Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - The Diocese of Lincoln has announced that John Freeh, Ph.D., will become the first full-time director of the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture (NICTC) as of next July.
The pilot version of this new humanities-based curriculum is underway now at the Newman Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s downtown campus. Next autumn, it will be offered as one of the fully credited Achievement-Centered Education (ACE) options, which are required for all university students.
A native of Jersey City, N.J., Dr. Freeh has taught English Literature to undergraduates at Oxford University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Gonzaga University, and Hillsdale College. He has also served as Director of University Ministry at Gonzaga and worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press and The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Dr. Freeh holds a B.A. and M.A. in English from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He also earned a master of philosophy with an emphasis in Renaissance Literature and doctorate of philosophy with an emphasis in English language and literature from St. Catherine’s, Oxford University
He said that he is excited about the purpose of NICTC, as envisioned by its founder, Bishop James Conley.
Dr. Freeh borrowed a phrase from the great poet Wordsworth as he described NICTC as, “an invitation ‘to come into the light of things’ - to come into the wonderful reality that surrounds us but to which we are too often blind.”
He continued, “Wisdom is the spark that ignites in us the desire to accomplish great things, with ‘great’ here meaning all that is noble, magnanimous and worthwhile, all that lifts us from the ordinary, or transforms the ordinary in such a way that we are never quite the same, ever again.”
It’s seeing this spark in students that has fueled his career for the past 30 years.
“I have had the great privilege of seeing students themselves make the connection between what they learn and how they choose to live,” Dr. Freeh said. “The great adventure of liberal arts learning — interdisciplinary courses that touch on all aspects of our common humanity — is that such learning can make us better human beings: men and women interested in that ‘fullness of life’ which the Gospel promises; those who are passionate to know whatever is true, good and beautiful; those who want to serve the common good.”
He believes that there is a “great hunger” among university students to learn things that will shape their lives, not just prepare them for the workforce.
“We are constantly fighting, are we not, against the chains that bind us: chains of ignorance and prejudice, chains of fear, delusion or discouragement,” Dr. Freeh said. “I want to spend my time and efforts with those who are seekers after wisdom, who want to follow that star to wherever it leads.”
Dr. Freeh revealed that “the great seekers after truth”— meaning Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Dante, Saints Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, Shakespeare and Milton — inspired him to follow their lead.
“I have always been restless in my seeking after truth: about God, about man, about our natural world,” he said. “My studies have always intentionally been interdisciplinary, in literature and philosophy, theology and history, and in particular poetry, which, when it is good, can move us to apprehend the truth or see it a new way.”
Dr. Freeh will rely on this “restless seeking” as he guides the students of NICTC.
“If it is true that wonder is the beginning of philosophy, and indeed of all true learning, then a teacher needs to kindle that sense of wonder inherent in each of us and guide students in their own search,” he stated.
He said he will be visiting Lincoln monthly until July, to work on course design and meet with students and others connected to the program. He sees NICTC as full of potential.
“We are, of course, still in the planning stages, but the Institute is likely to offer service opportunities around Lincoln and beyond — cultural activities and events, social gatherings for the sake of building new friendships,” he said. “We will also plan domestic and foreign trips, for example, to Greece and Italy, the wellsprings of western civilization.”
His role as director will not take him far from the classroom, however.
“I will likely be the sole instructor for the first semester or so, but if there is sufficient interest in the courses, I could see the Institute having others teach as adjuncts,” he speculated.
Dr. Freeh will move to Lincoln with his wife, Helen, who also teaches at the college level, this summer. The Freehs have two young children, Theresa Bernice,who is almost 4, and Joseph, who is 17 months old.
He welcomes this new adventure and the new friendships that will come of it.
“I love working with young people… I value friendship and hospitality… I like taking risks — ‘Fortune favors the bold,’” he said, describing himself as one who strives always to learn.
“I have an aversion towards pretense, which always gets in the way of true learning,” Dr. Freeh admitted. “We can only learn the truth about reality if our hearts and minds are open to wonder.”