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“Give Yourself to this Education”
by Dr. Paul J. O’Reilly
President, Thomas Aquinas College
Welcome to Thomas Aquinas College, a place that is unique in many ways.
There are so many things about the education here that set it apart, that make it unlike other colleges, that make it outstanding.
There are the great books you will read, there is the authentically Catholic community, there is a real and inspiring dedication to higher things: to goodness, to beauty and to truth. And there is the Discussion Method employed in the classroom. It is not by lectures, by being told what to think, that we primarily learn at Thomas Aquinas College, but by delving into the minds of great thinkers, by reading and by coming to understand what is true and profound in what we have read through discussing it.
“There must be active participation by the students for the Discussion Method to succeed.”
Now, one can learn by hearing or even by doing (as in technical institutes). I do not want to say that one cannot learn by a different method. The founders of this school, who were so committed to passing on to a new generation the wonderful discovery of truth, might have proposed a different method of learning here, as well. As one of the founders put it, “The Discussion Method is not essential to the life of learning. But it is essential to that life as it is carried out at this college.”
The method of discussion that we employ in the classroom gives life to the program. It inspires wonder, which is the beginning of wisdom. It makes the students more capable of learning, more likely to make their own what they have learned, more open to recognizing the truth.
Here is what the founding document of Thomas Aquinas College says about our method:
“The classes …will be tutorials and seminars, not lectures. Tutorials and seminars proceed by way of rigorous discussions of the readings: they require a more active participation on the part of the student than do lectures.”
This succinct proposal about method contains three important elements:
- Rigorous discussion
- Discussion of the readings
- Active participation
In our everyday conversations, there is not always the kind of structure you find in a TAC classroom. Talking with friends or with family may have a variety of purposes or ends. You may be making arrangements to meet somewhere, or perhaps reminiscing about something that happened years ago. You might even be talking about something you read or setting forth an opinion about politics. These discussions are rarely as orderly as a classroom discussion.
In the classroom there may be digressions, helpful stories to illustrate a point, and so on. But what defines the classroom discussion is the rigor of order; there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that end is always a step in the direction of truth. It may be a small step at times, sometimes so small that you may not see where it leads. At other times it may be a large, eye-opening step. And eventually, class by class, you will notice that you are heading closer to the truth, that you are, in fact, learning.
You might ask yourself: Who are you learning from? In the Discussion Method, it is not the tutor who tells you what to think. It is not the other students, primarily, since they are in the same situation as you are, they are here to learn something.
This brings us to the second point in the passage I sited above:
Discussion of the Texts
In the Discussion Method, it is the text that teaches. It is the author of the book you have read who speaks and leads students in the direction of truth. The order of the classroom is determined by the works themselves.
The tutors have a definite role in the discussion as well. They do not lecture, but they do know something about the material, more than the students, who are new to it. The tutor guides the discussion, to help the students along the path of truth, pointing out the important signs along the way, and keeping in mind the end toward which the discussion is ordered. This requires a tremendous competency and clarity.
Even so, the principal teacher in the classroom is the author of the book. The author proposes an order to be followed and the author proposes an end to be judged. In some cases, he is like a typical professor: He has laid out a thesis and made an argument for it. In other cases, the author might be a novelist, or a poet, who moves us through our imagination and our emotions to some view about things. Historians approach truth in another way; theologians begin with faith to pursue the ultimate truths.
The final point we take from that passage I quoted from our founding document is that there must be active participation by the students for the Discussion Method to succeed.
Active participation requires, first and foremost, that you be prepared. How you prepare is simply that you read the text! It really is that simple. You must read the assigned text, which all of your classmates are also reading, with a view to understanding its points, its intention, that is, what it is trying to say.
Once you have read a text thoughtfully, you are ready to discuss it intelligently. Of course, not everyone can be equally active in the classroom. If everyone were trying to talk, and no one were listening, there would be chaos in the classroom. Intelligent discussion requires speakers and listeners. But everyone must be actively engaged in the discussion. When someone is speaking, others listen thoughtfully. And the best participation at times might be simply to say:
Could you repeat that?
Or, where did you find that in the text?
Or, let me see if I understand, is this what you are saying …
Active participation does not require that you have a carefully worked-out position whenever you speak. It means reading the text before class, reading it carefully, and discussing it intelligently with a view to learning the truth. That is how you will be active in your own learning.
“Truth makes you free because you are no longer bound to accept opinions, either your own or others. Instead, you know what is true, you have made it your own.”
In conclusion, liberal education prepares you to receive, recognize, and understand truth. Truth makes you free because you are no longer bound to accept opinions, either your own or others. Instead, you know what is true, you have made it your own. The texts we read at Thomas Aquinas College, the authors who teach, the tutors who guide, and the unique method by which we discuss all contribute, ultimately, to that freedom.
I have had the great privilege, over the years, of meeting many of the alumni in various walks of life. None of them has ever said, “I regret that I did not watch more movies when I was a student,” or “I am sorry I did not spend more time on video games.”
You will not regret throwing yourself into your studies, being an active learner, taking the most that you can away from this program. In the end, you will take away more if you put more into it. My advice to you is to give yourself to this education, and I promise you will not regret it.
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