Thomas Aquinas College

In a recent comment I made mention of a particularly striking curriculum that I’d seen from a small conservative Christian college, particularly in reference to a classical canon of works that are no longer fashionable. At the time I couldn’t recall the college, and couldn’t immediately find my copy of the curriculum. I have found both.

The college is Thomas Aquinas College in beautiful Santa Paula, California. Their motto? Verum. Bonum. Pulchrum. The True. The Good. The Beautiful. Read through the entire site. The college looks and sounds idyllic. Note especially this, from the About the College page:

Fundamental in the Catholic intellectual tradition is the conviction that learning means discovering and growing in the truth about reality. It is the truth that sets men free and nothing else. Since truth concerns both natural and supernatural matters, the College’s program has both natural and divine wisdom as its ultimate objectives.

There are no textbooks. The prescribed, four-year interdisciplinary course of studies is based on the original works of the best, most influential authors, poets, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians of Western civilization. In every classroom, the primary teachers are the authors of the “Great Books” from Aristotle, Homer and Euclid to St. Thomas Aquinas, T. S. Eliot and Albert Einstein.

There are no lectures. Teaching and learning demand a meeting of the minds. The course is, therefore, essentially a sustained conversation in tutorials, seminars, and laboratories guided by tutors who assist students in the work of reading, analyzing, and evaluating the great works which are central in the collected wisdom of Civilization. Classes are Socratic in method and do not exceed twenty students. Every student has daily practice in the arts of language, grammar, and rhetoric; in reading and critical analysis of texts; in mathematical demonstration; in laboratory investigation.

There are no majors, no minors, no electives, no specializations. The arts and sciences which comprise the curriculum are organized into a comprehensive whole. The College aims at providing its students with a thorough grounding in the arts of thinking and a broad and integrated vision of the whole of life and learning.

Such a doldrum-shattering, revolutionary approach is so succinctly summarized! The edu(c)rats should tremble at the dawning of such a star! What major university could even attempt to compare with the program of this little college? They are much too far gone down another road, as I see all around me every day. They’re nothing but overgrown high schools, these days.

And so, at long last, feast your eyes, widened in wonder, on their four year curriculum, a reading list of Great Books that will make these young ladies and young gentlemen the envy of all truly well-read people. It is simply stunning, to be honest. I am flummoxed, completely incapable of describing how great a list of books this is, or of emphasizing the benefit to be had of such a curriculum in such a company and within the bounds of such a tradition. I leave you, dear reader, to ponder the benefits yourself! This curriculum is, however incapable I am of singing its paeans, precisely an example of that recent revival of interest in the canons of yesteryear, the recognition of the value of classic works in various fields, whether foundational or exemplary. One learns best from the best.

The college is not only exemplary of an older tradition of education, but of specifically a traditional Roman Catholic one. By this I mean not just an older form of traditional education which happens to be Catholic, which education in most places long since been subsumed into public shooling’s mediocrity, but a more traditional expression of Catholicism and the concommittant education which is appropriate to that expression. There are a number of vocations from this school, of both priesthood and religious, and there’s a magnificently traditional chapel under construction, which will undoubtedly resound to the quiet splendor of a traditional Latin mass in the Extraordinary Form soon after its consecration. President Thomas Dillon and all the faculty, staff, students and families who have made Thomas Aquinas College what it is deserve our thanks for pointing out that there’s another way out of the mess that education is in. A way that some so dismissively call backwards has proven to be a vividly successful way forward. We can, it seems, rest assured that a book on Felt Banner Construction will not be making it onto the curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College

The true, the good, the beautiful indeed.

7 Replies to “Thomas Aquinas College”

  1. True, good, and beautiful indeed! In addition to Thomas Aquinas, St John’s College (beloved of a common friend of ours) and Gutenberg College both operate such a curriculum. And perhaps you even remember the sadly failed venture of Rose Hill College, an Orthodox “Great Books” college. (The latter’s academic catalogue is still available here.)

    I’m glad that these curricula are available online. Those of us with deficiencies in one or another area (like I have, for instance, in mathematics and the sciences) can make use of them to fill the gaps.

