Last week the Millis Institute held its first annual Liberal Arts Revue. Donning our academic gowns, we ate together, enjoyed the musical talents of several students, and ended the evening with ballroom dancing. A highlight of the event was a trivia competition designed by two students, with questions from each of the academic units offered this year. (Can you name Dante’s three guides in The Divine Comedy, or the French term for a medieval lyric poet or traveling singer, or what common sports object has the shape of a truncated icosahedron?) (Find answers at the bottom of this issue.)
What follows are the abbreviated remarks I gave during the dinner, remembering and celebrating what has unfolded over the past 10 months.
… In February we held our inaugural matriculation ceremony. In Latin, a “matricula” is a list or register. When our students signed the very first page of the Millis Institute Matriculation Book, they added their names to a list that will, by God’s grace, fill many pages in the future.
They also received a black academic gown, just as students did upon entering a medieval university like the University of Paris or Oxford. This symbolises membership in a community of learning. Throughout the year we have worn these gowns on special occasions to remind our students that their academic course is about something bigger than themselves—and certainly bigger than just getting a job; they are taking part in a great conversation that reaches back many, many years.
The following week saw the Institute's very first class sessions.
In Grammar and Rhetoric, students learned the importance of writing and speaking well. Not only did they compose crisp sentences but they presented persuasive speeches, and the first debates about predestination began!
It was foreordained that one of our first informal halls took place on Maundy Thursday of Easter Week. Fittingly, we gathered at a local barbecue to talk about the Passover meal and the Last Supper.
Back in the classroom we learned Socratic Logic. For one assessment, the students composed their own Socratic dialogues. They also engaged in a dramatic—and hilarious—reading of Max Shulman’s “Love is a Fallacy.”
The laughter turned to singing in the Christian Worldview tutorial, where Dr Benson began each session with the Doxology. The students discussed common misconceptions of God as a legalistic cop, a gift-giving Santa Claus, and a mystical power like the ‘force’ from Star Wars. And, sure enough, they debated predestination again!
We celebrated our very first formal hall in March. Over candlelight, we served each other lasagne and talked about habits that we wanted to form and the sort of traditions that we hoped to establish at the Millis Institute.
Sharing food has been a very important tradition this year, not only at formal halls but also in the classroom. In Foundations of Faith, Learning and Vocation, Mrs Messmore baked cookies each week that helped us through the evening hours. We engaged C.S. Lewis’ call to “learn in wartime,” and with Dorothy Sayers we recovered “the lost tools of learning.”
Our second formal hall took us to the Rochedale Estates Community Centre. Channelling our inner Mother Teresas and Bonos, we debated the Beatles’ profound statement that “love is all you need.”
Those on the Accelerated Track came to love (in a Platonic way) ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and poets. They dialogued with Plato, conversed with Aristotle, and undertook adventures with Homer and Virgil.
Outside the classroom another epic adventure saw several students and staff bushwalk to the lower portals of Mt Barney. After the rain-drenched hike, they celebrated by watching Lord of the Rings.
Soon thereafter we bid farewell to Kim as she journeyed to the shire of Oxford. We jealously viewed her Facebook pics of eating at The Eagle and Child pub and read her e-mail accounts of getting credit for reading C.S. Lewis.
Students and staff swing dance during the first Millis Institute Liberal Arts Revue Dinner and Dance.
A highlight of the year was the Witherspoon Fellowship in late June. Alex did a terrific job organising this 2-day “leadership through the liberal arts” event, and many Institute students stepped up to help it run smoothly.
Several weeks later we celebrated the opening chapter of our story by hosting the Millis Institute Launch Dinner, with Dr James K. A. Smith delivering the keynote address.
And two days after that we hosted a Path to Wisdom session for high school students interested in the liberal arts.
Semester 2 began with Music, which carried over from Semester 1 the ongoing effort to define beauty and art. At the start of the unit, Dr Gearing certainly didn’t find the attempts at singing very beautiful. This caused him to bang his head endlessly…with a tuning fork! However, by the end of the semester he had formed the students into harmonious melody-makers whose rounds were truly a work of art.
Students also studied rounds—and triangles—in Geometry. In addition to solving most of the proofs of Book I of Euclid’s Elements, they also mapped a triangle on the hyperbolic surface of a Pringles potato chip and discovered the golden spiral inherent in Donald Trump’s hair.
For the first formal hall of Semester 2 we returned to Rochedale Estates Community Centre to hear from Kim as she returned from Oxford. The night ended with Dr Treschman acclimating us to several constellations in the night sky. The Astronomy students also visited the Brisbane Planetarium and engaged in some interesting scientific debates.
In Medieval Philosophy, Accelerated Track students pursued a significant quest with Boethius, Bonaventure and Aquinas—that of faith seeking understanding. Dante and Milton joined that quest in the Narrating Western Civilisation unit, and Thomas Moore inspired the students to write about their own utopia.
After a movie marathon during the break and several study groups toward the final week of semester, we’ve made it to the end of our inaugural year. We’ve covered a broad range of topics, read a lot of authors, shared a lot of food and laughter, and raised a lot of important questions. This year, though, has only laid the groundwork for what comes next…not only in the curriculum but also in life.
Hopefully, students, you can already put your finger on important insights that you’ve learned in class. The real value of what you’ve done here, however, will probably not become clear for years to come. You’ve begun to develop certain habits, you’ve begun to form certain memories, you’ve begun to put in place—and perhaps to challenge and tweak—a certain framework of thinking, you’ve begun to intentionally hone an awareness of—and hopefully a deep hunger and love for—the true, the good and the beautiful, and I expect that these will continue to shape you as a person for decades to come.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the first year—Chapter One—of the Millis Institute has come to a close. I can’t wait to read what’s on the next page in 2017!
Staff and students of the Millis Institute, 2016
Trivia answers: Beatrice, Virgil, and St. Bernard; troubadour or jongleur; soccer ball.