Anchored by the Classic Learning Test

Cultivating an "Unplugged" College Culture | Kyle Washut

February 01, 2024 Classic Learning Test
Cultivating an "Unplugged" College Culture | Kyle Washut
Anchored by the Classic Learning Test
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Anchored by the Classic Learning Test
Cultivating an "Unplugged" College Culture | Kyle Washut
Feb 01, 2024
Classic Learning Test

On this episode of Anchored, Jeremy is joined by Kyle Washut, president of Wyoming Catholic College. The two discuss how the college helps students plug into the classical tradition by creating an "unplugged," present culture. They talk about the 21-Day Wilderness immersion exploration that every freshman goes on in order to fully engage with the created world. Kyle also explains the founding, goals, and structure of the school. 

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Anchored, Jeremy is joined by Kyle Washut, president of Wyoming Catholic College. The two discuss how the college helps students plug into the classical tradition by creating an "unplugged," present culture. They talk about the 21-Day Wilderness immersion exploration that every freshman goes on in order to fully engage with the created world. Kyle also explains the founding, goals, and structure of the school. 

Jeremy Tate (00:02.058)
Welcome back to the Anchor Podcast. I am here today on a beautiful snowy day in Annapolis with the new president of Wyoming Catholic College, Kyle Washett, who's the fourth president now, a man who's been around Wyoming Catholic College since the very earliest days. And this is a college that is deeply connected to the CLT story, that has a big place in my heart. It was one of the very first colleges.

to adopt and the president at the time there was one of the first leaders to really identify kind of the merit of the CLT idea that'd be Dr. Kevin Roberts who's now our buddy over at the Heritage Foundation there. As we were here today with again Kyle Washutu is the fourth president newly appointed in August. Kyle welcome thanks for being with us. Thanks for having me Jeremy, happy to be here.

Kyle, I am so thrilled that you are in this role and at this college and at this time. Wyoming Catholic punches way above its weight in influence and helping people to kind of reimagine what a college education is for. It's one of these education where in some ways like the best case for it I think is just meeting graduates. You meet the young people that have been shaped and molded by four years Wyoming Catholic College and they're different. And one of the things, one of my experiences of going out there, I noticed there was something just different

these students and it took me a few minutes to realize, wow these students are like seriously unplugged. They're not they're not fiddling with devices. They don't have this like second world of interacting with other people online through snap or whatever else all the time. They were so present, they were so engaged with each other, with the tutors or the professors. It's really special what y'all have built there and I think with you at the Helmkeil the future of Wyoming Catholic is going to be very bright. But I'd love to talk

kind of your story because you were 16. You were there as this college was kind of imagined, 25 years ago now nearly. Yeah, that's right. So I was in, grew up in Wyoming, grew up in Casper, Wyoming. And in the year 2000, there were, the three founders of the college were all there. Bishop David Ricken was in Casper, Father Bob Cook and Dr. Robert Carlson. And I like to tell people that they met me and they thought, man, kids need a lot of help. I'm talking for them.

Jeremy Tate (02:21.574)
And so they started doing some book studies and various things that ultimately led to Their decision in 2003 that to start looking into starting a Catholic college And so then I'd spend my summers helping Move boxes or do various grunt works They needed as they were getting ready for the college and then I my first job after graduating from Thomas Aquinas College I went out and worked as the founding grunt worker at Wyoming Catholic College

It's amazing amazing. So so tell us about your time at TAC for a moment another close CLT partner college But TAC is a very this is a very different kind of education. There are no different majors How did your experience there shape who you are now? Well, it was hugely transformative. So I'll have to say the when I was growing up in Wyoming Liberal arts education classical learning education was not something that was on my radar

I was going to good Catholic school, but it was not at all on the classical learning approach. I started hearing about classical education when I met Dr. Robert Carlson when I was in high school. Then I went to Thomas Aquinas and for the first time in my life was just completely immersed in...

the classical intellectual tradition. And it changed my life. I became an intellectual there. I read Plato, I learned to ask questions, I learned to think and discuss with my classmates and to appreciate great works of philosophy and mathematics and fundamentally made me the person I am today. You know, I wanna dig in a little bit here to kind of all things Wyoming Catholic, but before we do that, I'm interested in this conversation because we're at a moment right now.

where I think we're still catching up with the digital age. What is a university in the digital age? It no longer owns access to knowledge. What is a university? What is a college supposed to do? And I know you've been really thoughtful about that. And I think it's especially important right now to have this conversation, because you've got folks like Charlie Kirk that are influencing an entire generation, especially of young men.

