Transforming Culture, From Plato’s Academy to Atchison, Kansas

As Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, embarks on its effort to Transform Culture in America, it’s good to have a little background. Because, the truth is — universities have always transformed culture, even before the time of Christ.

Consider what Plato’s Academy, established in 380 B.C., did.

  • Socrates became known as the father of philosophy largely because his disciple, Plato, popularized his work initially through Plato’s Academy.
  • Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle was a father of political science, father physical science, father of literary criticism — an all-time great mind to whom we all owe a debt.
  • Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, who conquered the world — or a lot of it, anyway, including, significantly, Alexandria, of the great library.

Plato’s Academy existed for more than 900 years, and closed in 529 — the year St. Benedict arrived at the summit of Monte Cassino. As the light of ancient learning was being extinguished, the light of Christian learning in the West was being ignited. St. Benedict sparked a new revolution of learning.

The Benedictines’ influence on education was so great that to this day, we all dress up like Benedictines to receive our diplomas and degrees. Or, another way to state its important is this: Because of Benedictine education, Western Civilization exists. The Benedictines created the culture of Europe by building community, spreading the faith, and advancing scholarship. Benedictine College is dedicated to the same mission, which it hopes will do the same thing again: educating men and women with in a community of faith and scholarship.

Community life built up around abbeys and convents where Benedictines made a “vow of stability,” promising to live and die with their communities. These religious houses became the new centers of civilization, establishing ordered commerce and providing safe houses that made it possible for merchants to travel dangerous roads.

Faith spread out from Benedictine churches, where sisters and monks showed people the purpose of their lives and established the liturgical year that made the truths of the faith the organizing principle for Catholic living.

Scholarship was kept alive by monks and sisters who preserved the great works of antiquity and copied manuscripts by the Church Fathers, applying enduring truths to new realities.

You see the influence of community, faith and scholarship in all the great Benedictine figures. St. Gregory the Great was a great community organizer, organizing the first charity drive for the poor throughout his realm; he was the “father of Christian worship” because of his influence on liturgy; and his enormous body of writing — 854 letters for starters — made him a Doctor of the Church. Some 500 years later, another Benedictine figure, St. Hildegard of Bingen, built community through music, spread the faith with her visionary spirituality, and was made a doctor of the Church through her remarkable corpus of theological works.

Fast forward to our time.

A Spanish Marxist reportedly said, “Give me 10 universities and I’ll change the face of Europe.” If that report is true, he got them and he did. Karl Marx, a disciple of early atheist thinkers, decided that religion was just a tool of oppressors that needed to be cast off. Men of the academy continued his project: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sarte, Michel Foucault and many others.

Today these thinkers have become the guiding lights across academia. Thanks to them, we all now consider ourselves autonomous individuals who define ourselves — and thus look out mostly for ourselves — while we grow increasingly lonely, anxious and alienated.

With these ideas, universities have transformed culture for the worse. At one extreme, the people rioting in the streets in 2020 are the intellectual descendants of Marx, Nietzsche, Sarte, and Foucault, as Bishop Robert Barron has pointed out. At the other extreme, the “elite” leaders and policy makers of the world are all graduates of a very few institutions that fall in line with the same thinkers: A huge number of current Members of Congress went to Harvard and Yale. In the 21st century, three new Supreme Court justices were Harvard alums and three were from Yale. They are all part of the same community, networked together; they mostly have the same faith — which is little or no faith at all; and they mostly believe the same foundational principles of secularism that inspire the rioters.

Thus we now live in a world transformed by the radical beliefs of people who see us as autonomous unconnected individuals, owing God nothing, fighting for scraps of power and defining our own truths. The alumni of secular universities are thoroughly in this worldview and amplify this misunderstanding of the human person through the media, in the schools, from the courts, in the hospitals, through the city halls, in the corporate board rooms — in libraries, retail stores, advertising agencies, architectural firms, and state, federal and international governing bodies, and 24/7 online.

But that can all change in a generation.

I take myself as an example. I was raised in public schools that explicitly taught me that there was no God, watched television that mirrored those values and listened to music that rhymed secular lies about the human person backed with catchy beats. But by reading the Great Books in college, I discovered  a whole new world of truth that is knowable, a God who has a mission for me, and a brotherhood and sisterhood of human beings given infinite dignity by God, deserving my love and service.

Not only that, but in just the past 18 months of lockdowns and limited social opportunities, I have undergone a sort of “second reversion” by listening to a new set of university figures. Bishop Robert Barron has been one — his videos, and his Word on Fire Institute courses have helped overhaul my understanding of the Old Testament, the Catholic tradition, and modern philosophy.  The Bible in a Year Podcast of a university chaplain, Father Mike Schmitz, has also been a revelation. And not just the Bible itself, but his explanations which are popular in style but often quite profound in content.

But I have also learned to see science in a whole new way. This started with Barron but is continuing closer to home. At Benedictine College, philosopher Jim Madden and theologian Matt Ramage are doing great work exploring the intersection of new discoveries about neuroscience and consciousness with the enduring truths of faith. Along with other thinkers they have introduced me to, they are making clear that the human soul is “embodied and embedded” — our souls and bodies are absolutely one, and we are unique in the animal kingdom, in large part because of the way we interact in our communities.

In other words they are reinvigorating the basic Christian claim: That we are made in the image and likeness of a God who is a Trinity of persons, through the Son, who is Christ crucified, and that this God is the ground of being, and that he remains who he is no matter how intricately you pick apart the cells and neurons at the deepest levels of human biology.

In fact, Benedictine College’s Transforming Culture in America plan has already transformed me. Working with Dean Kimberly Shankman on creating the Center for Constitutional Liberty revealed the Catholics thought that backs America’s founding principles. Promoting the Center for Beauty and Culture and its director Denis McNamara has given me a whole new understanding of the sacramentality of the Mass and of the art and architecture that surounds it. Examining the Catholic case for care for the environment in preparing the Center for Eco-Stewardship convinces me of its importance. Seeing Catholic convert and former Anglican pastor Tory Baucum share the truths St. John Paul II revealed in the Center for Family Life reminded me how powerful these truths are.

But I digress. The point is that universities have always transformed culture, and there is no reason to think that they won’t do so again. The Truth can be avoided for a time, covered over or studiously ignored, but it will never go away. It will always reassert itself.

As Cardinal Timothy Dolan put it when he visited our campus a few years ago, “The dream and dare of the Benedictines to renew culture through Catholic higher education is as game-changing today as it was in the sixth century.”

Benedictine College’s plan to Transform Culture in America is not just a crazy dream — it is the very thing a Benedictine college exists to do. And we will do it the Benedictine way: through community, faith and scholarship.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.