In 2 Blue States, This College Teaches Students About Western Civilization

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At Thomas Aquinas College, students study the original works of the great thinkers of Western civilization, among them Aristotle, St. Augustine, Chaucer, Descartes, Newton, Locke, Lincoln, Einstein, and Dostoevsky.

After reading these influential scholars, students engage in small group discussions about the works, their conversations guided by a professor.

But it's not just the curriculum and the classroom methodology that make Thomas Aquinas College different. Despite having campuses in liberal California and Massachusetts, this small Catholic college is bucking trends in higher ed.

As students across America must obtain higher and higher loans to pay for higher education, Thomas Aquinas College is committed to ensuring that no student needs to take out more than $19,000 in loans. It encourages religious practices by making Mass available daily. And it offers only single-sex dorms.

Paul O'Reilly, incoming president of Thomas Aquinas College, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the college's approach and results.

We also cover these stories:

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  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs election reform legislation despite opposition from the left.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Kate Trinko: Joining me today is Paul O'Reilly. He is the incoming president of Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic liberal arts college, which has campuses in both Southern California and Massachusetts. Paul, thanks for joining me today.

Paul O'Reilly: It's my pleasure, Kate.

Trinko: And I should note, I do have to make a disclosure about this interview. I am a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College. I spent four great years there, learned a lot, talked a lot. So, going to just acknowledge I'm a little biased here. So, Paul, first off, what makes Thomas Aquinas College different from other colleges and universities?

O'Reilly: Yeah, that's a good question. There a number of ways in which we have a unique program. In one way, it's easy to see what we don't offer. We do not have majors or minors, no electives, no program overseas.

But maybe positively, I'd say, it's a unified program. We have four years of theology, four years of philosophy, but also, four years of mathematics and four years of natural science. And then in addition to those core subjects, we have language, which is the study of language through Latin, music. And then in a class that we call seminar, we study literature and history.

So, that's the overview of what the college offers. And we do so because we think that liberal education is important, and that it's important to have a unified program when all the parts fit together nicely.

For example, in our freshman year, we study Euclid's elements, the first complete analysis of geometry, and that helps in a number of ways. The young people get a sense of you can know something. You can argue and prove things that are so. But it also helps us in our logic tutorial with freshmen philosophy.

So, they understand how premises lead to conclusions. And that kind of unity really does help them understand not just the mathematics itself, but they can know things, and the way they know things are from premises to conclusions. So, I think that's something that's pretty distinct about Thomas Aquinas College.

Trinko: And I will note, although I personally hated Euclid, I did learn a lot from it. Had a great professor. So, you mentioned that these are all part of the liberal arts. What is the liberal arts, and what's the history of studying these things together?

O'Reilly: That's another good question. I guess traditionally, the liberal arts were divided into the quadrivium and the trivium. The quadrivium were the mathematically-based disciplines, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music, curiously, because music can be studied mathematically. And then what you might call the verbal, which is grammar, logic, and rhetoric, that would comprise the trivium.

But although that's traditionally what the seven liberal arts are, nowadays I think liberal arts and liberal arts education is more synonymous with liberal education. And that's an education that doesn't principally look to practical pursuits, though it's not impractical, or the necessary things that take up much of the time in our lives. Rather, it pursues knowledge that perfects human beings just by knowing things.

For example, in our sophomore philosophy, we study Aristotle's “On the Soul.” And in that semester, we come to understand what is the soul. And Aristotle's got a really interesting argument there that the soul isn't the body, it's not a bodily thing, and he argues that from nature and philosophical principles.

But that's worth knowing just for its own sake. It's not necessarily something you would take out and get a job or has some particular practical application. It helps us understand who we are, what we are, and as a result, even what are our ethical and political responsibilities.

Trinko: So, in addition to having an unusual curriculum, Thomas Aquinas has what I'd call an unusual classroom approach. It's not a professor lecturing all the students. Talk to our audience about how classes work at TAC.

O'Reilly: Yeah, we describe it as either the Socratic method or the discussion method. And really what that means is, just as you mentioned, the professor isn't there to profess an understanding of a particular text or a particular matter. In fact, we call our teachers tutors, which means that they function as guides. They're more prepared. They obviously understand the material in a more deep way. But still, they're functioning in class as guides.

