The Liberal Arts Go Online

The Angelicum Academy brings the study of the Great Books into the 21st century.

Patrick S.J. Carmack is president of the Angelicum Academy, a Catholic homeschool program based on the liberal arts and the “Great Books” of Western civilization. A former administration law judge and member of the US Supreme Court Bar, Carmack has also served as CEO of a petroleum exploration and production company and as the founder and president of several non-profit organizations.

A prominent advocate of liberal education, Carmack has also pioneered the use of modern technology in the study of the Great Books, moderating the first live-audio, online Socratic discussion groups in 2000 and leading many similar online groups since. He is the recipient of the 2009 International Etienne Society’s Pope John Paul the Great Thomist Humanist Award for his work, and he recently spoke to CWR about the Angelicum Academy and his most recent educational endeavors.

CWR: What is the Angelicum Academy and why was it founded?

Patrick Carmack: I met with Dr. Mortimer Adler, the former editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica and of the Great Books of the Western World and author of 50 books on philosophy, in 1999 in Wye, Maryland and again in 2000 in San Mateo, California. Dr. Adler had long decried the waste of time in the American compulsory education system and its collapse into relativism and other philosophical problems.

My interest in meeting Dr. Adler was in seeking his advice on what a complete homeschool curriculum should look like. Over time, as homeschooling grew and mainstreamed—especially after the Columbine high school massacre in 1999, which moved hundreds of thousands of families into homeschooling—more and more homeschooling parents were looking for rigorous academic curricula.

Dr. Adler headed the Great Books movement for 80 years, from 1920 at Columbia to 2000. He saw that return to the classics as a critical part of the answer to progressive education and relativism. Beside the reading of the great classics, he believed the discussion of them in a Socratic, or conversational, manner was essential to gaining a solid understanding of their contents as well as to developing the ability think critically and speak effectively along with the other participants in the conversation. He called the study of the Great Books the “backbone of a liberal education” (“liberal” here meaning a “generalist” education as opposed to a narrow vocational or professional training).

Dr. Alder believed the American educational system was four years too long and resulted in an unnecessarily protracted adolescence. It is interesting to note that famed Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain shared Dr. Adler’s views regarding the value of the Great Books and on shortening the time spent on just learning the liberal arts. Once the learning arts are mastered they should be used on something—that “something” is first the Great Books, specialization and vocationalism coming later.

So we founded the Angelicum Academy (the name is a tip-of-the-hat to the “Angelic Doctor,” St. Thomas Aquinas, and to the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, which is informally called the Angelicum) in 2000 with a Great Books home/high school program, exactly as Dr. Adler had advocated. We had 30 students our first year (2000) and have had thousands since.

CWR: How does the Angelicum Academy work? What sort of programs and curricula are available?

Carmack: From the outset our goal was to be a one-stop, complete education service provider in order to make the switch to homeschooling as easy as possible for parents. Putting together an entire curriculum is a huge, multi-year project—one for which not many parents have the resources or time. We began with our online Great Books Program for 9th-12th grades (which later earned college credit recommendation for six credits per semester—48 credits for the whole four-year program) and reverse-engineered, so to speak, homeschool grades 8th, 7th, 6th—down to nursery—designing them to lead step-by-step into the Great Books Program, which is the core of our program. We based our “Good Books” literature program (nursery-8th grade) on a list prepared by Dr. John Senior, who with Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick founded the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas.

We next added Father Joseph Fessio’s excellent online undergraduate theology courses developed for our combined Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program, adding a more systematic approach to theology to that contained in the Great Books readings, and then added undergraduate philosophy courses for the same reason. This year we helped establish the Adler-Aquinas Institute, which, in collaboration with an online university, offers undergraduate and graduate programs (master’s and doctoral level), online and by distance education. So we now offer a total of 22 levels of education, from nursery through doctorate degrees. We offer or provide books, tests, study guides—everything—for 13 courses: too many for any student to take simultaneously.

