Thomas Aquinas and America: How One College Might Strengthen the Souls of Youth and Reinvigorate the Republic

The quality of an era is to be judged, said Nietzsche, by the letters that are written in it. It is in letters that people show what they care for, what they revere, and how well they understand things. In the nineteenth century most Americans did not go to college, most managed no more than grade school, and many had less education than that, yet if one reads their letters one sees that they knew their own thoughts and feelings, which Goethe says is the highest task of a human being.

Consider the histories of the Civil War that have been put together from what the soldiers, rank and file as well as officers, wrote home, or read the memoirs written by the pioneers who changed the dry, harsh, and dangerous expanse stretching from the mighty Mississippi to the shining Pacific into a fertile and populous land. Looking back over their lives, those pioneers could say what was important in them and share it with their children. (See, for example, Sallie Reynolds Matthews’ Interwoven [Texas A & M Press].)

Compare their memoirs with the memoirs Americans approaching death today do not write, perhaps because their lives were not interesting or important to themselves, perhaps because though they were, they cannot say why, which must mean, alas, that they really were not. Or compare those letters home from the Civil War with the letters young people write home, however seldom, from college today. Or the letters they write, or do not write, to someone they are courting.

Judged this way, the colleges of America would seem to be more part of the problem than a solution to it. What was a requirement of college admission 30 years ago, you cannot expect of a graduate today. Today, no college now dares to guarantee that all its graduates can write an essay, a report, or even a letter. Few think it their responsibility to encourage the young people of this land to know their own thoughts and feelings, nor to elevate those thoughts, nor elevate them as high as the family, as high as the nation, as high as their souls, as high as eternity.

This need not be so. That this need not be so, I would be happy to argue by appealing to faith, or to reason, to history or to imagination, but I need not, for I have discovered a good college that exists.

A Fellowship of Souls

I first caught sight of Thomas Aquinas College in two of its graduates, in their smiles, in the tranquil way they ate lunch one day, and in their tender regard for each other. The good shone in them and lit up in others because of them. One sees it now in their children. Rembrandt should paint such a family. Then, as now, their good spoke well of the college that had encouraged them. When you hear Heifetz play Bach, you may not know for sure that there’s good elsewhere in him, but you are not wrong to think there might be. It is not only trees that are judged by fruits.

My second glimpse of this college came when one of my students, uncertain whether to begin afresh at Thomas Aquinas, asked me to call in a letter of recommendation. Doing so, I met their director of admissions, who had been one of the first students at the college. Over the next 18 months we kept up a long conversation. I never put down the receiver without feeling good, for all we’d talked about and for the pleasure of knowing such a man exists, so good you feel you want to be better and that there’s a chance. These conversations led to a visit.

Thomas Aquinas College is on the edge of Los Padres National Forest, 50 miles east of the Pacific Ocean at Santa Barbara, and 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Neither fog nor smog mar the air. Under an azure sky a clear stream rushes from the mountains toward the sea. Beside its sparkling waters in the broad part of the canyon sits the college. There life lives outdoors. Oranges grow on trees and the grass smells good, as good as it did to Prince Andrei. Horses graze and neigh. All around, except to the south, there are steep trails to hike or run. Here in the canyon there are places to walk, with thoughts and with friends. Behind every conversation is a mountain ridge to rest the eyes upon, while the mind’s eye roams. At night the sky jumps with stars; in the clear heavens the bright patens declare Design and the darkness whispers Mystery; the intellect delights and the heart throbs. Nearby coyotes call.

The college seems to be founded on a single, golden sentence in Thomas Aquinas: good is to be done and followed, and evil avoided (S. Th., I-11, q. 94, art. 2). Academically, this means that there are two modes of instruction: classes, called seminars, in which the truth is followed (or sought) through communal inquiry, the Tutor (as the teacher is called) acting as a guide of the conversation; and classes called tutorials, in philosophy, theology, mathematics, and music, in which the truth is “done,” in which the Tutor leads the class through the text being read, sometimes speaking at length but also ready for questions and queries. The tutorials in mathematics differ from the rest in that each student is expected to do a demonstration or proof at any time (a pack of cards decides who is called upon). In music they compose imitations of the sonata.

