And gladly wolde he lerne
and gladly teche.
The pandemic has unveiled the reality behind what’s been vexing the academic humanities for decades. Classes went online, as business demanded. Classes returned to in-person, as business demanded. Since humanities enrollments have been declining, naturally higher education has been hiring more administrators to hire consultants to figure out how to attract what we’ve grown used to calling its customer base—or, if that doesn’t pan out, to provide a rationale for cutting its programs. When students and administrators aren’t teaming up against professors for not delivering what the customer wants, all parties seem to have made a non-aggression pact for reasons that have almost nothing to do with liberal education.
Fear not, payers of exorbitant tuition and legislative defunders of the public good, our institutions have all been taking ample time away from class to generate epic assessment reports that quantify our continuous quality improvement in the latest management lingo. In their new book Permanent Crisis, Chad Wellmon and Paul Reitter argue persuasively that crisis talk is constitutive of the modern academic humanities. But this is the first time I’ve looked around the room at a faculty meeting and realized that my colleagues were inwardly doing early-retirement math.
Miraculously, the pandemic has revealed to me where the humanities aren’t in crisis. It all began in July 2020, when Zena Hitz—the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life and a fellow Hiett Prize winner—reached out to me over Zoom.
ZENA: I’m contacting you to see if you want to be part of a project where knowledgeable teachers explore great books and fundamental questions with committed students.
ME: How many vice-presidents do you imagine we’d need? I’m curious how big a climbing wall you’re thinking?
ZENA: Actually, the idea would be to cut through all the red tape: no grades, no credit, no degrees, no fees, no vice-presidents—even no climbing wall, if you can believe it.
ME: What would the students get out of it then?
ZENA: They’d study great things and cultivate the life of the mind.
ME: OK . . . but what would I get out of it?
ZENA: You’d also study great things and cultivate the life of the mind.
ME: You mean we’d be focused on education—like, just because education is good?
ZENA: Yes, exactly.
ME: Wow, this is so crazy it just might work!
She came up with the name the Catherine Project. The “Catherine” part refers to Catherine of Alexandria, the scholar who refuted the crusty academics who’d been hired to refute her—and then suffered an ancient form of cancellation: beheading. The “Project” part is an oblique reference to the Human Project in the movie Children of Men. True to its name, the Catherine Project has proven to be a repudiation of established nonsense and a humane ark in turbulent times.
Since education rather than money is calling the shots, we have the freedom to ask unheard-of questions. For instance, what’s the maximum number of students for the good of the class? Our big debate was three versus four. Because we started in the pandemic, we’ve been holding our classes over Zoom—not only for health reasons but also in order to connect participants from all over the world (we’ve drawn readers from Nairobi and Dubai as well as Europe). Since we’re naturally face-to-face types, our hope is eventually to offer in-person as well as online programs. We’re starting global in hopes of one day going local. Wanting to reach people who lack the resources to study the humanities with a devoted community, we’ve decided to go big: four students per seminar. That way, if one has to drop out because of the hecticness of working-class life, we’ll still have three readers to engage with.
Our commitment is to fundamental questions and great books of all traditions. I know the idea of great books triggers certain academic types. We have no agenda to indoctrinate people in any particular set of social or political values. We mostly just want to gain access to the joy at the top of the soul. The Catherine Project’s commitment, borne out beautifully by our seminars thus far, is that great books are supremely egalitarian: They move and challenge us all alike. Indeed, what proves great books great is that they’ve stood the test of time with countless readers of various backgrounds and persuasions. We choose great books not to keep anyone out but to let everyone in.
We offer two types of Oxford-style tutorial, each of which meets once a week for two hours over the course of twelve weeks. In what we call the “fast-cooker,” participants read a number of great books. In the “slow-cooker,” my preferred type, participants work more deliberately through one or two great books. Every week readers submit reflection papers on the assigned reading that serve to structure the discussion. We also have peer-led reading groups on various books or topics.
This fall we’re up to serving 130 participants in seven tutorials and ten reading groups, with additional tutorials in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. The demand for the Catherine Project, generated by an occasional tweet from Zena, has far outstripped our ability to offer classes. Our crisis of the humanities is when heartbroken readers can’t participate in a tutorial. (So, if you’re interested in becoming a tutor or supporting the project, contact us. We rely on donations from readers and benefactors to pay our staff director and expenses like our Zoom subscriptions. We intend never to charge tuition.)
How have my various slow-cookers and I spent the pandemic? Fall 2020: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Spring 2021: Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Fall 2021: Dante’s Comedy (we’re currently ascending Mount Purgatory—our climbing wall!). Two of my most passionate readers in those seminars have been with me on the epic journey ever since Apollo inflicted a plague on the Achaeans. I dare say there are more than a few PhDs in literature who haven’t carefully read all five of these foundational treasures. We’ve explored complex moral issues like when manipulation is justified or how to learn from flawed people, thorny questions of human nature pertaining to honor codes and sexual violence, aesthetic wonders of epic similes and character doubletakes, theological problems of evil and justice, political realities of emigration and colonization, our own personal issues of suffering and soul-making, and so much more. Because one of our fellow readers was interested in art history, we all got a little obsessed with analyzing masterpieces of visual art based on the Metamorphoses. The benefits of the humanities have danced so gracefully through these tutorials that it’s never occurred to any of us to ask what’s the point. If anything, my readers and I have been wondering what’s the point of doing other things.
What I’ve given to the Catherine Project somehow hasn’t taken away from the classes I’m paid to teach—just the opposite. Being in crisis mode all the time is draining. When I spend time and energy on what matters, I magically have more time and energy. I haven’t felt so free since when I was teaching in prison! Sure, higher education must confront our particularly critical version of the permanent crisis, and the Catherine Project alone can’t save liberal education. But without its spirit infusing the humanities, what’s the point?