Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thomas Aquinas Relies on Classics, Catholic Identity to Educate Students

Staying faithful to its teachings

Archbishop John Michael Miller approaches the altar during the convocation at Thomas Aquinas College welcoming students to the first day of classes on Monday. The college will soon select a new president, only the third since Thomas Aquinas was founded in 1971.

From Venutura County Star

By Jean Cowden Moore

Enrollment: 348.

Tuition: $22,400 a year.

Faculty-student ratio: 1:11.

Founded: 1971.

Religious affiliation: Roman Catholic.

Thomas Aquinas College is not your typical modern university. Students read the classics, not textbooks. Girls must wear skirts or dresses to class. There’s a curfew of 11 on school nights.

Yet the conservative Catholic college, nestled in the hills of Santa Paula, is attracting national attention for its small classes, generous financial aid and strong academics. U.S. News & World Report this month ranked it among the nation’s top 100 liberal arts colleges.

Now, as students return to class this week, Thomas Aquinas is at a turning point, choosing only its third president since it was founded in 1971.

Thomas Aquinas stands out among Catholic colleges because Catholicism plays such a major role in its identity and curriculum, said Richard Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

“They see themselves as building on a very evangelical notion of Catholicism, much more like the smaller Protestant evangelical colleges,” Yanikoski said. “From the faith perspective, they are perfectly forthright about their Catholic identity. They have built an insular culture, saying, ‘We are an island in a world that is going another direction, and our curriculum is a match to that.’ ”

Above all, Thomas Aquinas is known for its Great Books program. Instead of using textbooks, students learn every subject — from literature to science — by reading the classics. The freshmen reading list, for example, includes Homer’s “Odyssey,” the Bible, Euclid’s “Elements” and Mendel’s “Experiments in Plant Hybridization.”

Every student studies the exact same curriculum, moving through the same set of books each year. There are no majors or electives.

Students don’t get lectures, either. Instead, they discuss the works in seminars that average about 15 people, guided by a tutor, which is what the college calls its professors. Together, by questioning and challenging one another, they are expected to arrive at the truth through a combination of reason and faith.

It’s a demanding way to learn, and certainly not for everyone. Beyond learning the subject at hand, students also must learn how to articulate and defend their ideas, a valuable life lesson, they say. Inevitably, especially as freshmen, some students talk too much, dominating the discussion. Others listen too much, because they’re too shy or too disengaged to speak up, students say.

That’s why a tutor is essential, said Josh Noble, 30, who confesses he was one of those who “needed to learn to be quiet.”

“Without someone to guide the discussion, it would be a mess,” said Noble, who already has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from LeTourneau University in Texas and is seeking a second bachelor’s at Thomas Aquinas. “When you look back, you realize the tutor was guiding you on a path.”

Sense of responsibility

Tutor Brian Kelly approaches the discussion as a conversation, the most natural way human beings convey information. The first weeks of freshman year can be a bit chaotic, but gradually students adjust to the give-and-take, Kelly said.

“People find their niche,” he said. “The kids tend to correct themselves.”

They also feel a sense of responsibility to one another, realizing they each have a part to play in arriving at the truth.

“It makes you think twice about skipping class or not doing the reading,” said senior Deneys Williamson, 22.

And if students aren’t carrying their weight, the college has a way of dealing with that, the so-called “Don Rags.” In the middle of each semester, each student walks alone into a room, where his or her tutors sit and discuss the student’s work, as if he or she is not there. Afterward, the student has a chance to respond to the critique.

At first, it can be a bit uncomfortable, Williamson said.

“I remember I was quite nervous for the first one, which is understandable,” Williamson said. “But they’re very helpful, and the criticism is fair. They’re pointing out what you can do to improve your participation in class.”

The Don Rags can be a time-consuming “pain in the neck,” Kelly said. But they do allow tutors to critique students without the criticism being too direct or personal, he said.

“It’s a curious sort of formality, but it kind of helps the medicine go down,” Kelly said.

Students must adapt to other formalities, too. Boys wear collared shirts, dress pants and good shoes to class, while girls wear skirts or dresses. They address each other as “miss” or “mister” during class discussions.

Girls are not allowed in the boys’ dorms and vice versa. Curfew is 11 on school nights, 1 a.m. on weekends. TVs and DVD players are not allowed in students’ rooms.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Thomas Aquinas tops the list of “most religious students” in the Princeton Review.

Students who can’t handle the restrictions and conservative atmosphere generally leave by the end of the first year. For others, that conservative approach is partly why they’re there.

“Everything is so ordered toward the proper nature of men and women, toward God,” said sophomore Kayla Kermode, 19. “It fosters the intellectual life and the spiritual life.”

Students say they also value finding like-minded people. Many meet their future spouses in class, getting to know each other as friends before dating.

“You feel treasured and cherished for your wit, your faith and virtue,” said junior Emily Barry, 24. “Out in the world, you might be considered prudish or opinionated.”

Thomas Aquinas officials see the college’s core conservatism as key to their entire mission.

Finding order in life

When the school was founded, Catholic colleges were disconnecting themselves from the church, said interim president Peter DeLuca, one of the school’s founders. Like secular colleges, they started offering electives, courses in women’s studies and co-ed dorms, straying from traditional Catholic education.

The founders of Thomas Aquinas believed students could arrive at the truth through reason and faith and a fixed curriculum based on books written centuries ago in many cases.

“The notion of Catholic liberal education here is radically different, because it’s based on the notion that the object of education is to understand the order and meaning of the universe,” DeLuca said. “If there is an order, there has to be an orderer. If you understand the order, you can understand something of the orderer.”

That approach led to a controversy that drew national attention in the early 1990s. The group that accredits western colleges said Thomas Aquinas needed to be more diverse in its curriculum, faculty and student body.

College officials fought back, saying they didn’t believe any one book, student or faculty member should be presumed to represent an entire cultural viewpoint. Instead, books should be chosen for their merit. And students and faculty should be free to voice their opinions as individual human beings, they said.

“Learning takes place in the soul of students,” said tutor Kevin Kolbeck, who was dean during the controversy. “They’re not there to represent some black, Asian or Hispanic perspective. That would have destroyed what we’re trying to do.”

Still, Yanikoski, while not criticizing the curriculum, sees some limitations to it.

“They are teaching a Euro-centric Catholic church in the context of a Euro-centric Great Books curriculum, at the same time that the church is moving inexorably away from the Euro-centric model,” he said. “A person could make the argument that Thomas Aquinas is preparing students for the past.”

This year, Thomas Aquinas will select the third president in its history. Thomas Dillon, president for 18 years, died in April in a car accident in Ireland.

The college will select its new president from among its 21 eligible tutors, according to its bylaws.

While Dillon focused on building out the campus, the new president must establish an endowment that will make Thomas Aquinas financially secure. But the college’s core mission will remain the same.

“We’re in our teen years,” Kolbeck said. “We’re not fully matured. But as far as what we do in the classroom, the new president has to be committed to that. We’re not going to change that.”

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