Benedictus in London
PHOTO CREDIT: Hannah Palmer
They are brand new and a rare thing, indeed, in England –a start-up educational venture with the highest intellectual aspirations: nothing less than a learning experience to equal or exceed those world-famous, once-Catholic institutions of Cambridge and Oxford.
How are they doing? REGINA recently caught up with Dr Clare Hornsby, who studied both as an undergraduate and graduate at the University of Bristol, on her exciting Benedictus project in the heart of London.
REGINA: Starting a Catholic college in the teeth of a market where post-secondary education is widely available is a very unusual venture in England. What specifically inspired you to do this?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: It was the urgent need to do something to alter the environment of university education here in which skepticism and relativism seem to be the starting points of most courses and science is the only god.
REGINA: Did you visit other schools in other countries?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: We have seen this in the US obviously, mainly from visiting Thomas Aquinas College.
REGINA: And is Benedictus unique in the UK?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: There is nothing like it available in the UK – no small independent liberal arts college and no college of any sort that offers one course centred on the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition.
“Benedictus will offer much more value for money than most other UK universities through the high level of contact hours and small classes. US students will be able to study in London with us and receive an intensive and exciting education at a competitive price. Many UK humanities students are angry about the lack of depth in the courses they attend, even at excellent universities; we can offer an alternative.
REGINA: Your daily schedule — classes in the mornings and experiential visits, tours and concerts in the afternoon is highly unusual. Can you discuss why this is planned in this way?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: The course places equal value on texts and objects as fruits of our cultural heritage. The big questions and ideas have always concerned artists as well as philosophers and writers. Being based in London means that our students have a wealth of art and architecture available to them and we believe that the direct encounter with material culture is essential to understanding its importance.
REGINA: Your website mentions that you will offer “small classes and the sort of tutorial experience normally reserved for students at Oxford and Cambridge.” Was better academics one reason for starting Benedictus?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: Benedictus offers students the 2:1 or 3:1 tutorial experience and seminar discussion classes which is a combination of the traditional teaching method of Oxbridge and the ‘Socratic method’ employed in some US liberal arts colleges. It is highly focused and participatory and makes learning more meaningful and personal.
REGINA: Is this approach a highly felt need in the UK?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: This is again a response to the disenchantment of many students who feel disconnected from their studies on university courses which are mostly delivered in lectures or by online forums. We wanted Benedictus to be a cure for the malaise of uninspiring teaching and uninspired students.
“BENEDICTUS’S MISSION IS EDUCATIVE, but in the fullest sense ‘the development of the whole person through the joyful pursuit of wisdom’ with the principle of the unity of knowledge at the centre.”
REGINA: Are you geared towards Catholics alone?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: Many young Catholics have no idea of the depth and meaning of Catholic culture; this was a key impetus for us in founding the project although we are not a college focused on teaching the faith to Catholics – we are open to all and hope to inspire non Catholic students to learn more about the Faith and Catholics to understand more about why their Faith is so important.
REGINA: Your strategy appears to be to start with summer school and academic forums and to grow from there?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: That seems to be the best way, as we gather support and funding. We have used the summer school and forum to build up a reputation for academic excellence, integrity and rigour. We have also used these events to raise awareness of liberal arts education in the UK as it is not widely understood here.
REGINA: What reactions have you gotten so far?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: The reaction varies – many Catholics are delighted but some don’t seem to see the urgency of the need. Many enlightened people in academic life who know the meaning and value of liberal education are staunch supporters of the project – and are from all faith backgrounds.
REGINA: Can you describe what your major challenges have been so far?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: Formulating the course was a big challenge, completed with the assistance of our Academic Team in 2013. A challenge for us as for all non-profit initiatives is convincing major donors to join us and make a financial commitment that would bring the plans for the college to fruition but we have been very fortunate in the generous donations of our supporters so far.
REGINA: What’s the best part of the Benedictus project for you?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: The response of students at the summer school which has been fabulous – very warm, very committed. The feedback from academics who attend the Forum lectures and from the public who join us for our free cultural events throughout the year. There is a lot of love for Benedictus around, which makes all the struggle worthwhile.
REGINA: How do your students and professors typically become involved with Benedictus?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: Students come by word of mouth from various countries and backgrounds – we use social media a lot to promote our courses and events. The academic committee is being constantly added to as more professors hear about the project and want to get involved.
REGINA: Are there non-traditional students there?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: We have had students from home-school backgrounds and others not pursuing formal higher education.
REGINA: What are your housing arrangements for the summer program?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: Students stay in the Heythrop college campus accommodation which is based in central London just near Hyde Park.
REGINA: How many students have been involved in your various courses thus far?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: We had 12 students on our first summer school in 2014 and 12 this year also. We can only accept 15.
REGINA: What are your next steps?
DR CLARE HORNSBY: We are planning for the next Academic Research Forum, probably in late June 2016 – and the summer school of course. We are extending admission to 17 years olds as well for next year. We are building links with existing universities outside the UK and are planning to launch an online academic journal. And of course continuing with fundraising and planning for the future when we can launch our Foundation Programme and the full three year degree course.
REGINA: How can people learn more about Benedictus?