Jeremy Tate (04:28.834)
to think, I don't need to go to college, I shouldn't go to college, what's the point? I love to hear your thoughts on, where does this current disillusionment or skepticism come from? Right, so in fact, when you hear surveys saying that huge percentages of Gen Z think that colleges are worthwhile, increasingly employers don't think colleges are a reliable indicator of the employability of a person, as a college president, it's a bit like,

running Pepsi and finding out that America doesn't like carbonated beverages. And you start to get a little bit worried, what's going on? But I think in fact, the perception is right. The vast majority of people who experience what goes by college education in America today.

They look at that and they think that is a waste of time at best. A huge drain of money, a place where you go to party, maybe it sets you up for earnings, maybe not, and it's also a place where you get hugely indoctrinated with a bunch of woke DEI ideology. It's crazy. And to those people I say, you're right. College has utterly failed you. Don't do that thing. It's a waste of time and money.

So you're a college president and you just said words that most college presidents are not going to say. Right. Woke DEI ideology. Maybe Larry Arnn and a handful of others at Hillsdale. But that is bold. I wonder, I mean, there's so much bureaucracy around so many colleges right now. I often feel like the college president is...

you know, he's in some ways a straightjacket and can't say much of anything. I think that's true in general of the experience of college for lots of people. Again, why are people disillusioned with college? You feel like the administrators aren't going to tell you a straight answer. You feel like the teachers are going to be radical if they're going to say anything, radically leftist if they're going to say anything. You feel like there's students aren't allowed to express traditional values, but they can go out and protest for...

Jeremy Tate (06:35.594)
Hamas or something on campus and that's okay, right? That you get this sense of, wow, this is not a freeing, liberating intellectual experience. This is a kind of straight-jacketed, highly bureaucratized, expensive pantomime thing that maybe will help you network if you're lucky after you graduate. And so I'd say, again, that.

mode of college education is broken and just actually needs to stop. And we need to start rethinking what's the kind of college that young people in America today deserve. And they deserve a kind of education where they're having liberating conversations. They're really thinking about ideas. They're not thinking, oh, you know what, classical learning is good because I'll

get a $10 an hour raise is not a mechanic. No, you go to get a classical learning education because you'll be a better man or a woman and have better conversations and think more deeply about the human values. But no one currently thinks of college as this place to go and be humanized and transformed. We think of it as an elaborate HR bureaucratic dance that you make for future employment.

And so I'm excited to be part of a college that is leading the way and saying, let's blow that up, let's leave that behind, and rethink what kind of thing we should be looking for in college. I love that so much. I went out to Wyoming Catholic, I think it was three years ago this March, and I was blown away. One of the things that made, again, such a big impression on me is these students are unplugged. I talked to students there from all over the country.

who had chosen to go to Wyoming Catholic, to go to Wyoming for four years for college for this transformational experience. And hearing some of their stories is one of the questions I had for students. Why did you choose this? A lot of them talked about their experience in the first few weeks. I guess a big backpacking expedition. There's a deep connection, and I don't really know of any other college that has this, a deep connection between.

Jeremy Tate (08:39.358)
God's two books is the way I've heard of it, even from the Wyoming Catholic, the book of nature and scripture. And I'm wondering if you can talk about this wilderness component, because there's not another college that's, let's go, you guys go backpacking in the winters, I understand it as well. And this is pretty hardcore. Yeah, so let me quickly just summarize what we do in terms of the wilderness education. One, our college is in Lander, Wyoming, at the base of the Wind River Mountains in.

a remote state with you're already in the wilderness when you're in the urban environment of Lander, Wyoming. Deer and elk are roaming through town. That is awesome. But beyond that, and then our students come in, they turn in their cell phones, they have very limited Wi-Fi connectivity, and there's a kind of full immersion in this wilderness experience just again on campus.

But when they, the first three weeks they're there, we go out into the mountains and they do a three week backpacking trip. And then the first week of the winter semester, they do a week long winter backpacking trip, learn to camp in snow caves. And then from then on out, they'll spend six more weeks, at least, doing some kind of wilderness excursion, whether that's whitewater rafting, whether that's rock climbing, over the course of their time as students. And they'll spend a semester learning the art of horsemanship.

