Edtior’s Note:Earlier this year, Dr. Keith Cassidy retired as president of the Seat of Wisdom College (SWC) in Barry’s Bay, Ont. Dr. Ryan Williams, a former academic dean at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, NY, and associate dean at St. Joseph’s Seminary for the Archdiocese of New York, is the new president of SWC. Second-year SWC student and Interim summer student Alfonso Menanno interviewed Dr. Williams for The Interim.
THE INTERIM:What is Seat of Wisdom College?
RYAN WILLIAMS:Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College is a Catholic liberal arts college located in Barry’s Bay Ontario. It offers a three-year degree in Catholic studies with five distinct concentrations: philosophy, literature, theology, history, and Classical and Early Christian Studies. We plan to have a four-year degree by the end of this academic year. SWC currently has around 110 students, and offers a full residential college experience. It is listed in the Newman guide as a college whose principles are in line with the teaching authority of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. It was started in 2000 for the purpose of providing faithful and robust liberal arts education at a low price to those who sought such an education. It has remained the least expensive college to provide a full degree and residential experience in North America.
TI:Why work at a Liberal Arts College?
RW:The liberal arts, understood in their traditional and appropriate sense, are those practices in which the human capacity to comprehend the greater mysteries of the world and human experience are cultivated. The result of this education is the liberation of the human mind from the mere material exigencies of the world, and its introduction to the greater world of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
To identify and work at an institution that operates with this particular understanding of liberal arts ought to be the goal of any educator, for it is only in this context where education truly occurs.
TI:What is the value of a classical education?
RW:Typically a classical education has two components: content and method. Regarding the content, classical education brings back to the fore the human story as understood by the vast majority of western civilization throughout the history of the world. In its approach to history, it begins the story where it ought to begin, in the distant past wherein are found the principles of our own more localized and recent history. In its focus on grammar, speech, and poetry, it cultivates man and his distinct nature as a bespeeched and communicating being.
Its method too is ordered to human nature for what it is; it focuses both on practice and appreciation. It trains the mind to memorize trivial but important truths so that the mind can then expend its real energy on greater truths that the principles support. So too does it open the mind, at a very young age, to the norms of beauty and aesthetics. This allows students to make the connection between Truth and Beauty, something nearly lost in today’s modern educational model.
TI:Why did you choose to become the President of SWC?
RW:The short answer to this, is because Our Lady asked me to. SWC is a gem in the modern world, not because it is isolated, but because it is one of the last bastions that I know in which a true education can be had. Here we do not train a student, we educate them. To be trained is to learn to do a particular task well; to be educated is to be able to do well in all things, even those activities in which we fail. It is a calling from God that we develop ourselves to our full capacity and that we live healthy, happy, and flourishing lives. This is only possible through education, and here at SWC, we educate.
There are other personal reasons as well. My family have lived in some of the big metropolitan areas in the world, and we have found that, though such locales provide many amusements and activities, they are less suitable to raising young children. The area of Barry’s Bay is a small community in which faith can be shared and practiced without ridicule, children are still seen as a gift and blessing, and nature is still appreciated as a power and presence meant to lead us to God.
TI:How important are family and pro-life values for the college? Also, How will you encourage the development of pro-life values and activism amongst the school community?
RW:The school is deeply pro-life, both as an institution and among its individual members. We have a pro-life club, and many of our students engage in pro-life activities both here and privately.
One great way to cultivate pro-life values is to educate people specifically about the nature of life itself. Here we don’t just mean the life of a child in the womb, but life as such. This can be best appreciated when considered philosophically and theologically. That life is present in the world is a true marvel, just in natural terms. That there should be these living substances that thrive in a world, incorporate parts of the world into themselves, propagate, expand, flourish; this is a true natural wonder.
When you consider human life philosophically, you realize the significantly elevated status of that life over all others; that it is what we call a good in itself. The value of a single human life is worth more than the entire material universe combined. Couple that with the theological revelation that we have through Jesus Christ, and that value increases infinitely.
