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The tiny college that shows how to save US higher education

Thomas Aquinas College’s chapel

America’s radiating college-cheating scandal – wealthy parents allegedly bribed athletic coaches to admit their unathletic kids to elite institutions – is best understood as a symptom of a civilisation that no longer believes in the possibility of truth.

We in the West have oodles of facts, things we can learn with our senses and measure with our scientific instruments. But we reject truth – transcendent claims about the meaning and purpose of life. If we approach truth at all, we do so with hammers in hand, determined to “deconstruct” and “interrogate” it.

And if there is no such thing as transcendent truth, aren’t the cheaters in a sense to be commended for following our civilisational logic to its terminus? I kid. Lawbreakers should be punished. But true reform begins with shifting that civilisational logic.

It’s a generational undertaking with uncertain prospects. But to get a glimpse of what such an effort might look like, and the role that Catholic educators must play, look no further than Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), the tiny liberal-arts institution that since 1971 has been bucking the trend in American higher education – including the secularised variety on offer at places like Georgetown University, ensnared in the scandal.

I recently visited TAC, nestled in the Topatopa Mountains, at the entrance of Los Padres National Forest, an hour and a half’s drive northwest of Los Angeles. I was there to speak with the students and faculty, interactions for which – full disclosure – I was paid a modest honorarium. Here is a place where neither students nor professors shy away from the word “truth”, where great-books learning takes place “under the light of faith”.

A small group of Catholic philosophers founded the college in 1971, amid the rebellion and iconoclasm that swept the Church in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. A few years earlier, leading Catholic educators had declared themselves free of “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself”, in what became known as the Land O’ Lakes Statement.

Half a century later, it’s plain to see what Land O’ Lakes wrought: not genuine freedom of inquiry, but slavery to political correctness and progressive dogma that is as severe, if not worse, than it is at the secular institutions the Land O’ Lakers sought to imitate. In 2017, three of the 10 institutions named among America’s worst colleges for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education were Catholic ones: Georgetown, DePaul, Fordham.

TAC’s founders began from different premises – namely, that Catholic education “calls for reestablishing in our minds the central role the teaching of the Church should play in the intellectual life of Catholic teachers and students”, as they wrote in their founding document.

They believed that, precisely because Catholicism proclaims absolute truth, the faith could liberate liberal-arts education from the narrow specialisation, technocratic blandness and haphazard quality of modern secular education. Thus, faithfulness to the magisterium and apostolic authority could restore the true promise of the liberal arts: “an education for man simply as man” – man as such being legible only in a created order.

Did it work? From an inaugural class of 33, the college has grown to more than 400 students today, a number administrators fret is a bit too large. The students all take the same courses, where they read the Western canon in a coherent order and in primary sources, never in those ugly textbooks their peers elsewhere suffer through.

They discuss these books in the Socratic method, aware that they are all “accountable to the truth”, as numerous kids told me – including the Truth-made-flesh, Who hangs crucified in every classroom, Who becomes truly present under the appearances of bread and wine at well-attended Masses several times a day on campus.

“Careerism isn’t a problem here” is another frequently heard mantra. They read Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Newton, Einstein and, yes, Nietzsche and Marx for their own sake. There are grades, of course, but for many students high marks are at most a tertiary concern. The point is moral and spiritual growth.

The most striking thing about TAC, however, is the campus culture: the modesty of dress; properly ordered relations between the sexes that spark early and fruitful marriages; the fact that, rather than vomit-strewn floors and gropings in the dark, St Patrick’s Day festivities involve moderate drink and Irish balladry, with the young children of the professors around to remind the students of the proper ends of the married vocation.

Plenty of alumni go on to elite graduate programmes and jobs in government and think tanks. But one graduating senior tells me matter-of-factly that she wishes to work as a farmer in a Catholic country like Austria. Yes, a farmer. Think that sounds fanciful, impractical? Look where the cult of practicality and efficiency and competitiveness has brought us.

Tempted to donate to big-name, Catholic-in-name-only Catholic schools? Save your money.

Trying to imagine what a vibrant Catholic culture, born out of the wreckage of liberal modernity, might look like? You don’t have to: Come to Santa Paula and see for yourself.

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the newly published memoir, From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)