"A deeper problem accounts for the lacunae in St. John’s curriculum: the “Great Books” curriculum arises from consensus and custom rather than authority. Goethe is important not because he is a great lyric poet, but because he led the grand program of the German Classic to recreate the accomplishments of religion by secular means. His character Mephistopheles looks back to Ecclesiastes and forward to Heidegger. Goethe mediates the great question—why is life worthwhile in the first place?—between the biblical and the modern worlds. The designers of the St. John’s curriculum in their 20th-century secularism failed to grasp the tension between religion and the Enlightenment.
"Here the religious schools have an advantage, because the Magisterium of the Catholics and the masorah of the Jews set down a canon tested over the centuries. There are fewer than 800 undergraduates at the two St. John’s campuses, while one American yeshiva (center of traditional Jewish higher learning), Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., has ten times that number of students. The number of religious Jews studying traditional sources worldwide outnumbers the total number of students of classic Western texts by an order of magnitude; more than 300,000 read a daily page of Talmud (Daf Yomi), completing the voluminous compendium of Jewish teaching in a seven-year cycle.
"The traditional Catholic colleges attract a surprising small number of students; the three colleges that offer the most intensive classical curriculum (St. Thomas Aquinas, Wyoming Catholic College and Ave Maria) have fewer than 1,400 students among them, and the total number of students in conservative Catholic colleges (according to the Cardinal Newman Society list) barely totals 10,000."
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