“Beauty will save the world”.
This famous quote by Dostoyevsky could, in part, sum up the philosophy behind the academic careers of John Freeh and his wife Helen. As founders of the Newman Institute in Lincoln, NE, they instilled in their students a love of the humanities: art, religion, literature, and philosophy.
They now reside in Gallup, NM, with their three children, with plans to found another college steeped in the humanities, but with an additional focus: the trades.
In the United States, college debt is at an all-time high, and the manufacturing and trade industries are facing a steep labor shortage. Taken together, these trends could add up to trillions of dollars in cost to the United States economy.
Aware of these grim statistics, the Freehs plan to open Kateri College of the Liberal and Practical Arts in New Mexico. The college will pair the humanities with vocational trades, graduating students who are formed as whole persons – body, mind and soul.
The Freehs are hoping to welcome their first class in 2024 or 2025. John Freeh sat down with The Voice of the Southwest to talk about Kateri College and the current state of American higher education.
So where did this idea to found a college come from?
It actually goes back now about ten years. It was in Santa Fe…I noticed a large shuttered brick building surrounded by a fence, obviously empty. Apparently, that was one of the first foundations of St. Katharine Drexel – it was the Santa Fe Indian School. So we began wondering if there were any Catholic colleges in New Mexico, because we liked it here and thought we might want to come and teach.
And there were none. You have a state with a high percentage of Catholics, and yet no Catholic college? So we thought this would be a prime place in the country. Not just because of New Mexico, but even the surrounding states.
But then life moved along and we got an invitation to go back and teach at Wyoming Catholic College, so it was put on the back burner. And then, in the midst of that, Bishop Conley invited us to found the Newman Institute for Thought and Culture, so that was a five-year gig.
But all through that, this was on our mind and heart, and it wasn’t going away, therefore we don’t think it’s our idea – we think we need to do it! So last year I gave notice to Bishop Conley and he asked if we had another job lined up and I said “not really”. *laughs*
We had known Gallup because we had land in [a nearby national forest], and knew Bishop Wall pretty well, and we knew a lot of families here.
Initially it was intended to be a four-year liberal arts college along the lines of Wyoming Catholic or Christendom. But in the intervening period we started looking at two things: the collapse of higher education – collapsed meaning becoming overly politicized; the incredible debt that people would graduate with; but then also this crisis in the trades, such that in – I think the number is that in ten years’ time there will be 2.3 million tradesmen and tradeswomen retiring in the country with no one to replace them. And there was a whole tradition in the 1940s and 1950s of Catholic high schools in particular stressing vocational tracks, and that’s all largely disappeared.
Nor is there any [Catholic vocational] college in the country – with the exception of the Harmel College of the Trades in Michigan. So we thought why not a hybrid? A four-year college, 60 credits in the best of the liberal arts – literature, philosophy, theology – but then 60 credits in the hard trades. Plumbing, electrician, maybe timber framing, here in Gallup maybe high-altitude training, auto body because of Fr. Keller [and the V8s for Vocations program].
The main challenge will be the initial seed money, and then the first campus, which is intended to be in Gallup.
Why Gallup instead of, say, Albuquerque?
A practical reason that it’s easier to start a venture here is because of the economy – as opposed to Santa Fe or Albuquerque – but also the need economically. You’ve got all these Native peoples around. And also we love Gallup – we’re content to be here for the duration.
Since the trades are a big part of it, one of the ways to generate revenue would be that each of these trades would have a retail element. Say, for instance, auto mechanics: we’d open up an auto mechanic shop where the teachers, the professors, the master mechanics would be teaching the students, and that would become a business.
So right now it’s continuing to get the word out, to raise seed money, to start cultivating faculty longer-term. We would never want it to be too large – we’d want to cap it at about 400.
And you decided to name it after St. Kateri?
Well, it’s a multi-signifier, in the sense that, number one, the connection with Native Americans, [she’s] the first Native American to be canonized. Also, she took her name from Catherine of Siena, and there’s the connection to Katharine Drexel. So it has regional resonance.
Why the focus on the liberal arts along with the trades?
Because one of the things we’ve seen in the last half-century is this nasty divorce between the intellectual life in the U.S. – in the West – and what’s been called the “muscular class”, the trades. And our theory is that that separation, which has become more and more calcified in the last 50 years, with the unstated assumption that if you weren’t smart enough you’d go to the [vocational] track, which of course is a completely bogus idea. So our thought is that both of those worlds have suffered, they’ve both become impoverished because of this divorce between the two worlds. When one is meant – going back in the oldest Catholic sense to St. Benedict – one is actually meant to complement the other, and to modify the typical faults and deficiencies of the other.
In a previous age – and this was true of immigrants as well – these were men and women in the trades who had no animosity towards the intellectual life. In fact, my relatives on the Italian side who came into New York, they were stoneworkers and bricklayers and carpenters. But on their bookshelves you’d see Dante and Boccaccio and you’d hear Verdi on the record player. There was no contradiction.
The graduate of a school like this would be skilled in a particular trade, and well on his or her way toward being a master in that trade, but they’d also – for the sake of their own humanity – they’d also have the ability to reflect and read and have a basic understanding of philosophy and good theology. I think that’s invaluable. Someone who has a skill will have an independence far greater than a worker in a corporation or a factory. It gives a great independence and income. Helen and I think that this is not just our idea, but in the next 20 years you will see variations of this springing up as standard universities lose students and close their doors.
And the tuition costs – will the possibility of shops mitigate that?
Yes, side-by-side with the college would be another 501c3, a real-estate/construction company, which would be independent of the college but whose purpose would be – once capital is raised – to buy up lots in land or in houses that need real improvement. And they would serve as laboratories for students working under trained masters – plumbers and carpenters. Those houses could be fixed up and then one of three things: they could be sold for revenue to buy more houses, they could serve as dormitories/residences for students, and thirdly, for faculty interested in teaching, they could be sold at a really low price as an incentive to bring people in from the outside with families.
We would also work with some companies and corporations that are desperate for a pool of young workers and apprentices, like for instance: Love’s truck stops. We’ve seen signs advertising for apprentice diesel mechanics, whereby the apprentices would receive salary and benefits during the time of their training.
Too often higher education in this country – they’ve not really respected the maturity of their students. They’ve treated them as younger than they are. So often, in the advertising of colleges, they speak of “the education of the whole person.” But it rings hollow, it’s not really the education of the whole person. It may have been reduced to a technical education for the sake of a career…to earn big money. But they’re not really interested in the education of the whole person, partly because public universities have separated the transcendent and the theological from education, so there’s a whole aspect of one’s humanity that they consciously ignore. It’s become fragmented.
Part of our thinking about the curriculum related to thinking about our own children, who are 9, 7 and 5. And we thought, what kind of education do we want them to have? Well, we want them to understand basic theology, and the beauty of great literature, sound thinking, but we also want them to have the confidence that comes from learning a skill. And I suspect many parents – especially Catholic and Christian parents – want that for their own children.