per month, that’s an impressive stack of reading relative to the modest student enrollment of the time. The founding mission, we recall, supported “high scholarship,” so the library purchased subscriptions to 53 scholarly periodicals covering current research in the humanities and sciences. 

In 1959, faculty moved a step further by establishing an Honors Program for the “encouragement of independent study and cultural advancement” in research, the success of which is evident in decades of original honors theses, inventoried in Marian University’s archives, on topics from iodine in rats’ thyroids to Iranian oil. Our annual Honors Colloquium sponsoring honors undergraduate research and the
Undergraduate Journal for History and Social Sciences are enduring testimonies to the kind of scholastic achievement our Franciscan forbearers held in high esteem.

In 1937, Marian University anchored Franciscan liberal learning in the “great books” tradition, a liberal arts legacy reaching back to the founding of the great English and European universities in the late Middle Ages. Great books challenge and shape our world views, a philosophy Marian University’s founding faculty put into practice to help students develop strong intellectual, moral, and spiritual outlooks on life, the “whole personality.”

Amidst the many great books taught in the 1937 curriculum, we find Aristotle’s
Ethics, John Locke’s On Human Understanding, Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University, Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust, Gottfried Leibniz’s Metaphysics, and Virgil’s Aenei.

Today’s students
remain committed to that legacy not only through our Great Books Colloquia, which enrolls to capacity every semester, but through the humanities program, founded in the 1960s, in which students explore the greatest of literature, art, and music that western culture has to offer.     

The Learning and Counseling Center, Catholic studies, first year experience, study abroad program, model united nations, marching band, mock trial, and the speech and ethics bowl teams, and so many more, have been created and developed by liberal arts faculty over the years to exemplify the Franciscan intellectual tradition of educating students to live in the “fullness of life.”

How the Sisters of St. Francis ever overcame so many seemingly insurmountable obstacles in founding this liberal arts university stuns me. As President Elsener often reminds us, the amazing Marian University mission we live today was once scoffed at by naysayers as a “preposterous” idea. The word “preposterous” from Latin literally means “backwards.”

So with courage, God, and a mighty vision the Sisters of St. Francis took the preposterous path of walking backwards against all odds right into the forefront of modern Catholic higher education.

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