  2. Thomas Aquinas College is indeed a wonderful example of education that strives for excellence in intellectual formation and academic study of the Great Books as well as an education that intentionally moves students closer to faith and to God by recognizing Him as the source of all knowledge, truth, and beauty. This conviction is reflected in the practice of starting every class with a prayer from the Mass for Pentecost that asks God’s Spirit to come and fill students and faculty with His presence, love, wisdom:

    “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in us the fre of Your love. Send forth Your Spirit and we shall be recreated–And You will renew the face of the earth, (Ps 104:30). Let us pray: O God, Who did instruct the hearts of Your faithful people by the Light of Your Holy Spirit, grant that by the same Spirit we may be truly wise and ever rejoice in His consolation. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    And, no small surprise, when God’s Spirit is so invoked, He does indeed come: the campus of TAC is filled with the Holy Spirit’s presence and peace, more than many churches I have attended or even “charismatic” universities, one of which I taught at for a number of years on the east coast. I personally feel the Spirit’s presence and peace there every time I visit. This doesn’t make TAC campus life perfect, but when the Holy Spirit is welcomed daily, it makes a profound difference in the learning environment, as indeed the Hebrew Bible’s corpus of wisdom literature makes clear (e.g., Prov. 1:8; 2:1-10; 3:5-8; Psalm 16:5-8) and as Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit of Truth echoes in John 14:26 and 16:12-15 (cf. 1 John 2:20-27). My son is a junior at Thomas Aquinas College this year (2008-9) and he is an Orthodox Christian. My wife and I are Anglican, and we have graduate degrees from the University of Chicago. So we know good education and good scholarship when we see it at TAC. We also appreciate the ecumenical atmosphere at TAC. And we like the fact that not only is our son learning to discipline his mind, sharpening his capacity to think, read, and write, and not only is he reading the best minds of Western civilization, he is also encouraged to seek God and welcome His Spirit daily in his studies and his life on campus. This is good. American education–especially Christian higher education in America–needs to be more deliberate, as TAC is, about uniting intentional Christ-seeking spiritual formation together with rigorous intellectual formation. TAC is a model of both for all Christian educators in my opinion.

  3. Thank you Esteban and Gary, for your informative comments. I didn’t know about the Rose Hill College, Esteban. How sad that it failed. I’ll look more into that and the other colleges. I do enjoy that Thomas Aquinas College has the whole mouth-watering curriculum online. Many of those books are ones that I’ve meant to read and haven’t, and there are a number (in the math and laboratory sections) that I’d simply never heard of. It’ll be fascinating to pick up some of those latter, especially. In all my spare time….

    Congratulations on your son being a junior at TAC, Gary. That’s wonderful! That’s a real blessing, and I’m sure he appreciates that fact. He’ll certainly appreciate it that much more if he goes on to graduate studies in a secular university. What better way can their be than, as you say, “uniting intentional Christ-seeking spiritual formation together with rigorous intellectual formation”?

    “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov 22.6).

  4. I spent a year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM in the MLA program. There are some real weaknesses to the Socratic great books approach to the classical texts. The main problem is that many read the texts through a contemporary lens or presuppositions which makes it difficult for the student to understand what the author is saying. The students at St. John’s College are encouraged not to read anything but the text itself. Reading for historical context is frowned upon. The discussion rarely deals with presuppositions. I think there is some benefit to having a good lecture by an experienced reader/professor concerning a certain text. I think this would solve many of the problems with the great books programs.

  5. Thanks, Joseph, for that. I agree, and don’t think that a “great books only” approach would be at all appropriate for graduate school; as you mention, there’s more that needs to be read once you get to that level. However, as an approach in a prep school, or European style gymnasium or four year undergraduate program, I think it’d be excellent. Once the students have a solid familiarity with the source material, then they can start, in graduate studies, to focus on more advanced perspectives. One thing I’ve noticed is that very often too many assumptions are being made on the part of lecturers and authors regarding the exposure of undergraduate students to both the materials and discussions regarding them; if they’re not familiar with the works, they’re certainly not going to be familiar with the ancillary issues and all the secondary literature. It’s a failure of the imagination on the part of the lecturers and authors, who can no longer place themselves in the seats of their students. That’s one way to turn off undergrads completely; the other is to treat them as imbeciles. The students themselves need to work through the materials naturally: read them several times, become familiar with them, winkle out the train of thought, discuss it to the nth degree, and only then move on to the secondary literature, much of which these students will then rightly recognize as crap, and some of which they’re going to recognize as valuable and contributing to their greater understanding of these texts they know so well. Those things properly belong to graduate school in any case. Real familiarity with secondary literature on any given subject can only realistically be expected of doctoral candidates.

    I’m wondering how those kids have the time to read all those books. Hopefully they’re not overburdened with extracurricular activities. In such a Catholic school, I can imagine that fraternity drunken toga parties are not a distraction, but still, there’s only so much time in a day and only so many days in a semester!

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