Why is Thomas Aquinas College so Important,
and Why is it Worth the Sacrifices we are Making?
By Dr. Michael F. McLean
President, Thomas Aquinas College
November 26, 2020
Even in the midst of a pandemic, we have so much to be thankful for. Near the top of my list are you students. Deans Goyette and Kaiser, Assistant Deans Kuebler and Gardner, and I, along with all of our faculty, staff, and chaplains, are deeply grateful for the many ways in which you have rallied behind our COVID protocols, for the myriad sacrifices you have made and continue to make, and for your continued and steadfast dedication to the mission and well-being of Thomas Aquinas College.
My question this evening is this: Why is Thomas Aquinas College so important, and why is it worth the sacrifices we are making? There are many ways in which this question might be pursued. Bear with me for a few minutes while I share one of those ways with you.
When the College’s founders wrote the Blue Book, their principal concern was to outline a positive and robust vision of Catholic liberal education — a vision which takes our faith and the best of the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition seriously and fashions a curriculum accordingly.
The authors of the Blue Book were equally insightful, however, about describing the state of undergraduate education, including undergraduate Catholic education, in the late 1960s and in identifying the underlying causes for its decline.
Chief among these causes was the wholesale and uncritical acceptance of the doctrine of academic freedom, understood, in the words of the Blue Book, “as the mentality of free inquiry, the mentality which sees itself as not enslaved to a fixed conception but free to subject every doctrine to critical examination and possible rejection” (p. 19).
With this as a principle, it is not hard to see that a Catholic college which considers the articles of faith as non-negotiable and beyond doubt, and which takes the Magisterium of the Church as an infallible guide in directing us to the best and most reliable of teachers — in short, a college which proposes Catholic education as essentially faith seeking understanding — is almost inconceivable. But conceiving such a college — conceiving Thomas Aquinas College — is precisely what the founders did.
The authors of the Blue Book identify a number of important and extremely harmful educational consequences of this understanding of academic freedom. First, is what, at the time, was the growing secularization of American Catholic higher education, which follows, in the words of the Blue Book, “from the view that a college views its Catholicity as something that is subject to negotiation … that it has rejected the traditional doctrine that the essential purpose of a Catholic college is to educate under the light of faith.”
Second, incoherence in the curriculum: Courses in the latest disciplines such as sociology and modern psychology proliferated, while the colleges also proposed courses in philosophy and theology that were based on a general conception of reality opposed to the philosophical presuppositions of the newer disciplines.
Third, incoherence in the philosophy curriculum itself: Faculties themselves were fundamentally divided on the question of whether there is philosophy, or merely philosophies.
Fourth, the isolation of religion courses, which in no way performed a sapiential function with respect to the rest of the curriculum. No attempt was made to acquaint students with the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Church, or to deepen their understanding of the richness of the Catholic heritage.
Fifth, the substitution of vocational education for what was once an education judged to be intrinsically good for the human person.
Sixth, the acceptance of an instrumentalist pedagogy, which proposed that successful education occurs in direct proportion to its compliance with the interests of the student — an interest which is assumed to be antecedent to enrollment and already fully determinate.
Finally, the deluge of course proliferation, which created the modern college catalogue, stemmed from the denial that one course of instruction might be more educative than another — and from the related conviction that the student’s academic freedom had, in a significant sense, been enhanced by the multiplication of options set before him.
These ills are pointed to in the Blue Book itself. They are as real today as they were then. Your choice of Thomas Aquinas College has enabled you to avoid them, unlike so many of your peers in other colleges.
Underlying these ills is a profound skepticism which despairs of the possibility of acquiring truth about reality and the most important questions which we all must face. This skepticism culminates in what the authors of the Blue Book see as a “profound confusion which is bearing its unhappy fruit in the irrational academic uprisings and revolutions, with their endless and aimless proposals for reform.”
Some 50 years after the Blue Book, it’s not at all clear that things in higher education generally have gotten any better; in fact, they’ve probably gotten worse. Christine Rosen, writing in the current issue of Commentary magazine, implicitly noting the confusion, uprisings, and revolutions, says, “we have moved beyond miseducation into an era of re-education.”
Rosen cites Ibram X. Kendi, who heads the Antiracism Center at Boston University. According to Rosen, Kendi “captures the contemporary mood in his center’s mission statement : ‘To produce knowledge for change’s sake.’” Contrary to the view expressed in the Blue Book that some knowledge is good for its own sake and that education should be ordered to wisdom, Rosen writes that “for Kendi and his ilk, knowledge is not an end in itself or even the purpose of an education. Education is merely a means to an end, a tool for ideological and political transformation.”
Rosen points to Duke University, which issued a statement this summer committing to “incorporate anti-racism into our curricula and programs across the university, requiring that every Duke student — in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs — learns of the nature of structural racism and inequity.” Rosen also mentions the University of Florida, the Rochester Institute of Technology, UCLA, and Princeton University, among others. More colleges and universities will no doubt follow in their footsteps.
Now to come to the point of this talk: I’ve called your attention to examples of miseducation from the Blue Book, and of reeducation from Rosen’s Commentary article, as a way to highlight our College’s commitment to genuine education and its opposition to education which is little more than political indoctrination. This commitment and this opposition render the College uniquely fit to help nurture the Church and restore American society.
Thomas Aquinas College has an unapologetic commitment to the Catholic faith: to pursuing the truth about God, nature, human goodness and the political order and the confidence, contrary to the skeptics, that such truth can be found. The College proudly declares that, for undergraduates, certain things are more worth knowing than others, and that such knowledge has to be pursued in the proper order and according to the proper method. Finally, the College declares that some are more worthy than others to be called teachers — chief among those most worthy being, after Our Lord Himself, St. Thomas Aquinas — and that some books are more worthy than others of our time, interest, and attention.
These commitments have produced generations of alumni who are helping to renew the face of the earth — alumni who are serving well, and will continue to serve well, their communities, their country, and their Church. God willing, you will do likewise.
These commitments, and others I could mention, have made Thomas Aquinas College truly countercultural for all of its 50 years and will continue to do so for the next 50 years.
As countercultural as the College is, it has been very successful. It owes its success, first, to the grace of God and to the vision of its founders. Second, to the dedication, generosity, and wisdom of its Board of Governors and all those who have served on the Board over the years, to all of the parents who have entrusted their children to us, to the benefactors who have contributed to the College’s strength and well-being, and to the faculty and students who have dedicated themselves, as you are now dedicating yourselves, to the College’s mission and educational vision, a mission and vision worth preserving, worth fighting for, and, yes, worth sacrificing for when necessary.
Let us take this opportunity to rededicate ourselves to that mission and vision even as we labor under our present hardships. Let us thank God for our success — as we thank all of you for our success — and pray fervently that He will continue to bless Thomas Aquinas College.
Thank you and may God bless you.
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