We learn of the saints, and discuss them, and see how they have arisen from among a massive collection of individuals throughout history, and how they have moved the mountain of the world this way and that, leading humanity closer to excellence; this awareness teaches our students to hope in every life, to look beyond every circumstance surrounding each and every one of us, in expectation of that sanctity that transforms the world.
With such a perspective, human life becomes the definitive value in our world, and to our students.
TI:How has family life impacted you?
RW:Being married and subsequently having children has been the greatest gift, and the most profound and constant challenge of my life.
Marriage is a gift from God that ages like a wine. The more I grow in love with my beloved wife, the more I realize that I would not make any progress towards our Lord had He not provided me with such a saintly partner. In marriage you learn of God’s love for you; you learn that he has crafted a paradise of communion here in this fallen world, and that this is but the foretaste of the life to come. The gift of marriage has given me great confidence in God’s love for me, and his singular interest in my life.
Children are another gift through which I have learned to love; I look beyond myself, and indeed have learned to forget myself. I tell people that being a parent is the most fun experience that a person can have so long as they remember one thing: “it is not about you.” From that perspective, everything is a joy; without it, parenthood becomes a cage. My darling daughters give me hope that beauty not only exists in the world, but that the Lord is still sending goodness our way. These are difficult times for the Church and the World; looking at my children reminds me that Christ “has conquered the world.”
TI:The College did not sign off the government grant attestation for summer intern grants. Why not?
RW:As my predecessor, Dr. Keith Cassidy, wisely noted of the attestation: it contravened one of our core principles, that of the respect of human life. As such, to swallow such a pill would unravel us at our very core. This is true of principles, once abandoned, the nature of the thing in question is changed. We have always relied on the Providence of God to guide and support the school. Much of that providence has led generous benefactors to us. The benefactors have great concern for the impact that wordliness has on our most hallowed institutions, and find in us that perduring faith in Christ’s words: “Your Father knows you have need of all these things; seek first the kingdom of God, and the rest will be provided to you.”
TI:What safeguards are in place to support students who struggle with chastity, including those struggling with same-sex attraction?
RW:The greatest safeguard against sin of any kind is the presence of the sacraments of the Church; here at the school we have a vibrant Catholic community. Students may attend daily Mass, confession, adoration, prayer groups and devotionals, pilgrimages, and counseling with one of our two chaplains.
In addition to this, however, education in the nature and practice of the virtues, no internet in the student houses, and a rich activities life on campus all help students develop the virtue of chastity.
TI:Some people say that OLSWA, now SWC, is an escapist place, that people run away from big universities and cities to be sheltered from the world at SWC. How do you respond to such comments?
RW:There is a tendency to observe stable groups that maintain an identity distinct from the world as being “escapist”. However, at SWC we understand things a bit differently. Our community is transformative. What that boils down to is that, when people come here they change; in fact, they grow and flourish. Community life is so very important for human formation, and thus when we live within a strong Catholic and intellectual community, we tend to grow, we begin to see more depth to the world, and realize the proximity of God in our daily lives.
Rather than escapist, the SWC community is missionary. Here we educate our students precisely so they become lights to the world who will not be put under a basket. It is quite astounding the number of alumni who stay active and connected to the college. In addition we have found that our students tend to be more highly valued in whatever job they may possess, as well as bringing the genuine value of community into the workplace.
This is far from escapist. SWC is aiming at the world. We educate that the world might know Christ.
TI:Is there anything you would like to say to the readers of the Interim?
RW:What I would most like to say to your readership is thank you, for any prayers that you have offered for the school, and for any donations or other assistance you have provided.
I would further encourage you to come out and visit us, to “come and see” what it is we are all about. You will find thoughtful, balanced, and loving community members.
I also personally extend an invitation to anyone looking for a place to learn about the world, themselves, and God, to consider coming here. Even if just for a year, it is nearly universally described by our students as a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, it is almost always the case that students who come for one year, stay for all three.