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Classic School of Thought : Thomas Aquinas College, Rated Among Top Liberal Arts Institutions, Focuses Religiously on Great Thinkers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Heading into the winter break--with most college students preparing for final exams in accounting, English and computer skills--a small group of scholars grappled over the ethics of selling bread to a starving man.

Faces marked by knitted brows and puzzled expressions, they struggled to grasp ancient ideas proposed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle on the morals of exchange and barter.

One question begot another. How does one determine the fair price of an object?

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Is it based on demand? If so, one student argued, then why is air free?

Or is it based on need? If it is, another student shot back, wouldn’t art be worthless?

For some people, the questions may border on the esoteric. But to the 232 students at Thomas Aquinas College, they are part of the daily stock of education.

Hidden in the mountains of Los Padres National Forest, halfway between Ojai and Santa Paula, the college is unknown to many. Some simply know the cluster of low-lying modular buildings off of Ojai Road as the starting point for the popular three-mile hike to the Devil’s Punchbowl.

But as hikers pass and students elsewhere pursue more conventional studies, the scholars at Thomas Aquinas College are getting a different type of education; one that is attracting an increasing number of students and boosting the college’s reputation as one of the nation’s best small, private liberal arts colleges.

The college is one of only a handful of colleges nationwide that offer a liberal arts degree by studying the classics of Western civilization from 2500 B.C. to the early 20th century. And of those, only one other--St. John’s College--has a curriculum based solely on the study of the so-called Great Books.

At Thomas Aquinas, students learn physics from Einstein, calculus from Newton, evolution from Darwin and genetics from Mendel. They study music composition from Mozart, political science from Locke and examine Freud’s view of the psyche.

“Students are here to spend four years developing their intelligence and honing their minds,” said Thomas Dillon, the school’s president. “They read the authors that have shaped [this] world.”

Though reviewed annually, the school’s curriculum has changed little since it was founded 25 years ago. Most recently, the writings of Francois Viete, whose applications of algebra to geometry formed the basis of Descartes’ mathematical theorems, were added to make studying the latter mathematician’s ideas easier.

Meanwhile, following the fall of the Soviet Union, some of Karl Marx’s more detailed writings on the workings of the socialist state were dropped. And, at the request of a tutor who argued that Jane Austen was the best English prose stylist of all time, the author’s “Emma” was added to the reading list, making Austen the only Great Books female author to be used at the school.

At Thomas Aquinas, students read only these classics. There are no lectures and no note-taking. Classes, one-hour tutorials, labs in the mornings and longer seminars at night consist of discussions propelled by students’ questions.

Classroom exchanges often spill over into the commons--a neo-Spanish building where students and teachers share their meals side by side--or to the drab modular dormitories where students live, segregated by sex.

Students rarely leave campus. Save for school-sponsored social events, a film or dance, most evenings are spent studying.

“You may only have one or two pages to read,” said junior Rory Nugent, “but it’s Aristotle, so it takes you an hour or two to figure it out.”

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The point to all this rigorous study, the students say, is not necessarily to graduate with a degree that allows them to be a banker, a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, they say, such study helps them become better thinkers and, as a result, better human beings.

“In high school, I saw that you could come to know something and that education was far more than just practical,” said senior Andrea Sassman of Idaho. “There was education appropriate to a human being, so you are better able to think and better able to act.”

Unlike many Great Books programs, Thomas Aquinas College instructors tell students that eternal truths can be pinned down through reason.

“Here, you all figure the truth out for yourselves,” freshman Tracy Colton said. “And when you do discover it, it is so rewarding.”

Unashamedly Catholic, the school’s bottom line is that truth is objective and can be discovered in the words of time-tested masters, particularly St. Thomas Aquinas. The 12th-century Italian saint is considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be its most enlightened teacher, philosopher and theologian.

“When you are serious about your faith, you go ahead and proclaim it,” Dillon said. “We are serious. We think God has revealed himself.”

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Though the school welcomes students of all faiths, 91% of its student body is Catholic and most attend at least one of the three daily masses in the school’s chapel.

Signs of the school’s religious bent are obvious. With its white walls and gray institutional carpeting, St. Augustine Hall, where most classes are taught, is largely unadorned save for the small, gold crucifixes that hang above each chalkboard.

Two paintings of St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Athanasius, a statue of St. Thomas Aquinas and a bust of the Virgin Mary decorate the hallway.

Crosses hang from necks and bedroom walls. Classes usually open with a prayer. And freshmen are required to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Though close to their faith, most students rail against being stereotyped as overly pious and intolerant, pointing to the school’s non-Catholics--a group that currently includes at least one atheist--as proof of their acceptance of other faiths.

Each year, about half of the non-Catholics convert. Twenty-eight-year-old Adam Gardiner, a former fork lift driver at a large discount store in Los Angeles, is one of them.

The former punk rocker said he once led a life that revolved around “going to clubs and drinking a lot.” Then he was introduced to Thomas Aquinas College by a friend.