So, what that means is the students before each class have to prepare a text, they have to read a text, and read it carefully with a view to discussing it with their peers around the table. And so, that means that they must be active. They must have some understanding and even some questions and some confusions about the text before they come to class.

It's also our view that the author of the text is the principal teacher. Again, our tutors are guides. The author is the principal teacher. And that's an interesting, I think, approach.

Because listen, the authors don't all agree. [Karl] Marx doesn't agree with, John Stuart Mill doesn't agree with others. So, you can see that although we're trying to understand what the author is telling us, the goal is not just to understand the author's view, but ultimately to judge the truth and falsity of it. And that's what we do day in and day out around the table.

Trinko: Now, I know that you, over the years, have taught a lot of classes yourself, although I never actually had you. But how do you think they work out in practice? I could see people thinking, “Hey, when I was a teenager, I wasn't that smart,” or, “I know a lot of idiot teenagers now who like Marx,” and things like that. Does it really make sense for a group of students to be primarily learning from each other?

O'Reilly: Yeah, well, that's a good question. And I think that's a common criticism of Thomas Aquinas College. We sometimes say it's just a mass exchange of ignorance. But I don't think it's quite right to say that the students are learning from each other.

Sure, the students are all working together, but principally, they're learning from the author of the book, whether it's Aristotle or Augustan—and even if it's Marx, to understand why Marx has the view that he does, and ultimately where it goes astray.

So, in a way, if the tutor is effective, he's guiding the students to understand what the position is, how it compares with other positions that they've read before. And so, although they're helping each other, I would say, principally, they're learning from the authors.

Trinko: OK. Well, in the past couple of years, we've had some pretty heated debates in the United States about our history, about Western civilization, about what thinkers we should care about and not care about.

So, at Thomas Aquinas, students don't take a history class, per se, although, as you mentioned, they do read historical works in the program. But, of course, the whole program is reading the work of the world's greatest thinkers over the years. So, how did you decide what thinkers to feature in the curriculum, and does that list ever change?

O'Reilly: Yeah, that's interesting. Well, there's been a long-standing tradition of what the great books are. Now, maybe that's more challenged nowadays, but usually for political correct reasons, not because a serious study of the authors themselves.

But for a long, long time, the University of Chicago, among others, had published the “great books.” And so, there was a general understanding, if you were to be educated, you should know Homer, you should have read “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”; you should have read Herodotus and Thucydides, among the historians; that you should read Euclid as a geometer; and Aquinas and Augustine in theology.

And that was a view not just for Christians, but all kind of serious thinkers. There are some books that are better than others. And so, they were the great books.

Now, although there's a generally accepted view about what the great books are, where people of goodwill can disagree, especially around the contemporary works—and at Thomas Aquinas College, we have changed some of the readings that we assign, but usually it's in the senior year, the more contemporary works.

So, for example, this year we read Flannery O'Connor. We added her to the program, and Willa Cather. Those are great, wonderful texts, and they're accessible in some way, and address some of the contemporary issues in a literary fashion, which we think is really helpful.

So, we will add some things. And then people of goodwill can disagree about, do you need to read Willa Cather to be liberally educated? Maybe, maybe not. But at least in the core, the basic texts, I think there's general agreement among academics that some books are better than others and worth studying.

Trinko: So, at Thomas Aquinas, students also read some of the works by the Founding Fathers and, as I recall, the Lincoln-Douglas debates. How does that affect their view of the United States?

O'Reilly: I think that's a wonderful, timely question, Kate. … I'm an immigrant. I was born in Ireland. I became an American citizen about 15 years ago. I am shocked to hear some of my fellow citizens denigrate the Founders, denigrate the principles that make this country great, suggest that we're a fundamentally racist country. I think that's simply not true. I know that we've had awful parts of our history that we're ashamed of.

But one of the things that we do with our students is we read the declaration, we read the Constitution. As you say, we read the Lincoln-Douglas debates. And if you read those carefully, you see at its core, in its principles, America is not just a great country, it is not, in any way, a racist country, despite, again, acts of racism.

So, for example, in the declaration, we read and take seriously the claim that all men are created equal.

