SANTA PAULA – The first thing you notice about Thomas Aquinas College is that among its beautiful Spanish-style buildings there is no classroom.
Freshmen at UC Berkeley could join more than 700 of their classmates in a huge hall for the introduction to general astronomy. At Thomas Aquinas College, there are only 439 students in the entire school.
Aquinas is a Roman Catholic coeducational liberal arts college in Santa Paula, Ventura County, about a 90-minute drive from the AV.
It just celebrated its 50th birthday and recently opened a campus on the east coast of Massachusetts.
Thomas Aquinas College offers a classical education, Great Books, delving into the works that shaped Western Civilization – the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Archimedes, Euclid, Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Aristophanes.
And this is only the first year. And a partial list, at that. Each year builds on the previous one, moving on to more “recent” works such as Kant, Hegel, Darwin, Marx, Tolstoy, Einstein, Austen, Joyce and Pope John Paul II.
I don’t like to use pedagogical jargon, but when I was teaching high school, we were always told how important it was for students to be “engaged”. That meant they paid attention, answered questions, and volunteered with answers.
Aquinas’s students are the personification of this concept. They are engaged. And then some. Anyone who thinks great works are boring, stuffy, or meaningless in our day and age should attend a course at Aquinas.
They delve into the big universal questions important to all humans throughout time – what does it mean to be a good person? How should we live? How should we govern?
On a recent Friday, I was able to tour the campus and briefly attend a theology class, a philosophy class, and a physics class.
All classes at the school are seminar style, no more than 20 students and their tutor (they don’t use the term professor) discussing what they read.
Around the table, I saw no computer, no phone. (You read correctly.)
Just a small group of students and their tutor talking about books that contain what Aristotle called the three transcendent properties of being: Good, True, and Beautiful.
A student will read a passage aloud and then justify what they think the author means. Others join in, ask questions, disagree. They ask for proof: “What in the text leads you to say that? A pause and page turn, then: “Line 241 says…”
“The role of the tutor is to guide the discussion, to keep it focused,” said Paul Blewett, director of gift planning and a graduate of Thomas Aquinas and Notre Dame Law School.
In one of the classes I visited, the students talked to each other a dozen times before the tutor intervened with a question.
In this method, the students go deep into the books and the books go deep into the students.
In another contrast to the compartmentalization or fragmentation of much of modern education, the curriculum is integrated across disciplines so that what is discussed in science class is relevant to what is discussed in math. , theology, philosophy. Everything is connected.
Thomas Aquinas is not for everyone. It offers only one degree: the Bachelor of Liberal Arts. So someone who wanted to go to medical school, for example, would have to take the prerequisite courses elsewhere, either during summer vacation or after graduation.
According to communications director Christopher Weinkopf, “about a third (of alumni) go to graduate school, 10% enter priesthood or religious life, and somewhere between a quarter and a third become educators of some kind, from kindergarten to grade 12. -school teachers.
Many former students continue to work at Thomas Aquinas. Zoe Appleby (Class of 2018) returned to Aquinas after earning a master’s degree and teaching at UC Riverside. She works as a donation planning manager.
Because her father is on the faculty at the small college, after high school Appleby naturally sought to venture out on her own and go to a bigger school far away.
“TAC was the last school I wanted to attend,” she told me in an email. “My parents, while supportive of my adventurous spirit, convinced me to attend at least the two-week Great Books High School summer program at TAC. In a surprising 180-degree turn, my program experience and of the discussion method convinced me to attend TAC.
After two weeks’ taste of learning the Great Books, Appleby said, Aquinas was the only place for her. “I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied reading textbooks and sitting silently in a conference room.”
William P. Warford’s column appears every Friday and Sunday.