John Senior and the Restoration of Realism

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In this detailed and provocative study, Francis Bethel examines the life and thought of cultural critic, university professor, and sometime cowboy, John Senior (1923–1999). 

A privileged young man who studied the occult but became a leading proponent of traditional wisdom and arts—eventually converting to the Catholic Faith—Senior, unlike many of even his conservative peers, argued for something more than mere book learning. He championed the full “restoration of realism,” in which would be brought together the whole man—senses, imagination, emotion, will, intellect, and body. In doing so, he brought down upon himself a firestorm of criticism. 

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s American higher education was in turmoil. Student unrest, philosophical skepticism, and the abandonment of the Western Canon were commonplace. Pedagogical revolutions ran parallel to social upheavals throughout Europe and the United States. Within a few decades, the New Left had transformed the fabled ivory towers of academia from places of leisurely learning into citadels of ideology and economic pragmatism. Yet, on the northern fringe of the Osage Plains of Kansas, John Senior and two friends launched a quiet counterrevolution. 

A former favored student in the 1940s of Columbia professor and literary critic Mark Van Doren, Senior would later author works of cultural criticism, including the controversial The Death of Christian Culture

Yet far greater was Senior’s influence as a teacher and mentor in the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. Before it was shut down by the University under a cloud of controversy, the Integrated Humanities Program had educated hundreds of students. Several bishops, an abbot, a prioress, directors of seminaries, lawyers, federal judges, and numerous teachers number among them. In addition, the founding of several counter-cultural colleges and schools over the past quarter century owe their existence and derive much of their curriculum from the ideas of John Senior. He and his vision would even be the central inspiration behind Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s 2013 international best seller, The Awakening of Miss Prim 

In this compelling book, Bethel uncovers the roots of Senior’s thought, traces its provocative application, and reveals the possibilities it offers today to an academy wounded by pervasive moral and intellectual relativism, the loss of public credibility, and spiraling costs. 

 Advance Praise for John Senior and the Restoration of Realism

John Senior and the Restoration of Realism is a book that should be in the hands of every educator and parent. It is all about education—and to educate, as Plato already saw twenty-five centuries ago, is a task of such dignity that only the very best are good enough. We must be grateful to Father Francis Bethel for writing a life of this noble Don Quixote whose love of beauty led him to the One Who Is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.”

 -Alice von Hildebrand, Dame Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great and author of Memoirs of a Happy Failure

 “John Senior’s impact on culture has been profound, though largely unsung and unnoticed. His ability to open the eyes of his students to the wonders of the cosmos and the presence of God that it signifies was nothing less than astonishing. It is high time that someone sang his praises and high time that someone introduced his vision of evangelical aesthetics to a new generation. Father Bethel’s book is, therefore, to be not only welcomed but celebrated.”

-Joseph Pearce, Author of Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture

“John Senior said every man was either a cowboy or a sailor. His purpose in saying this was that once people realize who they are, they might better realize where they are and what they should be doing there. Father Bethel’s book brings John Senior and his insights back to the world so that a new generation may be born in wonder. Dr. Senior was one of the most important Catholic minds of the past fifty years—a man who taught that, though we cannot restore reality, we can restore our vision of it and vocation to it, and thereby restore realism.”

-Sean Fitzpatrick, Headmaster, Gregory the Great Academy

 “In our era of cultural degradation, learned people of faith are increasingly discontented with the present and the future.  That is all the more reason to read Francis Bethel’s account of one of the intellectual and cultural giants of this epoch.  Without John Senior and the movements he spawned, there would, in fact, be little hope for the future.”

-Kevin D. Roberts, President, Wyoming Catholic College

“John Senior was the teacher modernity desperately needed—and needs. His learning, wisdom, faith, and eloquence supplied the essential corrective to our era’s withered soul and imagination. In this intellectual biography, Father Bethel effectively restores Senior to us and makes us see again both the man and the poetic reality he grasped so firmly.

-David M. Whalen, Provost and Professor of English, Hillsdale College 

“John Senior was a gifted professor of classics, a writer, poet, thinker and a student of culture. He was my godfather and, more than anyone else—besides Our Lady and the Holy Spirit, of course—he led me into the Roman Catholic Church.  He used to tell his students: “I am simply the janitor. It is my job to open the door and show you the riches and treasures of the best that has been written and said down through the centuries.” Dr. Senior loved his students and we loved him. Father Bethel has written a book that unlocks the mystery of the man who was John Senior.  His spiritual and intellectual journey is fascinating.  Father Bethel has given a synthesis of John Senior’s insightful views on education and culture; and how his philosophy and this synthesis grew out of Senior’s own life. John Senior was a realist, but he pondered the permanent things in life with a curiosity and childlike wonder.  John Senior was well aware that we are all broken creatures, living in a wounded and sinful world.  Oscar Wilde once said that, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” John Senior was always looking up at the stars, and he helped all of us to turn our gaze upwards, toward the stars. I highly recommend this book not only for those who want to know John Senior’s thought, but also as an important message, especially in our times, about education and culture.”

-Most Reverend James D. Conley, Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska and Founder of the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought & Culture


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