Now, one of the things we read as a challenge to how to understand that is the Dred Scott decision. And that was a Supreme Court decision, which is shameful, in which the Supreme Court argued that … because of the existence of slavery at the time, that must mean only all white men and males, generally, are equal. That's simply not what the words mean.

And Lincoln helps us walk through, I think, a coherent understanding of the declaration and the Constitution so that we have a better understanding of what this country is all about. And I think the result, at least in the classroom, is greater patriotism for the country and understanding of what makes it great.

Trinko: Yeah. And I think one of my biggest takeaways from my student time was reading all these great thinkers, both United States and international, made me realize how much people had gotten wrong in the past. Which is helpful because right now I think we have a lot of folks who think that they have everything absolutely right. And when you've had the humbling experience of reading smart people get things wrong, you realize it's probably unlikely that there's any group of people that has everything absolutely right in one day and age.

O'Reilly: Yes, so true that is.

Trinko: All right. Well, back in 2015, Sen. Marco Rubio said during a presidential debate, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

O'Reilly: Did he really say that?

Trinko: He did, he did. Rubio has since changed his mind some way. He tweeted something somewhat sympathetic to philosophers a couple years later. You've talked about how the curriculum is beneficial for its own sake. But how do students coming from Thomas Aquinas, how do they do in the job market, and what is career preparedness at the college?

O'Reilly: … Preparing for careers is something we've gotten a little better at over the years. But initially, our view was, you throw them into the waters and they'll figure out how to swim on their own account.

But we do have some clear advisement, some practical guides to give our seniors how to present their education in a way to employers that is attractive, to understand the good things that they have acquired at the college, and especially the ability to read carefully, to agree and disagree respectfully, to understand things and their principles, to articulate what it is that they understand and what it is they don't and how they can progress in that way. Those are really excellent skills in the marketplace.

And we have now many employers who come to the college to interview our students because they like what they see.

There's a big health care company here in Southern California that every year sends executives to interview people who might be interested in working in the health care field. Obviously, we have school districts and charter schools that come out every year because, again, our students are … excited about the intellectual life, want to make a difference in their communities. And they try to encourage them to think about working in their school system.

So, I think what happens is this, that our students, if they give themselves to the program, really have skills that are easily translatable in many different fields. And so, we have our good share of lawyers and doctors, we have teachers, we have IT specialists. But there's no discipline or no field that our students can't pursue if they have the interest.

Trinko: So, student loan debts are increasingly becoming a big issue in the United States. And of course, we've all heard stories about people graduating with insane, sometimes even six figures worth of student loans. So, how does Thomas Aquinas College's financial aid program work, and what principles govern those decisions?

O'Reilly: That's a good question. I'm currently the vice president for advancement. I will, as you mentioned, move into the president's office next year. But one of my principal tasks is to raise every year funds for our financial aid program. And the financial aid program is very simple. It's this, that we will accept any student who is willing and able to do our program. And once a student has been accepted, then we work out the financial aid if it's needed.

So, if there's a need, it has to be a demonstrated need, the parents fill out the financial aid paperwork. But then the college will provide loans, grants, that are necessary for the student to attend the college.

Now, our tuition, room and board is relatively low, around $35,000 all in. All our students are required to live on campus. So, even my own daughter, who's a sophomore here, we live three minutes away, she's required to live on campus because that community life is so important. So, all students will be paying tuition, room and board.

But what we do is we cap student loans such that no student graduates with more than $19,000 in debt. And in order to do that, we have to raise the money to fund our financial aid program.

And then any student who's going to receive, whether it's a loan and/or a grant, they must work on campus for 13 hours. So, they have to give back to the campus, too. They have work on campus, whether it's in the grounds, in the office, or the kitchen, or wherever, in order to get financial aid.

Trinko: And I will say, during my time there, one thing that impressed me was there was true economic diversity. There really were classmates who were taking full advantage of the financial aid, and there were folks who didn't need any. And I think that's something that we talk a lot about, but I'm not sure how many colleges actually have it.

You mentioned the community. So, right now, the culture at a lot of universities is fairly dismal. A lot of college students seem to be liberal, if not, frankly, communists. They're atheists, they're agnostic, even if they were raised in a religious household. Even when you get outside of ideology, there's issues of sexual assault, of binge drinking. And we're beginning to see studies showing that younger Americans in Gen Z are having more mental health struggles than past generations.