So we take very seriously this further immersion in the wilderness that surrounds us at Wyoming Catholic College. But when we're doing that, we're not doing something that's like a cool camp tacked on to a classical liberal education. We're actually going to some fundamental roots that underlie classical education.

As I tell people, the link for Western civilization, where we go from the Greek tradition of education with Socrates and Aristotle and the academies, to when we get to the Middle Ages and the invention of the university, in between that, what mediates a lot of that Greek learning and a lot of that tradition, is monks who went out into the wilderness.

Jeremy Tate (10:45.97)
And during the Dark Ages, under Benedict, saved that deposit of Western civilization, but while being rooted in the wilderness. Now it's not accidental that they went out into the wilderness. As a Christian, you're aware that every moment of renewal in the history of salvation, God brings people to the wilderness, whether it's Israelites or a prophet Elijah or John the Baptist. And so the monks are aware of that. But it's also connected to this comment you made about the two books.

that God first put the truth of reality in the created world. And we're supposed to be immersed in that and experience that. And then with that deep experience of those created truths...

We are then able to enter into the careful reflection that is modeled by great thinkers like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas. That careful reflection on what we're experiencing and what it means, and then we're able to actively work to act and engage and share that with rhetoric and powerful leadership. But that root.

is going into the wilderness and experiencing the truth that you're going to reflect on, experiencing reality, learning what it is to be a human in this immersive environment so that when you're reading about...

Achilles and his horses or reading about the struggles of a small group in Thermopylae as they're trying to decide what they do. You would say, oh, I have this experience where I was part of a band of brothers and this is what was going on. That immersive experience really is at the core and the beginning of the classical learning tradition. And the fact that schools before haven't built that into their curriculum is because

Jeremy Tate (12:37.11)
before we've been able to presume that you're growing up and immersed in it. Of course you have a horse, of course you're seeing the stars, of course you're walking in the woods. Increasingly, we can't presume that, right? We're in sealed off, hermetically sealed, climate controlled rooms, and we're on our phones, and we're on the internet, and so in a certain sense, we're doing something that's unique because all the other schools haven't quite realized how much they're presuming that the students have that background. Wow, wow.

So let's talk about this cell phone thing in particular. And it was one of the reminders to me when I was out there that not all colleges are run by adults, actually. Many colleges are run by confused students that can complain enough to kind of get their way. William and Catholic made this decision very early on.

And now it's become like this. People want to go out there to get unplugged. Parents want to send their kids there to get them unplugged. Y'all say no, it's not a limited cell phone policy. You're gonna turn on your cell phones for the semester. I mean, that is like...

In some ways it's like cool, radical. Like this is, how did y'all come to this and what is this like for students? Well, so point out, you know, it is in one way experienced as cool and radical, but the thing, the experience that we're talking about is the experience of the 90s. We're not talking about going that far back in time. The reason we did it, we opened our doors and had our first students in 2007. And the smartphone was just coming out. Oh yeah, okay. It was not really.

thing. But there we are already aware of the pace of technology was outstripping the human ability to think about how we incorporate that into a civilized culture. Totally. Okay. Right? So we had cell phones and texting had exploded and there were no social conventions about how one should use Texas or how one should properly do this in a way that still preserved that kind of human society. So there's not a problem with the development of new technology.

Jeremy Tate (14:36.022)
The challenge is technology both extends our reach, but also it has an effect on us. And as you develop it, you want to figure out what that effect is and how you incorporate it into your culture and your customs. What happened is we were aware, this seems to be coming really fast. Let's hold off so we can be focused on having these human interactions.

And then the technology started going even faster. So now we look social media prophetic in what we were doing. Whereas, you know, initially we were taking it, I thought we were not intending it as a really radical stand. It was like, let's hold off and see what we can do. But now the studies are coming out. The mental health crises, the problem that students have in absorbing learning when it's off of a screen, all of that's increasingly being documented. And we're realizing, okay, there is a way in which

presence of cell phones just fundamentally makes you not present to the people who are immediately in front of you and allows you to be distracted from the kind of deep thinking we want our students to engage in. So we tell them it's a technology fast. We're not giving this up because it's bad, absolutely. It's a fast so you can learn fundamental skills that are presumed to the classical learning movement.

And to practice those so that when you go back out and re-engage, you'll have these habits in place so that you hopefully will be virtuously and effectively using the technology. Yeah, I think I mentioned this on an Anchor podcast before, but I had a great experience summer of 2000 and...

