Starting Over: Catholic Higher Education Flourishes in California

Now that the Department of Education suggests we go to school to the Japanese for light on teaching and learning there is no longer any doubt that this country is in steep decline. Because Americans could no longer make cars, our autobah-nen are full of Hondas. We are also growing dumber by degrees and Johnnie can’t read so the Empire continues to strike back, now taking the war to the playing fields and classrooms of the conqueror. Soon Panasonic will teach us how to make apple pandowdy.

This is by way of introduction to saying a thing or two about Catholic colleges and universities, which by and large are in the same fix as their secular counterparts, and then on to one remarkable antidote to the general drift in Catholic higher education — Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.

The claim that “name” Catholic universities are no different from the state universities down the street is not, as you might think, the accusation of an outsider. This has become the boast of these institutions, or at least of their presidents. The vast majority of American Catholic universities are Jesuit and, in case you haven’t heard, there is a great division among members of St. Ignatius’s company. Some are like the founder, others are like those you read about in Pascal’s Provincial Letters. There are two departments in a Catholic university you would expect to be different from their counterparts in a public institution, philosophy and theology. Well, the difference no longer consists in what is taught, but rather in the fact that overt attacks on Catholicism are more likely to occur in Catholic departments. Of course, you will have read the dreary story a hundred times, now that the academic careerist has found the press conference to be the best setting in which to ply his trade. What Protestant would speak of the Pope in the way Father Hans Kueng does? What bible thumper would rail at Rome with the venom of a Charles Curran? But you will say that Curran was removed. Not by the president of his university, he wasn’t. The curious thing is that presidents of Catholic universities rush to the defense of such theological dissidents — lest their institutions appear significantly different from secular ones.

About a year ago, doubtless prompted by the current chaos in Catholic colleges, universities and seminaries, Cardinal Baum, himself an American but also a Roman Curia official, circulated a schema, or draft, of a statement on the nature of Catholic universities. It is a perfectly sensible piece of prose and outsiders might well wonder at the need to state such obvious truths. Nonetheless, there was an uproar from the presidents of Catholic universities. They got together and issued a collective statement, the most unintentionally poignant point of which was that Cardinal Baum would force on them the tragic choice between being Catholic and being real universities.


There is tragedy here, but not of the sort suggested. These anxious administrators might be expected to know something of the history of universities. One would hope they would be the first to insist that originally all universities were Catholic, that at the outset to be a university and to be Catholic were identical. The question would rather have been how a non-Catholic university is possible. What changes from medieval times can possibly explain that Catholic university presidents now accept the view of their enemy, say of an old rascal like Bertrand Russell, for whom a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms? They wished to instruct the Vatican and their fellow American, Cardinal Baum, that in the United States there are two essential features of a university — academic freedom and tenure — that make it impossible for them to take his schema seriously. You cannot fire a tenured professor for what he teaches — that was the nub of the response.

Now anyone who thinks that Yeshiva or Brandeis would feel constrained to keep on the faculty one who spoke favorably of anti–Semitism in their classrooms, anyone who thinks Vassar would hesitate to can a professor who taught that a woman’s place is in the home, is in no position to instruct anyone on the practical realities of American higher education. The problem with American Catholic universities is not that they cannot be both Catholic and universities, but that they no longer wish to be. It is no accident that these Catholic presidents are to a man political liberals.

What would you do if you found yourself on the faculty of a Catholic college or university that seemed bent on repudiating, when it even knew about, the great Catholic tradition that is all but identical with Western culture? When C. S. Lewis converted he said that one of the bonuses — not motives — of being a Christian was that he now shared the outlook of those who had produced the literature he studied and taught. A Christian outlook. By and large, a Catholic outlook. In a recent edition of Milton, there is a footnote explaining the concept of Original Sin. That note is every bit as necessary for those taught in Catholic schools as elsewhere. The amount of illiteracy about Christianity in and out of Catholic schools is enormous. And it is an illiteracy that cuts us off from our cultural past — from Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare as well as from Augustine and Aquinas and Pascal.

So what would you do? Evelyn Waugh found life in post-war England possible once he imagined himself a tourist living among a strange and alien people. In short, he and his kind were in diaspora. Kierkegaard spoke of the gigantic task of re-introducing Christianity into Christendom. It is also a large task to take the life of the mind seriously in institutions of higher learning whose administrators now speak a jargon indistinguishable from that of managers in the business world. Students have been taught little before they come to the university, and that by television. Their heads are full of mush, liberal mush, by and large, but then they meet the faculty and mush answers to mush. The politicization of education at all levels, the liberal miasma that pervades everything, the fact that saying Reagan without a curled upper lip can jeopardize a tenure decision — these are facts of life in American higher education. So, in a hostile and hilarious environment, you might just do your work as well as you can and let Universal History take care of itself. And so too might one in a Catholic university.

