Great Books Difference
TAC’s expansion is unusual in a time when many small schools have been closing under great financial pressure. TAC is also unique in being a “Great Books” school.
“At the heart of the Thomas Aquinas College curriculum are the great books, the original works of the greatest minds in our tradition, both ancient and modern,” TAC’s website states. “The College’s syllabus is composed exclusively of the seminal texts that have, for good or for ill, animated Western civilization.”
TAC’s curriculum centers on seminar discussions of classic works. In the freshman year alone, students read writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Herodotus, and they study scientists who laid the foundation for modern science, such as Euclid, Linnaeus, Harvey, and Mendel.
Massachusetts is home to more than 100 colleges. TAC’s new campus will be located on property donated by the family of David and Barbara Green, the evangelical Christian family that owns the craft chain Hobby Lobby, Inc.
The new site in Massachusetts—where the branch is expected to open in the fall of 2018—was the location of two boarding schools originally founded by the Protestant evangelist Dwight L. Moody in the nineteenth century. Part of the property will be used for a museum honoring Moody.
The campus became available 12 years ago, after the two high schools were consolidated at another location. The Green family purchased it because they wanted to give it to a Christian university.
‘Pioneers in a Movement’
A group of Catholic lay people founded TAC in 1971 in response to a move by major Catholic universities to become more secular. The 1967 “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” issued by prominent Catholic educators, declared Catholic universities would modernize and break away from the control of the Church hierarchy.
Anne Forsyth, Thomas Aquinas director of college relations, says TAC was founded in response to a desire to combine strong faith learning and academics.
“The founders of Thomas Aquinas felt that the universities had given up on the idea of combining academic excellence and fidelity to the Church,” Forsyth said. “We were pioneers in a movement that includes quite a few Catholic colleges that found they can be both academically excellent and faithful to their Catholic identity.”
‘A Bold and Confident Move’
Wilfred McClay, an intellectual historian at the University of Oklahoma, says TAC’s growth is evident of its solid curriculum.
“It’s a bold and confident move by a young college known for its profound Catholic religious commitments as well as its commitment to a traditional understanding of the liberal arts,” McClay said. “That includes the Great Books, or ‘core texts,’ approach to higher education. But it also includes a comprehensive and rigorous curriculum with virtually no electives and with extensive requirements in the study of foreign languages, mathematics, natural sciences, and music.
“Such an education will always be a minority taste,” McClay said. “But I believe that its appeal will continue to advance, not because it is perfect, but because so many parents and students will continue to see it as much better and more substantive than the real-world alternatives now on offer.”
Thomas Lindsay, head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s higher education program, served on the accreditation panel for the school in 2002. He says those who attend TAC recognize its value in a climate in which higher education has been diluted.
“The school is first-rate academically,” Lindsay said. “I can’t say whether its expansion to Massachusetts represents a trend or not, but I certainly hope so. Prospective students and their parents are beginning to glean the inadequacies of much of what passes for higher education today.”
Influence of the Great Books
Jesse Saffron, managing editor for the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, says TAC’s curriculum goes beyond academic achievement.
“The Great Books may not make college students better people or upstanding,” Saffron said. “But they can provide a sense of intellectual humility and a broader spiritual, artistic, and philosophical frame of reference. Those traits help people to think for themselves and increase cultural sophistication, which is perhaps needed now more than ever.”
Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.