I drove my car from Louisiana to Alaska, spent the summer in the slime lines cleaning fish, camping all summer. There was no competing technology that I had a cell phone but it couldn't even, you couldn't even really make a call for most parts in town. But there was nothing to compete with my with reading. I read Crime and Punishment, I read Brothers K, and it was the moat to this day. I've never read it so deeply. And when I think back how do I ever get there again

Jeremy Tate (16:41.208)
and whatnot, but what do you see? I noticed it as an observer. I spent a day just observing your students there. Their ability to really focus, it really seems to be different. Jonathan Haidt, author of Caudalie and the American Mind has been all over this on Twitter recently, talking about this kind of new research that the destruction is maybe a lot worse than we thought. Yes, and the thing that we're also finding about that research is it...

really needs a kind of complete break to help start repairing. The studies are if you have your cell phone on your desk or in your backpack, the student's psychological state is roughly the same. Because they feel like they're on call. That the phone can buzz whether it's on their desk or if it's even hidden away. They still are in a sense being tracked, being on call, being responded, being expected to respond. So we need to get a space where we're just, we're going to put that away and allow that

entering into the kind of deep thought that previously characterized the classical learning movement as a presumption. That's why you did classical learning so you could really think deeply about things. Wow. Your first year in, you're getting a lot of questions in terms of the future of Wyoming Catholic College. There's no college like this. One of the questions I always have when I'm meeting with colleges is kind of what makes you unique?

For Wyoming Catholic, again, the location, the kind of education, the immersion into the wilderness are all super unique. What is your vision like? Talk about that for, I mean, my hope would be, other colleges are paying attention, can model some of the things that you're doing, but in both the three to five year and then beyond that, what are your hopes for the college? Sure.

Well, for one, I do hope other colleges pay attention and either try to introduce it in their own ways or ask us to help. We have an outreach that we offer. We lead week-long backpacking trips into the wilderness. So for high schools or colleges, you're like, oh my goodness, I wish I could figure out some way to get everyone to quit cold turkey on their cell phone and have this deep experience. We'd love to help you with that. And we're even willing to do that for college credit. Because we are convinced that even though we're a very small school...

Jeremy Tate (18:59.346)
on the grand scheme of things, the thing we're doing is something that's necessary for everyone. So I'd love to see our outreach grow and more and more people be able to take advantage of that in the next number of years. Beyond that, I really hope that what we see is more and more people come to know the incredible graduates from Wyoming Catholic College. I tell people, you know, my first month on the job.

We had all of our students were out on about 12 different outdoor trips across the Rocky Mountain West. And we got a satellite call alerting us to an emergency. And there had been a...

group of students were submitting the 14ers, the 14,000 foot peaks down in Colorado. They're going to do a series of them as they're going. And they've been going through a boulder field and a giant boulder had rolled down. They said a boulder roughly the size of a sedan had rolled down and they thought it smashed one of the students. And so I'm thinking, oh, well, this is all over, right? I don't know what we're going to do.

And this 20 year old kid gets on the phone and he is calm and collected and he is explaining how they're arranging for a, they found a helicopter landing site and this helicopter is going to come and they're doing an assessment of this student and I'm thinking who...

Outside of joining the military and going to Somalia or something when are you going to be coordinating a helicopter? Evacuation in this kind of a situation that kind of maturity that kind of focus now the amazing story Of course is that the student who the rock rolled over was actually ended up being fine Not a single broken bone and only minorly concussed but the more important point is

Jeremy Tate (20:39.314)
America wants to hire people like this young man who presided over this. Not because he went to Wyoming Catholic College so that he could get a job, right? But he went to Wyoming Catholic College and he's learned to think deeply, he's learned to engage with real people and communicate effectively and handle incredible stress, the kind of stress that your average for someone twice his age might have collapsed under the stress of presiding over him. I want in the next three to five years my goal is for

the Wyoming Catholic College brand, the Wyoming Catholic College alumnus who's able to preside over rescues and talk about the deep meaning of reality and communicate effectively. I want them to be highly coveted people that you're looking for as teachers, that you're looking for in your grad programs, that you're looking for in your employees, and I want there to be a line out the door as people are coming to get Wyoming Catholic College graduates. That's my real goal. Well, let's talk for a minute here about Catholic identity and mission drift,

College president put it this way, that the story of American higher ed is the story of once formerly Catholic and Christian colleges and universities. There's been a lot of good thinking about what is it that prevents mission drift. Of course, right now, Wyoming Catholic College is kind of the most, certainly one of the most passionately, uncompromisingly Catholic colleges in the country. As the leader of this important college,

