From the Outside Looking In and Back Out Again

Many colleges claim to educate the whole person. But is this possible? How would we know if schools were achieving this goal? The truth is that knowing whether or not a college is doing what it says it can do is virtually impossible—unless you have first-hand experience of the curriculum in action. I only arrived at Gutenberg a few months ago to teach the freshman art courses, but I have already seen that Gutenberg is different from other educational institutions I’ve encountered. I believe that Gutenberg does what it says it can do: educate the whole person.

I have a diverse and varied educational history. I attended public grammar schools operated by the state of Maryland, a Jesuit high school, a liberal arts undergraduate college, a graduate school in Ireland, and a state-run doctoral program in Oregon. In addition, I have traveled to Ireland repeatedly since age twelve to study with master performers in the Irish instrumental dance music tradition. Having taught music theory and master classes at the University of Limerick, music courses at the University of Oregon, and Irish traditional music (uilleann pipes, fiddle, flute, tin whistle, and piano) privately for over a decade, I think that these experiences have given me a broad sampling of educational approaches.

While I have learned a great deal from these experiences and benefited from the knowledge, expertise, and generosity of my many teachers and students, my few months at Gutenberg have put my time at other institutions clearly into perspective. I have reflected on the strengths of other kinds of institutions, and I want to share with you a few of Gutenberg College’s tremendous strengths.

To begin, Gutenberg College offers a genuine liberal arts education. This classic system of integrative thought is valuable because it can apply to many learning situations beyond a classroom, regardless of the state of a society and its technology. The seven liberal arts, described by Martianus Capella around 425 A.D., can be divided into two courses: trivium (words), which involves grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and quadrivium (numbers), which is composed of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The liberal arts curriculum (at least, as Medieval Europe understood it) provides an integrative framework that can subsume and organize all aspects of thought, communication, and encounter in the natural world.

Gutenberg’s curriculum succeeds in meeting the challenge of the liberal arts agenda by offering courses that examine all elements of the trivium and quadrivium, which students study through close readings of primary sources. Many of these readings are extremely challenging, and they demand careful reading and critical acumen to comprehend the author’s meaning. This approach hones a student’s intellect in a way that makes him or her discriminating in daily activities. Gutenberg tutors believe that knowledge changes the knower and that the benefits of education are proportional to the mental costs required to obtain and process information. Studying these primary sources gives students a secure foundation for understanding contemporary thought because many modern issues stem from debates that are centuries old.

Secondly, Gutenberg’s demanding curriculum shows respect both for a student’s intellectual faculties and a student’s right to wrestle with complex ideas situated in complex arguments. The discussion-based approach leaves space for a student to form his or her own ideas about the meaning and import of content in an atmosphere where debate is perceived to be a necessary apparatus in the pursuit of understanding.

Thirdly, Gutenberg can boast a truly integrated education because its tutors agree about the foundations and format that constitute true learning. They agree that learning occurs in the mind of the student and that an individual must grapple with content on his or her own terms if that content is to become meaningful and applicable.

Gutenberg’s approach is also integrative because its tutors are versed in and teach topics that lie outside of their degrees of qualification. For example, a tutor with a Ph.D. in physics might lead a discussion in quantum mechanics on Monday and then lead a discussion in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics on Wednesday. Or, a tutor who teaches Euclidean geometry on Wednesday will lead a discussion on music history and film on Friday. Gutenberg places a high premium on a wide knowledge base because a broad understanding makes integration possible.

Fourthly, Gutenberg recognizes that teaching is a relational process. Because tutors teach across the curriculum, students have repeated interactions with tutors in different contexts over the course of their degree program. This interaction benefits the student in several ways: it fosters a high degree of student-tutor accountability; it cultivates a bond of trust between student and teacher; and it enables teachers to evaluate and cultivate a student’s strengths and weaknesses long-term. Students benefit from repeated corrections from the same tutor in different contexts, and the result is that students improve their skills in an environment of trust with tutors whom they know to be committed to their intellectual development. I know this to be profitable from my years of teaching Irish traditional music privately. I currently have students who now as college undergraduates first came to me when they were only eight years old. Having a long-term educational relationship with a student is extremely important because teaching is a relational process—it is not merely about the transfer of information from person A to person B. Gutenberg tutors care about their students and want to help them cultivate their strengths in a manner that will be profitable for learning difficult subjects long-term.

Fifthly, Gutenberg College makes possible continuity in educational and philosophical agendas because many of the tutors are also founders of the institution. The continued participation of the founders in the academic life of the college is a tremendous asset because the vision of a uniform, interdisciplinary, Christ-centered education remains consistent across academic years. Tutors have a vested interest in Gutenberg’s philosophical, curricular, and moral integrity, and students can trust tutors to remain committed to the pursuit of truth.

Sixthly, the Gutenberg living experience develops character in its students. Those who choose to live on campus learn stewardship by cooking meals for fellow students on a rotating basis and by maintaining campus facilities, which involves everything from yard work to repairs and indoor cleaning. The Gutenberg experience is enriched greatly by this extra-curricular fellowship in the sense that on-campus living circumstances complement the intimate, discussion-based design of the college’s curriculum. All students in a class (that is, freshman, sophomore, etc.) take the same courses together as they progress through the curriculum. The composite experience of team-reading difficult materials while caring for each other’s living space benefits the students in various ways: it facilitates the development of close friendships built on intellectual agreement and collegial disagreement about the meanings and implications of source readings; it allows for discussions to develop beyond the classroom, continuing through dinner and beyond; and, through the intellectual and material challenges, it brings students together in an environment where they learn skills that will be useful for a lifetime. At Gutenberg, character counts; and the development of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in this atmosphere is a truly fine thing.

In sum, I believe that the Gutenberg project is one of the most important endeavors in American higher education because it offers and accomplishes an outrageously simple and desperately vital task in our society: to educate the whole person.

As the father of two children, the Gutenberg experience is the one that I want for my own children. I want my own kids not only to have exposure to an excellent curriculum, but I want them to see through that curriculum that all truth meets at the top. I want my children to learn in a community, and I want them to apprentice with men and women whose knowledge, wisdom, and worldview they can respect. The learning environment at Gutenberg is one of the richest I’ve ever experienced, and I strongly recommend it to anyone seeking truth and understanding in an atmosphere of fellowship.

Gutenberg College tutor Eliot GrassoEliot Grasso joined the Gutenberg faculty in September 2012. He has a Ph.D. in musicology, is an accomplished musician, and teaches art classes at Gutenberg. To learn more about Eliot, visit his website,


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