The Angelicum Academy is the first part (grades nursery-12) of the overall educational offerings, to which the Angelicum online Great Books Program is added in 9th-12th grades. Father Fessio’s theology and the undergraduate philosophy courses designed by Dr. Peter Redpath are offered via the Adler-Aquinas Institute, as are the master’s and doctoral programs. We refer to these programs collectively as the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program, which is the most comprehensive distance education program available anywhere. Students may transfer in or out at any level. They study from home or elsewhere—some from schools. Our youngest students are three, our oldest was 87. We have had students from over 40 countries.

Father Fessio is a long-time friend and, as your readers will know, an ardent supporter of Catholic education reform initiatives. We are honored to work with him. He is the chancellor of the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program and of the Adler-Aquinas Institute.

CWR: How would you describe the basic principles employed in the approach taken to education? For those unfamiliar with the Great Books program, what is it and why is used?

Carmack: It is generally acknowledged that wisdom, which prioritizes all things in due order to help us attain our end, is the goal of human intellectual activity. Sense experience, imagination, data collection, knowledge, and even understanding are merely prerequisites to obtaining wisdom. As grace builds on nature, we first aim to develop this highest natural intellectual attainment, with the goal of preparing the ground for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially supernatural wisdom. One cannot love what one does not know. An empty head generally results in an empty heart. The Great Books fill the head well and help aim the heart toward the true, the good, the beautiful. This, we believe, is the best intellectual preparation for students for life and to help them reach their destiny.

The Great Books contain much of the collected wisdom of millennia of the human race’s great sages and saints, in nearly all areas of human intellectual activity and endeavor—this includes Sacred Scripture. Perhaps one-half of the Great Books after the time of Christ were written by Catholics, much of the rest by other Christians. If the Great Books are not a part of one’s education then something essential is missing. Adler called the Great Books the “backbone” of education and believed it very important for students to study them in high school, while they can, before the obligations of life begin to intrude on time for study.

CWR: The academy’s website has a lengthy section about accreditation. Can you summarize some of the basic points made about accreditation?

Carmack: Briefly, after World War II, Congress authorized the GI Bill, giving veterans funds to pay for a “free” college education. The colleges in existence were not nearly large enough to accommodate the flood of new students, so many new ones started up, including some fraudulent ones, now referred to as diploma mills. To help protect the veterans from losing the benefits of the GI Bill to fraud, accreditation bodies formed or expanded and began investigating the colleges to verify their bona fides. Fraudulent ones were denied accreditation, and federal money was eventually restricted to those accredited by US Department of Education-recognized accrediting bodies.

As with so many things, over the passage of time what began as a good idea—promoting authentic education by identifying fraudulent colleges (or requiring borderline ones to meet certain minimal standards)—became institutionalized, often working against authentic education by burdening obviously good colleges with costly, repetitive reviews and mountains of bureaucratic paperwork taking resources away from their primary mission. Spotting diploma mills or borderline cases is easy—it takes a short time with a modest measure of common sense. The accrediting bodies have drifted far from that simple task, and now add layer after layer of ever-increasing requirements—many mandated by the US Department of Education—on colleges to conform to their bureaucratic regulations, which are now designed, perhaps unconsciously, to protect the educational monopoly member institutions have on accredited degrees and hence on federal student loan funding. The member colleges cooperate because they have little choice and benefit by being in the accredited club, which enables them to receive federal funds. But all of this has drifted far away from their educational mission, and students are paying the cost in increasing student loan balances for degrees of increasingly dubious value. This is not to denigrate the many fine people involved—it is a critique of the gradual decline of the whole system, one not often obvious when viewed from within. The role of accrediting bodies should be much more circumscribed.

At the elementary and high school levels, other than being useful as a declaration that the school is not a fraud, or meets certain minimal standards, accreditation is very largely meaningless. With a handful of minor exceptions, it is not legally required and very few colleges ever ask about it. The fact that colleges accept and now recruit homeschoolers, who often come from eclectic, unaccredited home education, demonstrates that reality. It does represent an effort by some independent schools and programs to gain a measure of credibility, and perhaps on that level it offers comfort for some parents unsure about leaving public schooling and so serves a useful purpose to that degree.

Online education, worldwide, is swiftly bringing the day when most accrediting bodies will disappear as students will no longer need federal funds to pay the inflated tuition charged by brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. Online tuition is dropping fast and will continue to do so. Higher education is being reformed from the outside, by the free market and the Internet.

