The present, future, and quality of Catholic online education

An interview with Patrick Carmack, President of the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program, about Catholic online education, technology, and Great Books

Patrick S. J. Carmack, J.D. is the President of the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program, and the founder of the Angelicum Academy Homeschool Program and of the Great Books Academy Homeschool Program (2000 AD). In addition to earning his Juris Doctorate, Patrick has completed additional courses in psychology and philosophy, as well as studies at the Institute of Spirituality at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome (the “Angelicum”). He is a former Judge at the Oklahoma State Corporation Commission, member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar, former CEO of an independent petroleum exploration and production company, founder and former Chairman of the International Caspian Horse Society, and President of a non-profit educational foundation. 

Patrick was a participant in Dr. Mortimer J. Adler’s last several Socratic discussion groups in Maryland and California in 1999 and 2000, and he moderated the first live-audio Socratic groups online and numerous online groups since. He has spoken on educational topics at various conferences in the U.S. and in Europe. He is the recipient of the International Etienne Society’s Pope John Paul the Great Thomist Humanist Award for his work in education.

He recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the Catholic online education, the pros and cons of online technology for learning, and the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program.

CWR: Online education has had exponential growth in the last decade; has Catholic online education kept pace?

Patrick S. J. Carmack: No, but it is catching up. There is a conservative tendency in Catholic education with respect to the use of modern technology, which results in a reluctance to embrace it. This is probably partly due to a kind of nostalgia for the golden age of Catholic education in the scholasticism of the High Middle Ages and the later, very successful Jesuit pedagogy developed during the Counter-Reformation period. But there is another reason as well, one articulated by Marshall and Eric McLuhan, which recognizes that technology and media themselves change us, and hence society, regardless of the content. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this, but overall the changes are troubling, especially if one connects them to the increasing secularization of the West, where technological change is most rapid. In a word, there is a dehumanizing element to technology that disembodies us to some degree—a discarnation of a sort. That, of course, runs counter to the Catholic love of all reality, including the body and the incarnational aspect of the faith.

CWR: It is surprising to hear you criticize educational technology since you work so much with it. Are you opposed to the use of technology in education, to online classes for instance?

Carmack: Yes, and no. A few years ago some of us were meeting in Rome with Cardinal Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and he related how numerous requests were made to the Congregation for Catholic institutions of higher education to be established in poorer countries, even Muslim ones such as Indonesia, but that the Congregation had no resources to respond to this need, and so that opportunity for evangelization was being missed. Online education can address this need at minimal costs, worldwide, and we are already engaged in that apostolate. I think this is a situation in which one can reasonably conclude that the dangers of modern technology are secondary to its obvious advantages.

One is reminded of St. Thomas’ observation that while considered simply one thing may be better than another, yet relatively that may be reversed by circumstances. So education in-person and without technology may be better than online education simply considered, yet relatively for someone without other means of education, online education is much better than no or minimal education. Remember Aristotle’s dictum that the educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. While Catholics may find that an exaggerated judgment, still it strongly supports the point that good online education is certainly much better than no education.

Given the prohibitive cost of higher education—the average cost of a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. is now over $40,000 per year, so over $160,000 for the typical four years—for the vast majority of the world’s population online education represents the only means to higher education. Our LSP online college classes cost under a fourth of the numbers just mentioned, so an accredited BA begun at LSP and completed at Holy Apostles College & Seminary online for example, would cost under $37,000, total.

CWR: What about quality?

Carmack: Numerous studies over the last decade have confirmed that online education is equal to or superior to on-campus education, at least in terms of measurable elements such as grades. Our LSP courses are essentially the same as those offered by Great Books colleges—and of course the Great Books contain “the best that has been thought and written.” Our Theology Online courses are taught by renowned educator Fr. Joseph Fessio, himself a student of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who is widely considered the finest pope-theologian in the history of the Church.

CWR: What is Father Joseph Fessio’s role in the Liberal Studies Program?

Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, Chancellor

Carmack: Father Fessio is the Chancellor the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program and is the instructor in each of the four Theology Online courses, and gives the 100 or so total lectures for those four courses.

CWR: What, exactly, is the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program?

Carmack: The program consists 12 college-level courses developed by Ignatius Press and the Angelicum Academy. Eight of the courses constitute the Great Books Program; four of the courses constitute the Theology Online courses. All 12 courses (60 total credits) have been recommended for college credit by the American Council on Education (ACE CREDIT). The Great Books courses are each 6-credit hour courses (48 total credits, usually completed in eight semesters/four years), and the theology courses are each 3-credit hour courses (for 12 total credit hours).

CWR: What is the guiding vision of the Liberal Studies Program?

