Campus Visit: Thomas Aquinas College

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There are only a handful of truly unique colleges—schools so exceptional in their curriculum and approach to education that there is no comparison.  Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California is one of these schools.  I was truly impressed with my visit.

Thomas Aquinas is located 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles and is home to 350 students.  It is a Roman Catholic college and Christian faith plays a major role in campus activities.  Not all students are Catholic, but all students must be open to reading and discussing philosophical and theological works. Mass is offered several times a day in the chapel and most students attend mass multiple times each week.

What makes Thomas Aquinas College so unique is the curriculum based on great books.  There are no department, majors, or electives.  All students take the same classes and read the same works.  There are no lectures.  Instead of professors, “tutors” lead the classes, which are discussion based small-group seminars.

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(typical classroom – all classes are seminar style)

Thomas Aquinas College seeks to help students learn and grow in their discovery of the truth about reality.  By reading great works dating from the ancient world through the present, students are exposed to a true liberal arts education.  No textbooks can be found on campus.  Students read original works in language, mathematics, laboratory (science), philosophy, theology, and music.

Freshman year all students read classical works of western civilization in their seminar, including authors such as Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Sophocles.  Freshman math focuses on “Elements” by Euclid and for theology everyone reads “The Holy Bible.”  Students learn to read, write, discuss, analyze, and think.

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With fewer than 100 graduates each year and no intercollegiate sports program, Thomas Aquinas isn’t one of those colleges that everyone has heard of.  However, in academic circles, its graduates are regarded as bright and capable students who have developed academic skills that will serve them well in any setting.  Almost 40% of students enter graduate or professional school upon graduation and Thomas Aquinas has its share of notable alumni awards and fellowships.  Most graduates site their experience at Thomas Aquinas as foundational to their success in professional fields.

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In my visit the beauty of the campus and the dedication of the students struck me.  Clearly this college is not for everyone.  Prospective students must embrace the philosophy the great books curriculum supports.  If Thomas Aquinas College sounds like a school you’d like to consider, I’d encourage you to participate in their two-week summer program for rising seniors.  It is very affordable compared to other college camps and you will either fall in love with the campus and curriculum or decide it isn’t a good fit for you.

Comments

  1. Kristine says:

    How beautiful! I’ve never heard of this college; love your “campus visit”. Probably won’t make our college rounds, but I do think that its unique curriculum is pretty impressive. We will, however, be looking at a few Christian colleges, probably closer to the East Coast.

    • Kristine, I agree that this school isn’t right for everyone, but I think it is a real gem. I hope you and your family are able to discover some of the gems in your area that are right for you.

  2. Mariclare says:

    Thank you for this article! I’m a Junior at Thomas Aquinas College, and I can attest that everything you say is true. The curriculum is stellar and truly lifechanging. The environment is also a wonderful academic home for anyone, regardless of their religion…because the students are loving, studious, socially oriented, and just awesome people. The older students take care of the younger students in so many ways….I was amazed with how generous so many of them were with their time: proofreading freshman papers, sharing experience and advice, helping us with difficult passages in philosophy or latin, comforting us, and throwing parties for us. And my favorite part is that most of that generosity is also true of the tutors. Most of them eat meals with us, igniting our minds with fire to learn more deeply…they are always around to answer questions or to bounce ideas off of, to help with papers, recommend books, and to be real companions in the journey towards truth. All in all, I love TAC…and going there is the best decision of my life.

    • Mariclare, thank you for adding your comments. I loved the time I spent on your campus; if I could put my life on hold for four years and go to college all over again, Thomas Aquinas College would be on my short list. I know it isn’t the school for everyone, but you add even more reasons for students and their families to consider it. Your comments just underscore the feeling I got on my visit that Thomas Aquinas is one of the truly unique colleges.

      • bennycough says:

        mdorsey, I am not a student at Thomas Aquinas, but I know a 65 year old man who put his retirement on hold for four years to study at this school. Don’t discount the option.

        • Retirement may be my time too. Right now I have two school-age kids, a husband, and a business to keep me busy. But I love the philosophy behind the great books curriculum. I read a number of works from the Thomas Aquinas reading list when I was in college, but I think I would get more out of them now and appreciate the experience more. Maybe in a few years…

  3. Excellent article! If you are unsure about seriously considering the College, I would strongly encourage you to attend the summer program. You’ll begin incredible friendships based on open and honest discussion, the most rewarding of them all. I did! Happily, I am now a member of the graduating class of 2016 with an older brother in his last year. I’ll relay a personal story about a close friend who had been accepted and given generous scholarships to two schools of his choice in Michigan: the small, conservative Hillsdale College (who has a “classics” program) as well as Kettering University (where he would study civil engineering). The first thing he said to us when we picked him up from the two week summer program was, “This is where I want to go.” Talk about a shock! But I believe any student interested in the most essential and important questions will be drawn like a magnet to this College. Instead of professors daily “professing” to you in lecture halls, you encounter the greatest minds through the texts you read and think your own way through. In this way, a Thomas Aquinas College student makes a very good beginning in analytical thinking, speaking, and conversing.

    Again, thank you!