How will you work to prevent mission drift in the years to come? Partly, the model of being in the wilderness is already a really helpful step in terms of preventing mission drift. Why did the monks go into the wilderness to protect their Christian faith? Because they were convinced that the challenges of being in the wilderness would make them constantly renew their focus on what was really important. I think that's true at Wyoming Catholic College. You don't come to Wyoming Catholic College because you want to do the run.

thing or you want to do the easy thing. And so all of the faculty, all of the staff that come, all of the students that come, are coming because they hear the call of the wilderness and want to do that wilderness renewal and grow in the love of the true and the good and the beautiful. So I think as long as we're first and foremost able to keep that focus.

Jeremy Tate (23:02.998)
That's going to be a huge protection against Mission Creek. All of our, on top of that, all of our faculty take an oath of their commitment, both through their faith.

And also, they have to read our vision statement and say, yes, I'm in favor of teaching this model of education. We have a set of principles that we give to potential hires and say, look, do you understand these principles? Can you talk about them? Are you on board with this? We have the board read that same set of principles. And when they come on board, they promise, yes, we're here to protect it. And that set of principles includes things like the focus on the true, the beautiful, and the good, the integrated curriculum that we offer, the Outdoor Program that we offer,

commitment to our Catholic faith. So we have a bunch of structural things in place coupled with the advantage of the wilderness call that I think are there to protect him in Wyoming Catholic College as it does this utterly incredibly unique thing. Love that. Last question for you. Kind of next steps. I've heard great things about.

I believe is the name of it, a summer program. I know some of our partner colleges, Christendom, Summer's Best, these have become really popular. Tell us about Peak. This is a high school junior, seniors, who is this for? So for high school juniors and seniors, and we offer two two-week programs. So you choose one of either the two-week programs. And I think it is, while it's great for college recruitment, I also think it's just one of the best two weeks you can spend for a high school summer.

You come out to Lander, Wyoming, you're going to ride horses, you're going to do rock climbing, you're going to do rappelling, you'll have a four week backpacking trip, there will be stargazing. On top of that, you'll be immersed in the Wyoming Catholic College community. You'll be having classes with our professors, reading great books, discussing great ideas.

Jeremy Tate (24:54.466)
while also being immersed in the liturgical tradition of the college. And so you end up with two weeks of an incredible leadership camp that sets you up already for great success. Now, our hope is, and it's borne out over and over again, that you come, you have this experience, and you say, I could do this for four years. Oh my goodness, sign me up. But.

It's a transformative two weeks one way or the other and we hope to get as many people as possible to join. That's fantastic. So can people sign up for that now? Yes, absolutely. Registration is open for that now. Contact Wyoming Catholic College Admissions. I think we have an ad in the CLT brochure talking about the server programs. I love the stargazing. I came across just a week or two ago. We've all heard about John Sr. and this amazing program he created. I guess it was at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. And of course it was successful.

and they put the chops on it but you know they actually advertise that to students by starting with stargazing which I didn't know which is just so beautiful I love that y'all do that now my wife we taught in New York City the first three years we were married and she came home

One day, and she looked up and said, what's the matter? And she said, I realized my students have never seen stars before. His third grade students in New York City, they didn't know you could see stars. They didn't even know that was a thing. How crucial it is to cultivate this sense of wonder and awe with God's creation. So at the beginning of this year, I had all the seniors over to my house, and we sat around to campfire and talked about what was coming up for senior year. And we're chatting about the cool things

going to study and the senior thesis and you know what care how they've the arc they've gone through up until this point and how the senior year is really letting them engage with contemporary thought and contemporary developments in the Western tradition. Great conversation and then all of a sudden someone looks up and you can actually see not just the stars but the Milky Way that the solid strip of the Milky Way sort of going over above us and we look back and we're looking at the stars and the seniors start to sing and the fires crackling

Jeremy Tate (27:01.568)
And I thought this is one of the most amazing things happening on any college campus anywhere. That's so beautiful. That's so beautiful

Kyle, I am so thrilled and I've talked to a lot of other folks connected to Wyoming Catholic and I know everyone in Lander is thrilled as well that you are the right man for this moment for this very important college. Thank you for coming out on a snowy day to Annapolis to join us for lunch and to enjoy some good conversation. Thank you for having me out. We're thrilled to be able to work with the CLT and love what you guys are doing.