Carmack: The central idea was to provide an online, Catholic, generalist/liberal education using the Great Books as the primary texts—hence the Angelicum Great Books Program, combined with a deeper, more systematic concentration on the Catholic Faith using the four theology online courses developed by Fr. Fessio for that purpose.

The Great Books are best studied using the dialectic or Socratic method, which is a live, focused, conversational approach, discussing the profound ideas raised by the greatest authors of all time, under the guidance of experienced moderators, many of whom are also professors at Catholic colleges and Fellows of the Adler-Aquinas Institute (, also headed by Fr. Fessio.

The theology online courses are best taught didactically, using lectures by Fr. Fessio and selected readings, since they generally involve Revelation and Magisterial teachings, not the subject of debate (in fact, one of the courses is on Revelation). 80% of the credits (48 credits) are part of the online, live, Angelicum Great Books Program courses, and 20% (12 credits) are the Theology Online courses. Combined, we believe this represents the very finest Catholic liberal education available, online or otherwise.

CWR: How far do those 60 credits take a student towards their bachelor’s degree?

Carmack: The 60 college credits represent ½ of the typical bachelor’s degree curriculum in the US. College students typically take 15 credits per semester on campus, for four years, earning a total of 120 credits. The plan of the LSP was to provide the first 60 credits towards a bachelor’s degree (BA) online, and to allow students then to transfer those credits into colleges and universities of their choice, online or on campus, towards their chosen majors. More and more colleges and universities accept all of these credits, which have been formally recommended by the American Council on Education for college credit to its 1,600 affiliated colleges and universities.

CWR: At what age can students begin the LSP courses?

Carmack: Following the strong recommendation of our late, great, friend the Catholic philosopher convert, Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, we have been offering the Great Books Program to students as young as 14 (9th grade) and up, since 2000 A.D., with great success (our oldest student was 87!). Young students need a couple of years of the Great Books Program before taking the four Theology Online courses, so we do not recommend them for students younger than 16 (11th grade). In this way, by the time they graduate from high school or homeschool students will have earned 60 credits towards their BAs, in a top-notch, Catholic, online program moderated by world-class, Catholic professors and moderators who have conducted literally thousands of these classes over the last 15 years.

Parents and students may wish to read some of the testimonials by our students posted online (at to get a sense of how effective and really life-changing these courses can be. To our surprise, we have found the younger students profit more from the Great Books than the older ones—with exceptions, of course—as they are more open to the great truths contained therein and generally have been less harmed by the radical skepticism and relativism rampant in modern culture.

CWR: Why study the Great Books, often regarded as old, dusty classics? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on contemporary works?

 Carmack: “Great Books” is a generic name and so is easy to dismiss generically without seeming too much the philistine, but considered specifically I think few serious educators would suggest they should be omitted from any education worthy of the name: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Genesis, Plato’s Dialogues, various works of Aristotle, Plutarch’s Lives, Virgil’s Aeneid, Cicero On Duties and Friendship, the Gospel of St. John, Augustine’s Confessions, selections from Aquinas’ Summa, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great tragedies of Shakespeare, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamasov, the U.S. Constitution, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and many more like these. Our students read well over 100 such works in four years. Dr. Adler maintained that unless one were acquainted with such great, influential works one simply could not be considered well educated, nor understand the foundations of our society, its past, present or likely future.

In the words of Dr. Adler: “Reading the Great Books has done more for my mind than all the rest of the academic pursuits…it is the best education for the faculty as well as for the students; the use of original texts is an antidote for survey courses and fifth-rate textbooks; and it constitutes by itself, if properly conducted, the backbone of a liberal education.”

CWR: Some people maintain it would be better to study far fewer works and more thoroughly understand them. Or that students cannot understand those difficult works in high school. What would you say in response?

Carmack: I would answer that I agree with Dr. Adler that no graduate from high school or even college is “educated” in a complete or even moderately satisfactory sense, nor will they thoroughly understand even a few great books at that age. That is the work of a lifetime. Rather, the best we can hope for is to acquaint them with the broad range of human intellectual activity and discovery, which reading widely in a four-year Great Books Program accomplishes better than any alternative. Students who never previously considered careers or interests in philosophy, theology, history, literature or many other subjects have those fields opened to them, often for the first time, when they read the Great Books.

CWR: Is the program committed to upholding its Catholic identity?

Carmack: Yes. The Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program’s commitment to fostering a strong sense of Catholic identity is recognized in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College as a recommended Catholic college program.

CWR: Many online programs have seen significant growth in the last few years; how is the LSP doing?

Carmack: Our student numbers this year are up approximately 30%, which is obviously very strong growth.

CWR: Where can parents and potential students find out more about the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program?

Carmack: At Classes begin the first week of September. Online enrollments are on-going.

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