Throughout, recourse is made only to nature, to God, and to the books that the greatest human minds have left to us. No textbook ever substitutes for the real thing. In the seminars you will find those works of the great minds and spirits of the West which teach about human things, either through discourse or imitation; in the tutorials you will find those of their works that deal with eternal things, either demonstratively or speculatively. In the seminars the teachers guide, in the tutorials they lead. Natural things are treated primarily in the labs.

The faculty believes it a duty to answer the question: What knowledge is most worth having? The curriculum is their answer. Everyone takes the same four-year course; there are no electives. (Yet there are extras available; for example, Greek.) The benefits of a required curriculum are immense. The student is never tempted to choose a course to pad an average and cannot choose a course merely because it is his or her strength. More importantly, students share studies. Seniors know, because they once had, what freshmen now study. At table they talk about them. Shared studies also connect all present students to all alumni; no alumnus returning to campus need ever feel fundamentally out of place. And all of these students, present and graduated, are linked to the great dead. From these the community stretches through the living to the yet unborn. And what’s good for students is also thought good for the Tutors, who are encouraged to teach through the whole curriculum. Teachers who do so or aspire to are not likely to break off a conversation with “Well, that’s not my discipline.” Or worse, to stop another with, “That’s not your discipline.”

The curriculum is daunting, as you may see from the catalogue. It may even be wondered how many of the great authors in it would be up to it. Would Tolstoy be able to master Descartes’ Geometrie? Would Descartes, after what he says about poetry, be willing to read Tolstoy? Would Shakespeare slog through Euclid? (Shakespeare seems to have known no mathematics.) What would Thomas think of a Shakespeare play? For that matter, how much mathematics did Thomas know? What does Christ think of Thomas? If Einstein thought it impossible to understand Kafka, how would he do with Plato? Could excellence in mathematics tutorial console Pascal? How many of the great minds and spirits in the curriculum knew each other? Or would want to? (What’s Jane Austen to Augustine? Or he to her?) How many had educations half as good or half as demanding as this college’s? Can you understand a thinker without knowing those he most loved to oppose? Where, then, is the ibn-Rushd Thomas calls the Commentator? Such daunting questions are, however, a mark of the excellence of what is offered. Colleges without curriculums, that is, those with nothing but a multitude of electives, seldom raise such questions, let alone proceed toward answers.

Pursuit of Veritas

All classes at Thomas Aquinas are small, no bigger than can sit comfortably at a large table, with each student facing every other. Only through such intellectual activity can young minds acquire the splendid things they have inherited. Formal lectures by guests or by Tutors happen Friday nights. Everyone dresses up. After the lecture and after a pause, the conversation begins and, if my experience was typical, goes on deep into the night.

Since the college adopted its curriculum from St. John’s (Annapolis and Santa Fe) and yet from the start differed, it is instructive to mention how. It is not for nothing that the school is sometimes described as the Catholic St. John’s, yet it would be something quite different than what it is, if it were Rahner, or Balthasar, or even Augustine who was esteemed as the best mind, rather than Thomas. This does not mean Thomas is considered the only mind or even superior in all respects to others (neither of which would be Thomistic in spirit). It is only that listening to the conversation of the great minds, the founders of this school reached the conclusion that one mind really is best. Sheer intellectual honesty required them to design the curriculum accordingly.

The most important consequence flowing from this conclusion was the introduction of tutorials in philosophy and theology. These might have been justified alone on the grounds that it is good for students to concentrate on some texts shorter than those read in seminar, lest they, for example, come away from college thinking that no more than what turns up while reading 250 pages at a clip has value. At Thomas Aquinas College there was the additional reason that Thomas was deemed best, so the students get a lot of Aristotle and Thomas taught slowly. To my mind, they not only benefit directly, since their education is ordered by the highest science, but indirectly as well in their discussions in the seminars; they know or have reason to know that any work read relatively quickly in seminar could and even should be read much slower. A third difference from St. John’s flows after these two. Latin is the second language of this school. It is true that students take only two years of it (and do not take a third language, such as French, as at St. John’s), but they have ample occasion to keep up their Latin, since much of the Mass is in Latin, and they have ample occasion to advance it, since the theology tutorial is in Thomas’s Latin. To me it seems that one language taught in this way is more likely to reach the desired level, the point where you can take pleasure in reading in it, than two years each of two languages.

