Some Specifics About The College of Saint Mary Magdalen

My Thomas More friends will remember the insane rumors we heard about what went on at Magdalen College.  Apparently they were all true — but things are really changing over there.  (I’ve heard that some of the old faithful alumni are all up in arms about the reforms, which implies that good things are happening!)


  1. This really is good news. Magdalen has long had a reputation for getting a little carried away.

    One of the challenges of small Catholic colleges such as this, is the temptation to eschew “moderation in all things” in favor of a rigorism disguised as apostolic zeal. The result was a creeping neo-Jansenism, and a fear of students assuming any risk of failure in their personal choices, from which you cannot learn if someone else is making all those choices for you.

    Graduating classes invariably included students who used the occasion to announce their engagement to be married. Even if they remained chaste, you can’t convince me they were “just friends” the whole time. The “loyal” alumni aren’t fooling anybody but themselves.

  2. Wonderful news. Years ago (25? 30?) my husband was up there to give a guest lecture. He learned from a few friends on the faculty about both the “reform school” culture of the place as well as a nascent movement among his friends to reform the reform school. As you can guess that particular uprising was crushed and all the faculty involved summarily dismissed. What a grace that things are finally changing.

  3. I wish I knew more about this college. I have a friend who went there for a year I think before transferring to Ave Maria in Florida.

    Your article, Simcha, doesn’t address the rumors she told me about the place. Like a strict dress code and bedtime. Dietary and exercise restrictions as well.

    I don’t know. It could all be hooey. But I was perfectly happy at St. Anselm College. …just a little plug for my alma mater…

    • Mary, the administration is extremely forthcoming and eager to spread the word about the reforms (which are quite recent, and may have taken place after your friend transferred), so you could contact them through their website if you need some specific information.

  4. I sat next to President Harne at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast this Spring. When I heard he was President of Magdalen, I confess I felt a little anxious about our ability to find a mutually agreeable topic of conversation. He was a delight! I found him warm, intelligent, modest and very forthcoming about the changes at Magdalen (without speaking an ill word about the previous administration or its intentions). I liked his vision very much. He’s eager to improve the academic standards of the school and hopeful of forging a campus culture which is less fearful and more eager to prepare students who can engage the culture from an authentic and healthy Catholic perspective. I came away very impressed with him and with a positive impression of the school.

  5. I really like the idea of Catholic liberal arts programs and I wish I lived near one provided I could afford to attend or send my daughters. But realistically, what can you do with a degree in Great Books?

    • This is something I go back and forth on — does it make sense to invest in a liberal arts education.

      On the one hand, everything I know that’s worth knowing, I learned in college (and the same goes for my husband, who is the primary breadwinner, and doesn’t even have a degree at all!). Also, I can give you a very impressive list of the professions of my fellow liberal arts graduates. The idea of a liberal arts education is that it forms the mind to prepare you to be a student of whatever life requires you to learn (although how that actually works out is not always pretty).

      On more practical terms, what can you do with a degree in ANYTHING these days? I recently interviewed Peter Sampo, founder of Thomas More College and recently the founder of Erasmus Institute of Liberal Arts, and he points out that people invest in skills-based degrees, graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of students loans, and STILL can’t find a job in today’s market. The market is already saturated with people with several utilitarian degrees. There is no degree which guarantees employment these days, as far as I know.

      On the other hand (and this is the part that’s a new thought for me lately, as I get more familiar, through personal experience and from what I’ve heard from friends, with how Catholic and non-profit organizations are often run) the Catholic world is saturated with people who have a wonderful liberal arts education but really could stand to take at least a few classes in marketing or accounting. Or business ethics. (NB: I am NOT speaking about the Register here. They do a great job of being truly Catholic, but running like an actual business.)

    • This is actually a subject that I have considered in depth, but have never really had an opportunity to expound upon in depth. Beware.