After discovering what he describes as “the eternal truths,” Gardiner said he saw “a whole new dimension of life that made life more valuable.”

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At the end of his freshman year, he converted to Catholicism.

Others peaceably maintain their faith throughout the program. After graduating from high school in Idaho, Sassman and senior Ben Loop, who are engaged, spent one year in a Great Books program at Thomas Moore College in New Hampshire before deciding to transfer to a full-scale Great Books school.

As Protestants, they first considered the secular St. John’s College, which has campuses in Annapolis, Md. and Santa Fe, N.M. St. John’s in 1937 became the first school to base its curriculum exclusively on the Great Books and served as a model for Thomas Aquinas College when it was founded in 1971.

But they chose Thomas Aquinas College instead. In spite of its religious affiliation, they valued the school’s stance that truth can be obtained through reason.

“At St. John’s, it was as if they were embarrassed to say, ‘You can know something.’ Everything seemed to be futile,” Loop said. “But here I felt as if they were saying this is a worthwhile pursuit and you can come to know something.”

Although they have felt some pressure to convert and believe that Catholics benefit more fully from the program, both say Thomas Aquinas College still offers the best Great Books education available.

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Like most students, Catholic or not, Sassman and Loop say they are at the school primarily because they prefer a life ordered around studying.

That means school-mandated 11 p.m. curfews on weekdays, 1 a.m. curfews on weekends and automatic expulsion for bringing alcohol or drugs on campus. In class, students must address their peers as Mr. and Miss.

Then there is the no-jeans dress code. Women must wear skirts or dresses to class and men must were collared shirts and slacks.

Although some students have trouble adjusting to the strict rules, most welcome them.

“Education is really important to [us],” said Jeanne Chirdon, a freshman from Ohio. “People aren’t trying to get by the easy way so they can party all of the time,” she said, referring to the more social reputations of other institutions. “People here really care about the truth.”

Nationally, only 22% of students who enter a four-year college program finish. In comparison, about 60% of the students who enter Thomas Aquinas graduate. Of those, about half go on to graduate studies, Dillon said. Eleven percent of the school’s 567 total graduates since its inception are following religious vocations.

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Many of its graduates join prestigious law schools, where they consistently out-perform other students, according to law school deans nationwide.

“They are at ease with a broad range of subjects,” wrote Charles E. Rice, a professor at Notre Dame Law School in a letter to the college. “I am convinced their ability to reason is incomparably better than what I have seen in even the superior students from any other colleges of which I know.”

That is not surprising, considering the high marks the school consistently receives.

With an annual tuition of $13,900, Barron’s in 1994 listed Thomas Aquinas College among its 300 best buys in college education. The National Review College guide in 1993 listed it as one of America’s top liberal arts schools. And Money Magazine this year ranked it 12th on a list of 15 of the best colleges for the money in the west.

As such high praise raises the profile of the Great Books program, interest nationwide has increased. At Thomas Aquinas, the freshman class has risen by 84% since 1986.

The students attracted to Great Books programs are consistently top-notch, Dillon said. Nearly three-fourths of the students admitted to Thomas Aquinas are in the top 25% of their high schools. And 1 in 12 already have degrees from universities such as Harvard, Yale, Duke and other colleges, he said.

Although 34 of the students currently enrolled come from foreign countries--ranging from Ghana to Canada--very few American-born minorities attend the school. Currently, the student body includes only two blacks and 16 Latinos.

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Those numbers, combined with the school’s selective curriculum, have led some critics to denounce it as elitist.

However, Thomas Aquinas College administrators say popular notions of multiculturalism threaten their autonomy and the diversity of programs offered at the college level. As proof of their conviction, they led a battle last year against a regional accrediting authority trying to hold colleges accountable for fostering cultural diversity in their curriculum and student and faculty bodies.

Despite its opposition, Thomas Aquinas was praised for its high academic standards by the accreditation committee of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges. In 1993, the regional committee extended the school’s accreditation for eight more years.

Director of Admissions Tom Susanka said it is difficult to attract minorities to Thomas Aquinas College.

“We want any student who would come here at all,” he said. “But it is difficult. . . . When you say, ‘Why don’t you come here where you can read Tolstoy and argue about 2nd century astronomy?’ people are unsure, at best.”

As for diversifying its curriculum, students, faculty and administrators see that criticism as of little concern.

“We kind of think of it as a nonissue,” said Richard D. Ferrier, an administrator. “There was only one Newton and he happened to be male. And if the next breakthrough is by a female biologist, we’ll read it.”

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Thomas Aquinas officials say that in the face of such societal pressures, the school’s greatest accomplishment is that it has remained relatively unchanged.

“The program addresses the perennial questions that face any human being,” Dillon said. “So the students now are wrestling with the same questions wrestled with by their predecessors 25 years ago and great thinkers throughout the centuries.”


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