Founded in 1971, Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) was the first in a wave of new Catholic colleges born from the crisis of Catholic identity in American Catholic higher education. Although TAC’s success has encouraged the emergence of other faithful Catholic colleges, including some that share its emphasis on the Great Books, TAC still has the distinction of being the only Catholic college in America that teaches exclusively from these classic works of Western civilization.
Located six miles from the small town of Santa Paula, CA, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles, TAC is fully committed to its Catholic identity, its Great Books approach, and a discussion-style class format utilizing Socratic dialogue. The College has no departments, no majors, no textbooks, and no lectures. All graduates progress through the same curriculum and receive the same degree: a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, with roughly the equivalent of a double major in theology and philosophy, and a minor in mathematics.
Despite its small size, the College has been lauded in both secular and Catholic rankings. Its national student body comes from 37 states and several countries, and 40 percent of its alumni go on to graduate and professional schools. About five percent of the students already come with bachelor’s degrees from other institutions, but they are attracted to the unique Great Books education.
TAC was founded by lay Catholics and continues to be led by a lay board of governors. Dr. Michael McLean was appointed president in October 2009, after 31 years on the faculty. Over the years he has served as tutor, assistant dean of student affairs, vice president for development, and academic dean.
“The Catholicity is manifested in the curriculum, the choice of texts, the study of St. Thomas, and the strong devotional life here,” says President McLean. The College also believes it important to reject taxpayer support and regulations and therefore does not accept direct government funding. “Every seriously Catholic college trying to maintain its fidelity to the Church has to be vigilant about threats from the contemporary culture and government,” explains Dr. McLean.
Tuition, room and board, and books cost students $32,450 in 2014-2015, well below the average for private colleges in California. The College's students participate in federal and state aid programs, and generous financial aid packages are available.
The Great Books curriculum remains largely unchanged since TAC’s founding and is structured around six disciplines: literature, language, mathematics, laboratory, philosophy, and theology. Many of the traditional classical writers are represented, including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Einstein, the Federalist Papers, and the debates of Lincoln and Douglas in 1858.
Students read a significant amount of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and in the senior year, they study four landmark papal encyclicals of St. Pius X, Leo XII, Pius XI, and Pius XII.
“We take the teaching authority of the Church very seriously,” says Dr. McLean. “We pursue a single academic curriculum in a chronological order. It’s done with a distinct ordination to Catholic philosophy and theology, and the study of St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical and theological works, in obedience to the urging of the Magisterium.”
The program is straightforward: All students take required classes each year. There are no electives and no classes that provide “vocational” training. No transfers are accepted, and there are no study-abroad programs to distract from the College’s focus.
The circumscribed curriculum causes pre-medical students to need additional coursework before attending medical school. However, any student interested in a broad educational focus can thrive.
The rigor in mathematics and laboratory science is unusual for most liberal arts institutions, with four years required in both subjects. It is one reason TAC tends not to describe itself as a liberal arts college, but rather one that offers a “liberal” or “classical” education.
Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors participate in biannual evaluations with professors in a process known as the “Don Rags,” named after a similar system used by Oxford University “dons” or professors. Grades mostly come from class participation.
For non-students the dean’s office publishes a journal, the Aquinas Review
, “in the hope of maintaining and enlarging a community of learners that extends beyond the confines” of the TAC campus.
The College has an impressive faculty of “tutors”: well-rounded academics who engage students in Socratic dialogue in small classes and must be able to teach in the array of disciplines. The curriculum and the faculty’s wide familiarity with it promote a degree of commonality.
New tutors make the Profession of Faith and take the Oath of Fidelity at the College’s convocation ceremony. Of 37 teaching faculty, only one is non-Catholic and is exempted from teaching theology. Tutors who teach theology have the mandatum
St. Bernardine of Siena Library houses approximately 70,000 books and includes a humidity-controlled Rare Books Room that features works such as an illuminated Book of Hours (circa 1480), rare Hittite seals (circa 1200 B.C.), religious and decorative carvings in ivory, and pages from early manuscripts of the Bible dating from 1121.
At classes, Mass, weekday meals, and formal events, modesty is emphasized in the dress code. This means slacks, collared shirts, and closed shoes for men and dresses or skirts and tops for women.
To help give prospective students a preview of academic life at TAC, the College runs an annual two-week summer program for rising high school seniors. They are exposed to classmates and tutors in small seminars where they study the Bible, Sophocles, Plato, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, Euclid, Pascal, and Boethius, and participate in the spiritual life. About half the attendees subsequently enroll as undergraduates.
The TAC environment is stimulating but not intimidating. It is intellectual, yet relaxed and personal as well. Most of the tutors and chaplains eat lunch with the students.