The alternative would be to start over, to found a new school, to gather together kindred souls, fashion a sound curriculum, determine to introduce young minds to the truth in an ambience of faith, and begin. For most that would be a late night thought, soon to be chased away by the almost overwhelming practical difficulties. Ronald McArthur had the thought, he had friends who had the same thought. They put it into effect and the result is a remarkable place, Thomas Aquinas College.

McArthur is what used to be called a big drink of water, nearly seven feet tall, who along with a handful of others started the school in 1971, has been the president from the beginning and thus must absent himself from felicity all too often in order to beg money to keep the place going. Like several other of the original tutors — there is only one academic rank, that of tutor — McArthur studied graduate philosophy at Laval University in Quebec where under the deanship of Charles DeKoninck, there was a brief golden period that was to have far reaching effects on Catholic philosophy in the United States. DeKoninck’s students would recognize one another after ten minutes of conversation even if they didn’t make up a group small enough for everyone to know everyone else already. DeKoninck died in 1963 and the Faculte de Philosophic by trying to become more relevant has become unknown.

Laval Thomism, during its golden period of brief duration — less than twenty years — was characterized by a revolutionary idea. The way to study St. Thomas was — to study St. Thomas. That is, to read the man himself, in Latin. More particularly, so far as philosophy went, this entailed reading the vast number of commentaries Thomas wrote on works of Aristotle. At Laval, one read the commentaries on the Physics and Metaphysics and Ethics as well as the Summa theologiae. I myself went there after earning an M.A. at the University of Minnesota whose Department of Philosophy was itself enjoying a golden period — Sellars, Feigl, Hospers, Terrell, Brodbeck and Paul Holmer — and, to me, Laval was engagingly ahistorical. DeKoninck shared with Great Books advocates the belief that reading the text is always better than reading about it and should in any case precede the latter. Knowledge of historical context was always subordinated to knowledge of the text. If one wanted to be a Thomist, there was no better place to study than Laval.

McArthur and his wife had lived in the same apartment my wife and I were to occupy — 60 Avenue des Braves, in the basement — but it was years before I met him. I kept hearing of him of course. Ron of St. Thomas was the epithet applied to him, but he was on the West Coast and in those days philosophers in the East and Midwest were as far from those on the West coast as they were from those in Europe. He taught at St. Mary’s College, in Moraga near San Francisco, as did others of the original faculty of Thomas Aquinas, and, believe me, St. Mary’s was and is a very good college. But not even St. Mary’s was what McArthur and his friends wanted a Catholic college to be. What was their idea?

Anyone familiar with St. John’s in Annapolis, anyone who has read Mark Van Doren’s Liberal Education — I myself read it on the wing of a parked Marine Corsair at El Toro, not a million miles from where TAC would one day be — will note similarities in the school founded by McArthur, Peter De Luca, John Neumayr and others in 1971 (they were joined the following year by Tom Dillon, Marcus Berquist, and Thomas Aquinas McGovern, S. J.) The added note, the essential note, is religious faith. “Thomas Aquinas College is devoted to scholarship in the Christian tradition.” That is the first line in the bulletin. They mean it. You can find a similar claim in the bulletins of most Catholic colleges. They do not mean it. At TAC, the student will learn the perennial philosophy and the sacred theology of the Church, in conformity with the magisterium

The idea is to read the greatest works of the tradition, to examine them closely, in small seminars, tutorials and laboratories, “aiming at the intellectual life rather than activism; believing that education is not an experiment and that teaching without a claim to truth is both empty and arrogant.” The job of the faculty is to teach — exclusively — and of the students to study. The promise is that the student will receive a liberal education, that is, will actually learn the liberal arts. Now any number of colleges make the same offer but at Thomas Aquinas they both know what they mean by it and deliver on the promise.

The curriculum is swung around the liberal arts, with a two year long tutorial on the syntax of Latin, a one year logic tutorial, a four year mathematics tutorial, a one year music tutorial; philosophy, with a three year tutorial; theology, with a four year tutorial. Finally, throughout the four years, there is laboratory study of the natural sciences which is coordinated with the philosophy and mathematics tutorials. Thus, optics, mechanics, electromagnetism, atomic theory, relativity theory are studied with reference to the writings of Aristotle, Huygens, Galileo, Newton, Faraday and Einstein.

Throughout the four years, there is the Seminar, specifically devoted to the reading list, and it is here that, along with works that connect with the tutorials, literature and history is read.