So, what is Thomas Aquinas trying to encourage in its campus cultures and its communities, and how is it grappling with some of the issues affecting today's students?

O'Reilly: Yeah, that's a good question. Thomas Aquinas College is not going to be immune from some of those issues because, listen, I think the culture has gotten worse and families are becoming, at least in some cases, more dysfunctional. I have seen this with teenagers. They come, and some of them are just unhappy. And so, you have to take people as you find them.

But what we do is we've got a three- or four-prong approach. First of all, we have rules of residents that are meant to foster good habits. So, whether it's as simple as there's no alcohol in the dormitories—we do serve wine and beer at certain college events to those who are of legal age. We have a curfew so that students can come back to the dormitory, get some rest, be prepared for class, etc. Other rules about how to behave around those of the opposite sex, etc.

But rules are only as good as the people who are in the community. And so, we have to form our young people.

Fortunately, the juniors and seniors, the upperclassmen, can be good examples. We have chaplains—four chaplains at the college here in California, two in New England—that also look after the young people. We do have a counselor for those who need the benefit of his skills.

So, we try to address the things that we're discovering in our culture in a way that improves the lives of these young people, gives them support and encouragement.

… Anthony Hopkins, the actor, came on our campus about a year and a half ago. And one thing he said to us is, “These kids are happy. I can see it in their eyes.” … People notice that, that this is a little respite from the things that ail us. And I think in part that's because of the community that we've formed.

Trinko: So, Thomas Aquinas has campuses in California and Massachusetts, which are two of the most liberal states out there, frankly, and I say this as a native Californian. Has the college faced religious freedom issues or other issues related to being a Catholic college in those two states?

O'Reilly: Yeah. Listen, if you would've asked us, “Would you want to have two campuses in Massachusetts and California?” we would have said no. The challenges, or at least the potential challenges, are likely to be significant. But it's our view that God's ways are not our ways.

The college received as a gift the land in Santa Paula for the California campus, and it's turned out to be good. We own now about almost 900 acres. So, we have a little buffer from the world. It's a little enclave.

And generally, generally, we don't get too much pushback from California or the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

They're always challenging us about the number of our male authors as opposed to female authors, white authors as opposed to minorities, etc. But our position there has always been: We read the greatest books. We don't care about the author himself, what his background is, whether he's male or female, white or minority, or whatever. We just try to look for the best. So, that is a challenge, but I think we're up to that.

I'm a little bit more worried about what might come down the pipe. We have male and female dormitories, for example. And with the aggressive push to accommodate those who are confused about their sex, that could be problematic for us.

But it's our view that we have to protect the majority of our female students who want and do have a right to privacy in their own dorm life. I think it's against faith and reason to allow biological males in a female dormitory.

Those are challenges that come our way. But we are not going to buckle under. We're not going to give in. We think it's important to maintain principles that are rational and religious.

Trinko: So, Thomas Aquinas college is actually hitting its 50th anniversary soon. Is there anything else you'd like to share about the college and its unique approach?

O'Reilly: Well, it is exciting. Not only are we about to celebrate our 50th anniversary, but we also this year, at the end of this academic year, we'll have our first commencement on the East Coast campus.

So, 50 years suggests a kind of stability. But the fact that we're growing and have a second campus, and that second campus is thriving, is really … exciting for us.

I've been at the college for a long time, and I've been to the East Coast campus many times. And it's so interesting to compare.

We have a beautiful campus here in California. It's got that Spanish mission-style of architecture. It's got the Southern California weather.

You go to the East Coast campus, old New England buildings, beautiful in their own way. But then when you walk the campus, it's the same college. It's the same conversations over lunch. The faculty are wondering about the same issues. The students are engaged in the same conversations. It's really an exciting thing to witness.

And the fact that we got, actually, that East Coast campus from the National Christian Foundation, we were the only Catholic organization that applied for it, is extraordinary, too. And when we write the history of Thomas Aquinas College, that'll have to be part of that story.

Trinko: OK. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Paul.

O'Reilly: Well, thank you very much, Kate. Thank you.

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