      Firstly, I think vocational schools are not nearly as respectable as they ought to be. Most people are getting absolutely useless degrees at 4 year colleges and universities when they ought to be learning a useful trade with skills that are employable directly after the completion of the program. But that is looked down upon in favor of the shallow, pathetic, and embarrassing excuses of undergraduate degree programs at most colleges and universities. It’s the worst of all worlds. Those who would never have an interest nor an aptitude for the liberal arts and just want a regular old job, are forced to sit through useless core classes for 2 years, which have been dumbed down for their benefit and are of no use to anyone, especially the ones who actually DO have an interest and aptitude.

      Secondly, the whole perspective on the liberal arts, in my opinion, should be different. So many people who hold advanced degrees in business or science – engineering, physics, biology, etc. can’t write to save their lives, even about the subjects they love. I firmly believe a liberal arts education would improve their communication and critical thinking skills dramatically and lead much greater results, regardless of the subject. It isn’t that those with an aptitude for science or business don’t have an aptitude for the liberal arts, but that they are assumed not to because of this weird compartmentalization of disciplines (and vice versa).

      And finally, those with a true love of the humanities/liberal arts should understand that it is not necessarily a life of financial ease that they choose when they pursue it as a career, but rather a life of learning and the attendant joys. However, I think it could pay better if it wasn’t chosen superficially by so many who don’t really know what else to do (but just couldn’t possibly go to a technical school) and then debunked as pretentious and shallow by more lucrative disciplines.

      I could write for days on this subject, but should probably feed those children living in my house.

  6. Well, I have two kids in college and five more on the way (to college, I mean), so I think about the question of liberal arts vs. something you can actually get a job with all the time. I want them to be able to think clearly, and to have an integrated understanding of freedom and truth. I want them to know the strength of the great ideas of Western civilization and the beauty of good literature. I also want them not to live in destitution.

    My oldest two kids are at the Erasmus Institute of Liberal Arts. They are going to graduate with so little debt that they’ll be able to go to grad school and get a “useful” degree if they want. The reason they’re going to graduate with hardly any debt is the immense generosity of the faculty of Erasmus, who by personal sacrifice have made the cost very, very low. Add this to the best liberal arts education we could find, and the sum is: check it out!

    • Dear Abby, I positively see the value of Catholic Liberal Arts, esp. from an aesthetic viewpoint. I don’t see much practical value though. My 20 year old wants to get into the nursing field so she has to go to a NY “state” college, which will provide the practical side but unfortunately very little on the side of Truth. That’s the problem bringing up Catholic kids though isn’t it? That college you sighted above looks wonderful and I think it’s just heroic that the faculty are willing to sacrifice so much to preserve this. I just wish there were more like them around. And I feel a bit slighted that the literature program omits Dickens.

  7. Ooh, good news on Magdalene! It always seemed a shame to me that what should have been another great little Catholic school was just too out there to be a good thing for most people.

    Just to plug my own Alma Mater, since people are asking for Catholic but practical degrees, Ave Maria U down in FL has Econ, Math and Bio (including Bio with pre-med focus) with perfectly decent physics and chem backing it up. You still get the awesome liberal arts core and the Catholic environment, but there are a few more practical options. I’m afraid that still doesn’t help with nursing, since one generally goes straight in to that rather than doing pre-med first. I’ve heard decent things about (also Catholic) University of Dallas though, and it’s big enough that it may have nursing.

    In favor my type of school, if you want a degree that will leave you employable, but you don’t have a particularly employable interest that you really want to major in, there are at least two practical bonuses I got from going to a li’l Catholic school:

    1) I have a very strong nation-wide network. Going to a small school where the majority shares a common bond (authentic Catholicism, in this case) means you basically have to try hard to NOT have a lot of friends. Not just acquaintances, but the kind of friends who will put you up, pick you up from the airport, help you move or get you a job. In a tough job market, connections are at least as valuable as a shiny degree. After graduating, I was able to move to a new city, have a place to stay while I got a job, and get an apartment with a roommate I knew wasn’t nuts. It was all through people I had met at school. The job was initially temporary, but they hired me full time because of my second practical bonus:

    2) A good liberal arts degree, while it doesn’t make you LOOK that employable, can make you a very nice employee once you’ve got your foot in the door. Copious amounts of paper writing (if grading standards are tolerably high) teaches not only the ability to communicate clearly in writing, but the ability to critique your own train of thought and make sure that the facts actually support your position. Both skills have gotten me noticed in good ways at work. I don’t pretend to have attained great abilities in those areas (I’m sure there’s something terribly unclear/stupid about my writing in this post somewhere), but I sure have a lot more than I would’ve with just high school or a practical degree.

    But then, my brother majored in Computer Science at a state college, paid up front because he was already so employable that he could afford it (plus of course it was cheaper than my school, being in-state), got a full-time job right away and now makes way more money than me without having to use any of it to pay for loans. So I’m not saying it’s the MOST financially sound option, just that it’s not a terrible choice, especially if you really think you’d be miserable at a state school. My brother doesn’t have that huge cache of friends from all over the country I was talking about, mainly because he didn’t have anything other than computers in common with most of the people there. That didn’t bother him but it would’ve made me wretched.

  8. Mount St. Mary’s in MD also has a great core curriculum, is very faithful, and has the benefit of having a major seminary attached to the University. As a theology major there, I was able to take a class or two with some seminarians in it, and it always added a new level to the discussions.

    There used to be more of a party atmosphere at the Mount, but in recent years it is getting much better, and it is such a solid, beautiful place.

    A liberal arts education teaches one how to think critically about the world and its many competing claims. What’s more important than that?

  9. I need to send this on to my sister in law! She has some pretty awful odd/off about Magdalen (she would have attended there about 12 years ago?) and I’ve heard stories from other places. I’m pretty sure there are a good proportion of alumni who are similarly ambivalent about their experiences there and will be glad it is changing.

  10. I would recommend as another option finding a state school with a thriving Newman center. That way you get a functional degree, no debt, AND a solid Catholic foundation. Worked for me!

  11. Same rumors about Magdalene went around Steubenville as well — one of my fellow drama students was a recovering Magdalene girl. The culture of infantilization was so insidious that she really had no idea of how to study on her own, by her own initiative. (And her grades suffered for it.) I thought she had to be making up some of the things she was telling us about Magdalene, but I see I was wrong. How bizarre, and how encouraging to see things changing so positively.

  12. I went to Christendom, and whenever we chafed against curfews or dress codes we consoled ourselves that at least we weren’t going to Magdalen. I was told about all the minutely controlling rules and could hardly believe them. I am glad to hear that they are going through reform – the old ways may have been a good preparation for monastery life, but not for life in the world.

  13. Sheesh! You’d think Magdalen was a jail where unsuspecting New Hampshire teens were kidnapped and imprisioned! As a graduate of Magdalen — yes, the “old” Magdalen — let me simply say that anyone who did not like the place was free to leave and study elsewhere. And obviously those who left (and went on to complain about Magdalen at their new college-of-choice) left because they didn’t care for Magdalen… so those are hardly the people to ask for a realistic perspective on the place! As for the unusual rules — many of those listed by Simcha were real and some were not. But for myself and most of my classmates, the formation was appreciated. We knew we were getting ourselves into an almost monastic-style formation program where daily Mass attendance, strictly modest dressing, set times for studying and socializing, and even limits on phone calling times/places, etc. were all expected of us. If you thought you were at Magdalen to get a “typical college experience” you had another think coming… but if you were there for the formative benefits and the close community life (again, very monastic-like), it was arduous but well worth the work! It saddens me to hear that it has changed so much, as I think the formation program — unusual as it was in the minds of today’s college students — was beautiful. Was it absolutely flawless and perfect? Of course not. But for those of us who embraced it (and I speak for myself and for *many* of my friends and fellow-graduates) it was a fruitful and unforgettable experience!

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