CWR: What influence did the work of Mortimer Adler have on your own approach to education and to the mission of the Angelicum Academy? How would you describe the legacy of Dr. Adler? And for those who have not read any of his many books, what might you recommend they read?

Carmack: Dr. Adler converted to the Catholic faith in December, 1999, not long before his death in 2001. Prior to that he had been a member of the American Catholic Philosophical Association for many years. He was an ardent admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas and was a brilliant Thomist. Restoring Plato, Aristotle, and particularly St. Thomas to the Western canon in editing the Great Books of the Western World was one of his great accomplishments. Another was his lifelong and partially successful battle against skepticism, positivism, and relativism—Adler believed in truth and was a brilliant promoter and popularizer of sense realism and the love of truth in its highest form, wisdom, the love of which is called philosophy. Few realize that Adler was recruited by captains of American capitalism in the period leading up to World War II to provide an intellectual basis for the defense of democracy against fascism, socialism, and communism. World War II was also waged on the intellectual level. Much of Adler’s work was part of that successful effort (e.g., A Capitalist Manifesto by Adler with Louis Kelso). But his name will forever be associated with the Great Books—the wisdom of the past he collected and disseminated.  Doubtless he is conversing with the immortal authors of those great books about their great ideas, even now.

Apart from the indirect influence of St. Thomas, Dr. Adler is without a doubt the person most influential in the educational vision and programs we have developed—without his work nothing we have done would have happened. I would like to add here that all of the education programs we are discussing are the result of the collective work of numerous people: Drs. Peter Redpath, Curtis Hancock, James Taylor, Father Fessio, my wife—Elisabeth Carmack—and Steve Bertucci, in particular come to mind, and many others.

In the realm of education, I enjoyed and profited from Adler’s Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind (Collier Books, 1990), a collection of his essays in education spanning several decades, edited by Geraldine Van Doren, which contains his views on what students should study, whether it should vary, what was going wrong with Catholic education as far back as the 1940s, why, and what the remedies are.

Related are Adler’s three Paideia books (The Paideia Proposal, The Paideia Program, and Paideia Problems and Possibilities), which outline specific education reform proposals for schools. We incorporated many of the suggestions contained in those books in the Angelicum Academy curriculum and pedagogy. His classic How to Read a Book (1940, heavily revised in 1972) gives guidelines for critically reading books of any tradition and made his name a household word for decades before William F. Buckley had Adler as his most frequent guest on his national TV series Firing Line.

CWR: Your background is quite eclectic: a degree in law, former administrative law judge, member of the US Supreme Court Bar, former CEO of an independent petroleum exploration and production company, founder and former chairman of the International Caspian Horse Society, head of an educational foundation. How have your experiences guided you in the work you’ve undertaken as an educator?

Carmack: This sort of experience made me appreciate the need for a generalist education, one not limited to a narrow technical or professional niche—in short, a liberal education. Approximately 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies are run by CEOs with liberal arts degrees—more than any other type of degree. David Kearns, former CEO of Xerox Corporation, explained it well:

The only education that prepares us for change is a liberal education. In periods of change, narrow specialization condemns us to inflexibility—precisely what we do not need. We need the flexible intellectual tools to be problem solvers, to be able to continue learning over time.

CWR: Looking at the general condition of education in the United States, whether elementary, high school, or college, what are the most serious problems and failings? What, if anything, can be done to correct them?

Carmack: I believe the Holy Father has identified the main problem—relativism. Years ago Adler identified the same culprit under the name of skepticism. Fundamentally, today, it is a denial of our ability to discover truth, and a denial that truth even exists beyond the field of mathematical physics. With no truth other than positivistic science, all other knowledge becomes reduced to the methodology of physical science or it is considered non-existent. So outside of the physical sciences, no contradictory statements are possible—no truths or errors. All knowledge is reduced to the realm of opinion. Hence, might—mathematically regulated efficiency of will—determines the existence of all truth. They are left with no truth to trump, or transcend, raw material power: the power to create or destroy at will. This becomes the apex of human intellectual activity. And since we cannot create ex nihilo as God can, our pride puts the focus primarily on man’s ability to destroy. Hence the vast expenditures on wars and armaments, to the neglect of peaceful, productive pursuits such as feeding the hungry, worldwide—something mankind could easily do with a small fraction of the armaments budgets.