    • Thank you, Annalisa, for stressing the value of the two-week summer program. I thought it was an ideal way for students to learn about the approach to academics at Thomas Aquinas College and determine if the atmosphere is a good fit for their needs. When you say the Thomas Aquinas College student is academically prepared for analytical thinking, speaking, and conversing, you get to the heart of how this type of education benefits students and prepared them for any field going forward. I’m so glad you, your brother, and your friend discovered it was the right college for you.

  4. Thank you for a nicely-written article about my alma mater. I would like to address one particular line in your article that I fear some may misunderstand. You wrote, “Prospective students must embrace the philosophy the great books curriculum supports.” While it is true that students must be willing to read the great books, as you stated earlier in the article, there is no requirement that students adopt any particular philosophy, or even that they adopt Catholicism. It is also unclear to me that there is a single “philosophy” that the great books, which range from the Bible to Kant and Hegel, espouse. Some students I know who excelled in the program were atheists. Some atheists I know who came to the college came to the Catholic Faith while studying there, a truly beautiful thing to witness.

    While it is doubtless true that Thomas Aquinas College tends to attract orthodox Catholics and other Christians because of its integration of Catholic Faith and the Western intellectual tradition, one need not fear that he or she must adopt a particular creed as a qualification for being a student there. What one must adopt is a “philosophy” of inquiry, of the Socratic search for deeper meaning by raising and tackling tough and sometimes unanswerable questions.

    One truly striking feature of Thomas Aquinas College is its firm belief that religious faith has nothing to fear from open inquiry and the presentation of different philosophical visions. The Junior Seminar is often referred to, only somewhat jokingly, as the “Index of Forbidden Books.” It includes such authors as Machiavelli, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Gibbon—hardly bastions of Catholic orthodoxy. A student may leave T.A.C. adopting one of these philosophies, or his or her own philosophy, but what is beyond doubt is that one will not leave T.A.C. quite the same as when one comes in. Whereas in high school or most other College programs, you may be the brightest person in the class, when your classmates include Saint Paul, Socrates, Plato, Aquinas, and Kant, you will not be the measure—you will be measured.

    With that said, I’m glad you enjoyed your visit to the campus, and thank you again for this great review!

    • Thank you for the clarification, James. What I meant to say is that students considering Thomas Aquinas should understand the greats books approach and the type of education they will receive. I’ve worked with many parents who believe college is a means to an end and the purpose of college is to select a particular degree that will lead to employment upon graduation. These parents don’t believe a liberal arts education could be as valuable as a degree in accounting or engineering. These are probably not the right people for your alma mater.

      I didn’t intend to say students should agree with a particular philosophy or religion. Thank you for providing more depth on the role of religion and religious texts at Thomas Aquinas College.

  5. I agree with everything you said in this article, but I would like to stress one point in particular. The Summer Program is a fabulous way for prospective students to see what they think about the school.
    When I attended the summer program oh so many years ago, or at least it feels that way, I had very little intention of attending TAC. I just wanted the opportunity to study at the school for a few weeks and then pick a different college. By the time I left the campus at the end of the two weeks I was hooked. I tried to deny it for a couple of weeks, tried to convince myself to go to one of the schools that my friends from high school were thinking about but it wasn’t going to work for me and I knew that.
    By October when I was filling out college applications I was really only filling out one, the one for TAC. It remains the only application I actually completed in its entirety for undergrad, I knew no other school was going to satisfy the desire to study the way TAC would. Other schools would let me study philosophy or theology, but not in the same intense way and no other school would challenge me to think about things the same way that TAC would. The four years I spent there were some of the hardest years of my life, and some of the most rewarding. My education has been absolutely invaluable as I made my way through grad school and into the working world. It may have been a hard four years, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
    Outside of the academics, which were absolutely amazing, there is also the social aspect of the school to be taken into account. Given the size of the campus everyone knows everyone and you can always find someone to talk to, to debate with, or to help you with your studies. Dorm life was wonderful, prayers were said each night as a community, optional but a beautiful option to have. After all, Aristotle says that you can only truly study philosophy once you have attained a certain wealth of experience that comes only with age.
    Thank you for the wonderful review, I think you captured TAC as well as anyone who has not physically attended it could. And I wouldn’t discount attendance! Even if you go back later in life you would be able to provide a wonderful perspective in class discussions that would be impossible for anyone else to give since they would not have the same depth of experience.

  6. Melodee Forbes says:

    It doesn’t look like a college, it looks like a palace… a beautiful spiritual palace. Great photos. You’re right this college is clearly not for everyone, but I think it’s neat that the campus has not just a spectacular ambience and view but an intimate size group/class feel for those that are accepted to this university.

    Great insight, Megan! Thanks for being such a valuable resource.

  7. Michelle DeMarco says:

    WOW. How beautiful this campus is!!! I didn’t realize that the atmosphere was so spectacular. Do you know if they have an equine program? My daughter is an avid equestrian and is trying to find that perfect mix of a high level college along with horse eventing…

  8. Michael Dolson says:

    The college recently presented a video of a recent address to the students given by Ronald McArthur, one of the college founders. He talkes about why he and the other founders established the college. It is truly enlightening for prospective students as well as their parents. I saw it as a post on the Thomas Aquinas College Facebook wall on May 2nd.

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