One  important and intended consequence of this emphasis on Thomas and the ordering of other things by his superior light affects the college’s treatment of natural science. As at St. John’s, the students proceed from ancient to modern science, from Euclid to Einstein; thus from these great minds, especially Euclid, they learn not only that they can reason, that they have minds, but they learn the story of how mathematics, astronomy, and physics were combined into the universal mathematical physics of Newton and his students. To St. John’s must QO the credit for preserving this knowledge, but to this achievement, Thomas Aquinas thinks it has offered a decisive addition: to know (and to show to others with ears to hear) that modern science is, in the most important respect, in its attempt to give an account of the whole, wanting— sometimes presumptuous or negligent, but more importantly not able to complete its self-criticism. If the suspicions of this inferiority rest at St. John’s on the shoulders of Husserl, Heidegger, and Aristotle, at Thomas Aquinas they rest on the shoulders of Aristotle and Thomas. Thomas Aquinas is the one college at which the question is asked, in the curriculum, What is the relation of modern scientific reason, not only to nature, but to God? It is, then, perhaps the one college that explicitly addresses the question of reason and revelation, which relation constitutes the secret strength of the West.

Doing the Good

The manners and morals encouraged by the school promote the good of these studies and the moral virtues themselves. That is, moderation, fortitude, chastity, and justice are promoted by the school’s customs not only because the opposites interfere with the intellectual life but because they are pleasing in themselves and good for the future families these students will form and the religious vocations some may be called to, There are curfews, parties, dress codes, dances, expectations and examples. The school seems to know that the secret of youth (as of life) is learning to live fulfilled lives with unfulfilled desires. It is the happiest student body I have ever been among. And the most convivial. For them, each day seemed to be a festival. Four times a year the dance of daily life becomes formal, with waltzes and polkas; these dances are preceded by entertainments got up by members of the community for each other. There is music in the air there.

Indeed, the music tutorial I attended was something like a Mozart sonata, although an unusual one: themes announced at the opening, then developed at some length with Laurel and Hardy spills and retardoes, and finally resolved in knowledge. I have never heard a more disorderly account of order, or one so designedly so; for the more the students rushed to their dear teacher’s aid, the more they learned. If the students played King Lear, the teacher played the Fool. The more she cast off remarks nearly aphoristic, the more the main theme became clear, and the more the students appreciated it and her. It was hilarious, wise, and festive. Everyone beamed, that day and for days after.

On my second day at Thomas Aquinas I happened to witness something remarkable. All the students I met there are the kind of young people who, because they want to grow up, like to spend time with their teachers. There is nothing of the teenager in them. These youths want to share the same world as their elders. They also want to emulate them; they want to add unto themselves this one’s precision, this one’s depth, and this one’s grace. I have never met a student body more respectful of its teachers. What I, however, found remarkable beyond this was how well they knew their teachers. It is one thing to want to join the world of your teachers, it is another thing to emulate them, but it is quite another to understand them. The charitable insight that I heard one student show toward a Tutor was worthy of a Cordelia. It was an instance of “Loving another as thyself.”

That such things must be more common than I could discover in a short visit one might infer from the quality of the discussion of literature in the seminars. It is in literature classes that one sees who has prudence, discernment, insight into human nature, and delicacy of heart, or who is learning them. Without any loss of order and degree, this community seems to possess the amity Aristotle says is more to be desired than justice. If you have amity, usually you have justice too. So I was not surprised, later, to see open cubbyholes, not lockers, in the Commons and to hear that a lost ten dollar bill was recently pinned on the bulletin board to await its rightful owner; nor was I surprised to hear my informant add in honesty, “but candy bars do disappear from the refrigerator.”

If I say less of the liturgical life at this Catholic college, it is because as a Catholic I am a beginner. Pleasing and instructive to me were the daily Masses, largely in Latin, with a firm, faithful, ceremonious English translation of the Novus Ordo printed beside it (the best I have found) and with music to raise up the soul to these Sacred Mysteries, to prepare it to celebrate and to submit to them, with no taint of the folksy. The homilies I heard reminded us of stern duties, high aspirations, enduring felicities, and real evils. Classes began with a prayer. (Someone once asked Thomas Aquinas what he most thanked the Lord for: “For having understood every page I have read,” was the reply.) Although no religious observance is required of students, three priests are needed to minister to the community, and it is the students who organize Lauds and Compline. A priest friend I sent there said that on the first day of his visit students had asked him to perform three extra Masses. Back at his monastery he lamented, “The spiritual life there is better.” I doubt that a militant atheist like Voltaire, would be happy at Thomas Aquinas College (or more exactly, stay long enough to become happy), but I see no reason why an honest inquirer should hesitate to attend. I met one, a graduate, who had. Moreover, one of the teachers on the required reading list is Nietzsche.

