Thoughts and Insights on Thomas Aquinas College’s Great Books Summer Program

by Kathleen Sullivan (’06)


I still remember so vividly, even though it was the summer of 1999, when I went to sleep one night thinking, “This is it. This is where I am going to college.” It was about the fifth or sixth day at Thomas Aquinas College’s Great Books Summer Program, and I was excited to be there, but I wasn’t too aware of the unusual purpose of the College.

I attended with my older sister, and went about the days having fun, making friends, thinking about my upcoming year of high school, but not really trying to understand the program itself. In fact, I hadn’t spoken in my class yet; content instead to just listen and follow the conversation of the rest of my peers as they animatedly discussed the readings in our daily seminar sessions. I was intrigued by the works we read, and had many thoughts on them, but did not have the confidence to present them out loud. What my classmates said seemed fine to me, and so I sat, and thought, and listened.

However, all that changed one evening after dinner when I was chatting with a friend on the steps by the Our Lady of Guadalupe fountain. A summer program worker and current student at the college stopped by to say hello, and asked us how we thought the program was going. I blurted, “Great! It’s so beautiful here, I love California, and I love how everyone is so friendly and faithful and fun to be around.” He replied, yes that’s true, but what about the program?

Oh. The program? He then sat down with us and asked a question: Tell me one thing that is important in your life? I replied, “My family.” And his response was, why? With that came a shrug, and initial hesitation, but with more questions, the added comments of my friend, and the wheels of my mind thinking and turning things over in various perspectives, I came to a deeper realization and understanding of my immediate answer. I had discovered a new perspective on my family, and not just them, but on families in general, and their importance and impact on human nature, society, life and even the afterlife. I had discovered a truth that took hold and stayed with me.

It was quite the conversation, one that took us to curfew, and one that I was surprised I had contributed so much to. As I went back to the dorm and settled into sleep, the thoughts still whirling in my head, I came to that realization as clear and vivid then as it is now, “This is it. This is where I am going to college. This is what I want to do.” I want to think, to discover the truths of things, to reason and reflect on what matters in our lives, to understand the world around me from a perspective unhindered by another’s bias or predetermined mindset. I wanted to grapple with the questions that Man has always grappled with, and to learn the answers as best I could. I had realized that education was not about the amount of knowledge learned, but about how it was learned. I wanted to take control of that knowledge, guided by the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas College’s tutors, the insights and fresh perspective of my peers, and by the faith of my Catholic beliefs.

And so I did. I’ve been in school practically all my life; I’m currently finishing up my doctorate in graduate school. My undergraduate years at the College, however, were the four most challenging and the four most rewarding years of them all.

After that conversation, it took me a couple more classes before I gathered my courage to enter into my class conversation. Once I did, it was the light turning on again. This was how school should be! To be responsible for my learning, to develop my critical thinking skills, to learn how to effectively communicate, to read and discuss these texts without the filter of an editor was all in my grasp. I wanted to skip the rest of high school and enter Thomas Aquinas College right away. Yet I returned to high school with a new perspective on education, and found myself more frequently raising my hand to ask questions or propose comments. An education is not passive; it is active, alive, and all within reach at colleges such at Thomas Aquinas where to be liberally educated is to be truly free.

Being a Prefect

Over the years, I have been blessed to take part on the other side of Thomas Aquinas College’s Summer Program, working as a prefect to help with the running of the program, but more importantly, to help the high school students understand the program. Many students came from a mindset similar to my own at that age: unsure of the purpose of studying the great books, unfamiliar with the meaning of liberal arts, and uncertain of presenting their own thoughts in a seminar class. Slowly but surely, as the days passed and as their friendships deepened and the texts become more intriguing, it was wonderful to see their minds take charge, jumping into the discussions with animation and resolve.

I remember one of the students coming up to me after a class on Macbeth, saying, “Kathleen! I just made an awesome point about Lady Macbeth and the prophecy in class! Look, here…” and he pulled out his text, pointed out the passage in question, and began explaining his insight with enthusiasm as I followed along, questioning and commenting on his assessment. It was especially rewarding because I remember this student groaning earlier in the day because they had to read an entire Shakespeare play in one afternoon. We made a point of sitting at the dinner table together so that we could continue the conversation with other students.

Discussing a Shakespearean tragedy over chicken and mashed potatoes with eager young minds as if the only thing that mattered right then was discovering the truth of this particular interpretation… such is an everyday occurrence at Thomas Aquinas College. Truth matters, and it should be shared. It is so exciting to see those high school students discover it, discuss it, and delight in it.

I remember another time helping a student work her way through a Euclid proposition. It was a difficult proposition, and it took some time, but the moment when the light turned on —the moment when she saw how the steps logically followed to the conclusion — that moment is the best. It takes me back to my childhood days of begging my parents to “Watch me! Watch this!” since the desire to have a companion in good things never diminishes. That one student made me smile as she sighed in relief, turned to me, said joyfully, “Now watch this!” and demonstrated the proposition she had mastered, not through memorization but through rational thinking, with finesse and confidence. Once again, when truth prevails, a light shines forth.

It’s almost miraculous how lives can be changed in just two short weeks, and I’ve been blessed to witness such changes…

  • seeing a student who had questioned the existence of a higher being actually attend Mass
  • watching a group of boisterous boys become responsible men as they banded together to carry a wheel-chair bound student up the steep hiking trails
  • seeing students forgo recreation time in order to do extra Euclid props just “for the fun of it”
  • watching students gather to do a read-through of a play with all the dramatic flair of a professional performance; they had decided to do this of their own accord, a sign that they recognize there are goods in and of themselves, and that it is worthwhile to pursue them
  • seeing a student wrestle a desire to attend a technical school with his desire to attend a liberal arts school, as he came to understand the immense worth that a school like Thomas Aquinas College has, a value that goes far beyond the salary of a job
  • seeing a student’s goodbye note on the board, saying she realized she only wants to attend a school that truly cares about her education and can’t wait to return
  • hearing the beauty and mastery of musical performances as students share their talents at open-mic night and the spontaneous jams initiated on the outdoor patio, recognizing that such an education creates a joy-filled community
  • watching friendships form, friendships that will last, and do last, beyond those two weeks
  • seeing the tears they shed on the last day as they realize they are leaving something true and good and beautiful

The amount of summer program students who return to the College for a visit, who apply to the college, who attend and graduate from the college, is a sign of the worth of those two weeks. In a short time, students come to realize one of the vital necessities in life — we are given the gift of reason, and with that comes the responsibility to develop it and use it.

In the great books program, by encountering the original thoughts and minds of the thinkers of the past, these young students are both enabling their minds to think rationally and training their minds to communicate clearly. Freeing themselves from the shackles of ignorance, especially in the faith-filled atmosphere of the College, these young students become more aware of their purpose in life, become more certain in their hope for a life eternal, and become more eager to live a rational, moral, and ethical life — to live the good life.


Posted February 22, 2013