As my colleague Dr. Peter Redpath has noted so well in his books, science, so misunderstood, becomes a transcendental sophistry, a pseudo-religion or secularized, fundamentalist faith that worships the mathematical manipulators of material reality: physical scientists (especially, mathematical physicists, thanks to the dominant influence of Descartes). Only what can be mathematically measured and empirically verified is considered knowable. All other knowledge is denied. This reductionism might appear to contradict the claim that mathematical physicists know all truth, because they have no way of mathematically and empirically knowing that the whole of truth is contained in mathematical physics. Indeed, their reductionist claim is rationally incoherent. But this does not trouble the transcendental sophists. By a secularized faith alone, they believe all truth resides in the mathematically regulated and restrained human will: the individual human will restrained by the social will of enlightened social engineers. Having reduced the whole of truth to one of its parts, these neo-sophists have embraced might, efficiency of will, as truth’s chief measure. Hence their manipulation via the schools of students’ minds, using the theme of “universal tolerance” of all non-scientifically verifiable claims. This keeps students locked in the chains of skepticism about non-mathematically and non-empirically verifiable claims such as those made by metaphysics, or by faith, hope, or love. If a student thinks he or she cannot learn, he or she cannot learn, and becomes easy to manipulate. Ironically, most public and private schools in the United States have embraced this sophistic fallacy as the absolute truth, and as a sign of enlightened tolerance.

So the restoration of an understanding of truth is critical to correcting these errors. We believe the Great Books, beginning with Homer and following the order of discovery primarily to Socrates and Aristotle on the one hand, and beginning with Moses to Christ on the other, and the harmonization of both by St. Thomas, is the best way to correct these errors. All the other great authors compliment this process, broaden it out of the realm of philosophy and make it far more attractive, interesting, and beautiful for students. That the more recent authors often contradict the earlier ones merely serves to highlight the differences, enabling errors to be understood and defanged. 

CWR: Has the Angelicum Academy been formally recognized by the Catholic Church?

Carmack: Yes. The Angelicum Academy is officially recognized by the Church, in the person of His Excellency, Michael J. Sheridan, bishop of Colorado Springs, as a Catholic home school program, pursuant to the Code of Canon Law, Canon 803 § 1.

In addition, the Newman Guide for Choosing a Catholic College has recommended our college-level Angelicum Great Books Program, which was also recommended by the American Council for Education for 48 hours of college credit (six per semester).

CWR: What immediate and long-term plans do you have for the Academy?

Carmack: What began as an educational reform movement 90 years ago, primarily in the mind of Dr. Mortimer Adler, has grown to include 37 colleges with Great Books programs (three with four-year programs), over a million homes with Great Books sets (not all gathering dust!), and, since 2000, our online, Catholic, four-year Great Books program available worldwide, preceded and augmented by the other grades and courses offered by the Angelicum Academy and followed by the higher elements of the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program.

Our goal is to reach as many students as possible, to prepare them, from nursery to 8th grade in the Angelicum Academy, for a liberal education based on the Great Books Program beginning at age 14 (9th grade and up). With Dr. Adler, we believe this is the best preparation for subsequent specialization and intellectual development. We accomplish this in complete conformity with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. We have had students from over 40 countries as diverse as Singapore, Botswana, Mexico, Egypt, and Macau, though the great majority are American.

Our affiliation with Ignatius Press and Father Fessio has made available a greater outreach and helped draw a growing number of students to liberal—“freeing from ignorance”—education and the study of the Great Books.

Our next project involves the extension of the foregoing by means of the development on an online platform for Catholic colleges and universities (there are over 1,800) to offer free courses to students worldwide. In a meeting at the Vatican with the Prefect for Catholic Education, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, he expressed to us the need for Catholic higher education to reach more students, particularly in poorer countries, and mentioned that even Muslim countries such as Indonesia have requested Catholic institutions of higher learning to help educate their people.  Of course the Internet offers that potential.

CWR: How can interested students contact the Angelicum Academy?

Carmack: Our website is and has contact information there and links to and Most of our courses begin anytime, however the Angelicum Great Books Program begins August 30 this year.

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