I have now met about 40 graduates of the school. Apart from their individual distinction, they have one striking thing in common: less than any other alumni/x body I have known, they seem to think that what they learned in college did prepare them for the lives they are now leading. They think so because they think it prepared them for life itself, in all its goodness, its rationality, and in all its plenty. Only once have I heard a graduate of this school refer to life after college as “real life” as so many lost graduates of lost colleges do. Most seem to go forth to serve the good—of the nation, of God, of others, and thus of themselves—with gratitude to the school that helped them discern the good more distinctly and to live it more fully.

The college was founded 20 years ago by five or so teachers all united by Thomas, some by study together with the Thomists Charles De Koninck and Monsignor Dionne at Laval, and all by some vivid experience of the failure of most institutions of higher education in America, in particular the Catholic ones, to educate. (An alternate story, says Ron McArthur, started when he saw that “all my friends were going to be fired from where they were.”) Reading over the document in which they called for the founding of something like Thomas Aquinas, one feels that the proportion of avoiding evil to doing good is a trifle high, but perhaps starting new things for us humans always more resembles the Flood than the Creation. The founding itself must have changed this proportion, for the present catalogue says more about doing the intellectual good and less about avoiding evil, and the actual classes “say” even more about following the good. Yet as any Thomist must know, all three, doing, following, and avoiding, are needed. The rest is grace. “Study as if everything depended on you, and pray as if everything depended on God,” as St. Ignatius might say.

Walking late one night, meeting a student in the dark, I heard about the fire that blazed the year before, leaping the stream, paratrooping over ditches, scorching up a mountainside in three, bare, breathless minutes, and yet touching the college not at all, not a hair singed, not a great book lost, all preserved. In the dark I didn’t get the student’s name. Just two rational creatures out for a walk on earth and under heaven. All the way to the guest house, I saw that fire. The coyotes crooned, and 60 miles west, in the ocean, whales sped silently northward.

Imitating the Good

At home, a month later, I rejoiced that this good college exists. Against the general background of divers, listless mediocrity offered up as higher education in America today, Thomas Aquinas College stands out, so much so that many a good teacher and good student immersed in that mediocrity would doubt its existence and might suspect anyone who testified to it. And if they should make a visit, I even believe they would be surprised before they were delighted. The good that is out of scale upsets our balance before it steadies us. Yet the evident good when we meet it ought not only to steady us, but inspire a few of us.

Until very recently in the history of our Republic most colleges were founded by the churches. The example of Thomas Aquinas College shows how much can be done by lay Christians today. May one look to the day when there will be other Catholic colleges like it? Intelligent variations are surely possible. One esteemed graduate said that after each term’s immersion in philosophy, theology, and mathematics, when she came home she got in a warm bath and read good novels the whole vacation. In this vein, I do believe that if Christ appeared at Thomas Aquinas to lecture, if His identity were unknown and He told a parable, He might be asked, “Where is your thesis, your Sed Contra, and your Response?” Thus, one version of this college might give a greater emphasis to literature, either in the earlier years or as a whole; something like this was done by John Senior and Dennis Quinn at the Pearson College, within Kansas State.

Another variation would be to make Greek the language of the place, for the sake of reading Homer, Plato, and the tragedians and, above all, the Gospels. Thomas More himself would recommend this, and the Greek Orthodox community might prefer it. Other variations are possible. I understand that for many students, the third year of mathematics at Thomas Aquinas is a mind-breaker. Might not biology do as well? Although the modern scientific project could not have achieved its remarkable conquests of nature without understanding mathematics in a new way, still the greatest conquests of modern scientific man are of man, his biologically-based nature, and his genetic future (which may be identical to his abolition). Another variation would be to substitute painting and drawing for music.

