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Booked Up : At Thomas Aquinas, Education Means Studying the Classics

September 29, 1988|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

It is 7 p.m. at Thomas Aquinas College and Machiavelli holds sway in a moonlit classroom, just as he did 450 years ago in the intrigue-filled court of a Florentine prince.

In this room, however, there are no critical antheologies, no lectures, no teachers.

There is only Machiavelli's essay, "The Prince"; a tutor and 14 students, grappling with good and evil on a mountain meadow halfway between Ojai and Santa Paula.

"A prince needs to be street-wise and opportunistic to maintain power," one student begins, suggesting that Machiavelli applied different rules of behavior to rulers and common men.

Immediately, another student objects.

"Miss Ayre, I don't agree with what you just said. You didn't cite anything from the text."

So it goes at Thomas Aquinas, one of just a handful of colleges nationwide where students earn a liberal arts degree by reading solely what their schools deem the Great Books--classics that reflect Western civilization from 2,500 B.C. to the early 20th Century.

Students at Thomas Aquinas learn physics from Einstein, calculus from Newton, evolution from Darwin. They study Freud's view of the psyche, they learn chemistry from Lavoisier and genetics from Mendel. They read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations. And, of course, they read St. Thomas Aquinas, the 12th Century Italian saint whom the Roman Catholic Church considers its most enlightened teacher, philosopher and theologian.

"We read only the greatest minds and the greatest works in every discipline," the college's Dean Thomas E. Dillon said.

Added Admissions Director Thomas J. Susanka, in a paraphrase of British author C.S. Lewis: "There are zillions of books about Plato, all of them infinitely more complex than Plato himself."

The curriculum at Thomas Aquinas borrows heavily from St. John's College in Annapolis, Md, which in 1937 became the first college to base its curriculum exclusively on the Great Books.

On the eve of World War II, educators believed such programs "would sweep the country," recalled St. John's Dean Thomas J. Slakey.

While that hasn't happened, several schools today--including St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., Brooklyn College in New York and Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.--have emulated St. John's by adding courses or programs in the Great Books.

Such moves win laurels from education reformers.

How to Think

The classics "teach students how to think and pursue the truth," said educator and scholar Mortimer J. Adler. "All colleges in which the great books are read are better than any others in the country."

A growing number of students apparently agree. At Thomas Aquinas, the freshman class has increased by 38% since 1986; At St. John's, admissions have jumped more than 45% in two years.

Some educational scholars see this as a boon: In 1984, William Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, issued a report calling for widespread reform in liberal arts education. His study, called "To Reclaim a Legacy," deplored the fact that in roughly three-quarters of all American colleges and universities, it was possible to obtain a bachelor's degree without studying European history, American history or American literature.

High Ranking

The high academic standards at Thomas Aquinas have not escaped those who rate colleges. In 1987, the Wall Street Journal ranked it one of the top colleges with annual tuition of less than $8,000 and with admissions standards among the top 4% nationally. (Tuition has since been raised to $8,580.) Barron's College Guide lists Thomas Aquinas as one of the most academically competitive schools in the nation.

The school enrolls 150 students. It lies on 135 rolling acres off California 150, watered by natural springs that flow into the Santa Paula Creek and ringed by the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest.

Pensive students can follow miles of dirt trails into fern-lined groves of redwood and oak. Here the water that gurgles in stone ponds and the occasional rustle of lizards or birds provide the only distractions.

This fecund paradise contrasts sharply with the spartan, modular buildings that sit on the grassy knolls. The school has but one permanent facility, a neo-Spanish colonial commons where students eat meals to the strains of a classical piano. Construction of the first, 44-bed dormitory is under way, but for now students live, segregated by sex, in beige-and-brown modular dorms.

Automatic Expulsion

Visiting between dorms, or bringing alcohol or drugs onto campus, results in automatic expulsion. Women must wear skirts or dresses to class; men cannot wear T-shirts. Students address each other as "Miss" and "Mr."

For all these students care, though, they could be huddled in cold caves wearing bearskins. They are here for the books, the moral underpinnings and the intense friendships--and sometimes marriages--forged in this cloistered caldron.

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