There are four Masses celebrated daily by four non-teaching chaplains: a Dominican, a Jesuit, a Norbertine, and a diocesan priest. There are also two Masses on Saturdays and three on Sundays. The Masses are enhanced by student participation in a choir that also presents concerts, and by a Gregorian chant ensemble. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is available before and after each Mass. The first Mass of each day is offered in the Extraordinary Form; the others are in Latin in the Ordinary Form.
The $23 million Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity was dedicated in 2009. The Romanesque-style chapel includes a 135-foot bell tower. It also has an eight-foot statue of Our Lady as the Woman of the Apocalypse on top and a limestone cornerstone blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square.
The chapel is the result of 12 years of hard effort by the late President Thomas Dillon, who died in a car crash just weeks after it was dedicated. He attended to every detail of the planning and construction and visited artists’ workshops throughout Europe.
This new chapel enhances an already vibrant spiritual program. Adoration occurs every First Friday, beginning after the 5 p.m. Thursday Mass and continuing until the Friday 5 p.m. Mass. A daily Holy Hour and Benediction take place at 5:30 p.m. The Rosary is recited and evening prayer generally occurs each night before curfew begins in the residence halls.
A Legion of Mary group leads campus processions and evangelizes door-to-door in town encouraging people to attend Mass.
About 11 percent of TAC alumni have entered religious life, including 59 graduates ordained to the priesthood and 40 professed religious. At least 10 TAC graduates are monks at Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma. Others have entered the Norbertines, the Legionaries of Christ, the Archdiocese of Denver, and the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. One is the Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
TAC students are housed in six residence halls, three for men and three for women. Each room accommodates two students. There is no visitation at any time in opposite-sex residences. Men and women can gather anywhere else on campus, including St. Joseph Commons, the oldest building and the hub for student activity that houses the cafeteria, a coffee shop, and a game room.
There is an occasional movie night, but there is only one television set on campus, in the chaplain's residence. Chastity is encouraged. Drinking and drugs are no problem at TAC, although there appear to be a number of students who smoke cigarettes.
There is a curfew on weeknights and a later one on weekends. Students who violate curfew either receive an hour of service or they are confined to campus.
A small bookstore on campus carries predominantly Great Books and an assortment of titles by Pope Benedict XVI.
For routine medical attention, the College has a part-time nurse and a medical health specialist. Ten minutes from campus is Santa Paula Hospital, a 49-bed facility, and there are three medical centers within a 20-minute drive.
The academic program is the primary focus of the college, so there are no official student clubs.
“Because the program here is so academically demanding, student activities differ from other colleges,” said Steve Cain, assistant dean for student affairs. “Dances, music, sports events rise from the students.”
Student-led activities include the journal Demiurgus
, study groups for four languages, three dramatic groups, various choral and instrumental groups, Schubertiade recitals, the Bushwhackers hiking club, and other informal activities.
The College has an active pro-life group, TACers for Life. The group prays at an abortion business in Ventura. About two-thirds of the student body attends the Walk for Life West Coast in San Francisco each January.
TAC has no formal athletic teams. Rather, the activities director schedules intramural events in softball, soccer, basketball, ultimate Frisbee, volleyball, rugby, or flag football. In the men’s residence halls, students put down mats for boxing and wrestling matches.
Surfers take advantage of the beach (approximately 30 minutes away), and hikers take advantage of the surrounding Los Padres National Forest. A Bushwhackers student group maintains and cleans the trails.
There are also non-curriculum book discussions, a Wednesday dance group, and four formal dances per year.
Students have other social service opportunities as well. An annual food drive takes place at Christmas, and there are frequent blood drives on campus. Some students participate in prison ministry; others have volunteered for Santa Paula’s annual Clean Up Day.
The college is located six miles from Santa Paula, which has about 29,500 people. The town’s stores, restaurants and activities often reflect the primarily Hispanic population.
The Bottom Line
Thomas Aquinas College stands alone as the only Catholic college that exclusively teaches from the Great Books, with an impressive intellectual rigor that is matched by a commitment to orthodox Catholicism.
There is a certain sense of ongoing immersion in a special adventure at TAC that can last a lifetime—and beyond. “We work hard to attract the right kind of students… who have the intellectual capacity and the willingness to work hard,” explains President McLean. “They don’t have to be geniuses, but they do need to have a serious interest in reading and discussing Great Books.”
That type of student may not be typical, but for anyone who thinks they have what it takes, a TAC education has much to offer. And TAC’s graduates have much to offer the Church and future employers who value critical thinking, analytical reasoning, strong communications skills, and an ethical sense.