And why may not other Christian denominations found similar colleges as well, a Luther College, a Calvin, and a Hooker College? Members of these churches need only look to what has been done in the liberal arts and add their leading theologian as the ordering center; the choice of language will follow, German for the Lutherans, Latin for the Calvinists, Greek for the Anglicans (since Hooker knew it and Aristotle in it). And might we not hear of Christians of various faiths uniting to found such a college, perhaps to be called C.S. Lewis, after the Christian in our age who most emphasized the unity of Christianity by ever writing as a mere Christian? We may also hope that Jews who respect the liberal arts and revere the God of Moses will found a Maimonides or a Hilail College, with Hebrew as the required language. And Muslims who respect reason as well as revering God might revive their intellectual tradition by founding an Al-Farabi, an ibn-Rushd, or an ibn¬Sina College, with Arabic the language. In addition, the example of St. John’s College, itself a model for Thomas Aquinas, shows how very much can be done without an established religious foundation.

To those who would found such truly liberal arts schools, I cannot emphasize too much how exemplary the regimes at Thomas Aquinas and at St. John’s are. In the last 30 years, the governance of most American colleges has passed out of the hands of teachers or former teachers into the hands of those who never were teachers or who never want to be again. Not so at these colleges; they are governed by the teachers. The Committee on Instruction rules, and that committee is composed of those who teach, right now. Their communal purpose is mightily promoted by the fact that all Tutors teach through the whole curriculum. Where disagreements between faculty members are based on shared texts, where you know the favorite book of your intellectual opponent, know what shaped him, what he loves, such disagreements become not the cause of murmuring in corners but of late-night friendships and the fruits thereof, intellectual improvement. As a consequence of sharing a curriculum, the faculty need never be divided and ruled by non-teachers. At Thomas Aquinas the rule of the teachers is carried even further than at St. John’s, for by statute the board must have Tutors on it and the President be elected by the Tutors from among their number.

These two colleges also attempt to suppress another potent source of dissension, envy. It is remarkable how much evil a few hundred dollars, distributed here but not there by a dean, can do to a faculty. Accordingly, at both St. John’s and Thomas Aquinas, salaries are decided by age, qualified by years of service, and, at Thomas Aquinas, by size of family. The maxim seems to be, “If you’re good enough to be a member of the community, you are good enough to receive such support as will allow you to contribute to it, without too much distraction.” Such equity makes for peace; the usual foci of academic political passion, department budgets, raises, and teaching schedules are settled, as is the shared curriculum, in which all innovations must be accompanied by the proposer’s designation of what he thinks should be dropped. At such a college most of the talk among teachers is about particular students, the ways of teaching, and the discoveries of intellect which provide a pleasure not found in any other human activity. What makes for a strong community also makes for its endurance. In the fall of 1987, St. John’s celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of its great books curriculum. I doubt there is another college in the land that has been as faithful to its foundation.

As to founding such a place, nothing could be more instructive than the example of Thomas Aquinas. There a band of friends spent five years saving the money for the first year, and more importantly, talking together, writing down the founding thoughts they shared, and deciding on the curriculum to fit those thoughts. As to perpetuating what you found, nothing could be more instructive than St.

John’s where Jacob Klein arrived in time to deepen the foundation of Barr and Buchanan, and where today his best student is the Dean.

Churchill once suggested that in the modern world, money, speed, and sports have taken the place of family, nation, and salvation; Nietzsche characterized modernity as the substitution of daily newspapers for daily prayers; C.S. Lewis asked whether the next step in the modern conquest of nature might not be the abolition of man; and Romano Guardini wondered whether modern man might soon experience what life without Christ really is. All too true, and at most colleges today, material pleasures, deforming intoxications, absorbing distractions such as sports, and media indignation seem to have replaced daily studies of nature and of nature’s God. At them, one seldom notices students courting, expects a graduate to write a letter worth re-reading, or meets a serious student who is not also lonely. But not at Thomas Aquinas College and its confreres. Beset as it is by many temptations and one potent enemy, our Republic might benefit from more such institutions of truly liberal, truly higher learning. Each would be precious to its graduates and 20 might prove invaluable to the country. Where else but in the souls of its sons and daughters does the future strength of a nation reside? And how might those sons and daughters suffer either the decline or the victory of that nation except in part through the liberal education that had strengthened their souls?


  • Michael Platt

    After study at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, and teaching long stints at Dartmouth and the University of Dallas, with sojourns in Germany at Heidelberg and Greifswald and in Austria at the International Theological Institute (founded by John Paul II), Dr. Michael Platt now teaches politics, philosophy, and literature at George Wythe University (Cedar City, Utah; email: [email protected]); some of his writings, on Shakespeare and Thomas, on teaching and learning, and on the phenomenon of the Teenager, are on its website. He has been rewarded with generous students and supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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