There is a single curriculum, there are no choices. After all, if you know what a liberal education is, you don’t require each student to invent it for himself. The diminishing number of required courses in American colleges testifies to the lack of any consensus as to what education is. Outside of a major, one’s college education is pretty much a matter of random choices — and seldom one’s first choices — and, within a major, there is seldom any single set of requirements. TAC stands out for having a well-focused, comprehensive curriculum that grounds its students in the tradition. For all that, it would still be just like St. John’s if it were not for the way theology enters into the curriculum.

“The intellectual aspirations that liberal education pursues carry the believer naturally to sacred theology, and find their fulfillment in that subject.” The believer. Theology is often confused with religious studies, an outsider’s skeptical eye turned on the strange claims of believers, an effort to make sense out of them which comes down to imagining what they can be made to mean on the assumption that they can’t be literally true. Theology, in the classical sense, is reflection on the truths God has revealed and, among other things, putting them into various relations with truths that have been acquired by ordinary human inquiry. The great underlying assumption here is that there can be no conflict between the truths God has revealed and naturally known truths. It is this assumption above all that makes the intellectual ambience of Thomas Aquinas College Catholic.

There are other well-defined liberal arts curricula elsewhere, but without theology functioning as it does here. Likewise, there are other, many other, colleges which have been founded because of the secularization of American higher education. How does TAC differ from a good college or university founded under fundamentalist auspices, say? The single greatest difference would be the assumption, in the fundamentalist place, that all truth has been revealed in the Bible. This, combined with the notion that sinful man is incapable of acquiring truth and that grace and revelation are necessary, rather dramatically affects the point of higher education. The result would seem inevitably to be a kind of spiritual schizophrenia.

It is impossible to imagine Ron McArthur sharing the attitude of those presidents who claimed Cardinal Baum was forcing on them a choice between being Catholic and being genuine universities. But then it is impossible to imagine Thomas Aquinas or Thomas More or Cardinal Newman or for that matter any Catholic university president twenty years ago saying such a thing. Matters might improve in those older places, but only if they take their lead from Thomas Aquinas College.

That may seem a large claim. There are just over one hundred students at Thomas Aquinas. Its natural setting is beautiful, a fold in the hills, some raised ground, mountains beyond; its buildings are the hacienda of the Doheny Ranch, one large building, still the only permanent building of the projected campus, and quite a number of temporary structures. If the natural surroundings take one’s breath away, the physical sight of the college does not. There will be more buildings, no doubt of that, but the essence of the place is the faculty and the students and what has brought them together. Any one of the tutors could readily find a place on a faculty that pays much better; the students could have gone most anywhere. They are here because they love it. There is a large number of families who have sent many sons and daughters to TAC. The majority of the tutors have been here from the earliest days of the college. It is a place where teachers teach and students learn. All sports are intramural.

Does it work? What happens to graduates of TAC? It is an ironic fact that these students, who follow a curriculum which ignores the prevailing winds of American higher education, do extremely well in the Graduate Record Examinations that are crucial for admittance to graduate school. The GRE’s are basically three in number, quantitative, verbal and analytic. There are also examinations in the field one wants to do graduate work in, say, philosophy. When I was Director of the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame, I admitted several graduates from TAC to the program every year. It would have been hard to turn them down. 800 is the highest possible score in any part of the GRE’s and these applicants regularly had one or more 800 scores with the others close to that perfect figure. A critic might look at the philosophy studied at TAC and dismiss it as out of tune with current trends. Well, if the GRE is any measure, graduates of TAC seem remarkably well informed about what is going on in philosophy. But their distinctive trait is that they have a lot more than information; they have a solid formation in philosophy. They actually know that some things are true and others false. On their own. Speaking in their own name. This is rare among fledgling philosophers who are more likely to tell you what the Realist would say, or the Idealist, or some other -ist — this being much safer than speaking in propria persona. Unfortunately, playing it safe, being a ventriloquist, is often the mark of the student philosopher.

A large number of TAC alumni are in the professions, law, medicine, teaching. A large number are in the priesthood and in religious orders. Quite a few are married to one another. I was told by a young woman that going to TAC spoiled her and she could not take boys from other colleges seriously. They seemed either dumb or superficial. Her husband was a classmate.

A tragic choice between being Catholic and being a genuine college or university? Nonsense. This land was once covered with Catholic colleges and universities which were unabashedly such and were highly respected for it. Most of them have now lost their identity. It will not be easy to get it back. For the moment, Catholics in “Catholic universities” live in occupied territory, the conjunction of faith and reason a personal achievement. Thomas Aquinas College is there to show that it can be an institutional one as well.

Ralph McInerny


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.