Dr. Thomas Kaiser, First Tutor to Teach All 23 Courses in College Curriculum

Because Thomas Aquinas College offers a fully integrated curriculum, it is unique among American colleges and universities in requiring its faculty members to teach not only in their area of expertise, but in a wide variety of disciplines. At the end of the Spring 2012 semester, Dr. Thomas Kaiser, a senior tutor and a member of the Board of Governors, became the first tutor in the 40-year history of the College to have taught every one of the 23 courses in the College’s classical curriculum — language, logic, mathematics, music, natural science, seminar, philosophy, and theology.

A member of the College’s first graduating class in 1975, Dr. Kaiser went on to earn his doctorate in biology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He returned to the College as a tutor in 1982. Over the years he and his wife, Paula (Grimm ’75), have seen all 11 of their children come to Thomas Aquinas College, with the youngest enrolling last fall.

Below is the text of a recent interview with Dr. Kaiser:

Did you consciously set out to teach the entire curriculum, or did it happen organically over the course of three decades?

I intended to teach the whole program when I came back here as a member of the faculty. As a student I felt like I had only skimmed the surface of the material we studied here. So one of the things I had in mind when I came back was to do it all over again and try to do it more deeply.

I had the experience of being a teaching assistant while I was at UCLA, and I assisted with the same course three times. One of the things I found somewhat discouraging was that the professor just took out his lecture notes and gave exactly the same lecture three years in a row. I thought, “This must get awfully boring.” It seemed it would be much more enjoyable to keep yourself intellectually interested in what you are doing and constantly learning. That is one of the joys of teaching this program.

Would you say that it is essential for tutors to teach across the curriculum for the program to work properly?

Yes, I think it is absolutely critical that the tutors teach all the parts of the program, as much as possible. Because of the integrated nature of the program, what you do later depends on what you do earlier. So it is necessary for tutors to know the parts of the program as tutors, so they know what the students have already learned. They can then help bring that to bear on the discussions the students are having. I have found that tremendously helpful in class.

An example is senior theology. Things that the students have studied in the language tutorial, for example, modes of signifying; in logic; in natural science, especially sophomore philosophy with the Physics and De Anima of Aristotle — those things all come to bear in theology, especially in the Treatise on the Trinity. So you can remind the students of what they already know and help them bring those things to bear on the conversation.

I think we have a terrific faculty that really has the desire to tackle all the disciplines, and I especially see that in the young tutors. They really push themselves hard to get to the various parts of the program, to take on courses that are outside their area of expertise. There are several tutors who are not far behind me in terms of completing the whole program, and some of them are very close.

Does one need to be an expert in all disciplines in order to teach the breadth of the College’s curriculum?

No. When most people hear that the tutors at Thomas Aquinas College teach the various parts of the curriculum, they think that is a bit strange and maybe a bit presumptuous. Part of the difficulty is they are thinking about what happens at most universities, where the professors who teach the courses are real masters in what they are teaching; they specialize in that particular area, and they are the primary teacher. We do not consider ourselves the primary teachers here, and that is part of what justifies our approach. We think that the authors of the great works that we are reading are the primary teachers, and we are just helping the students learn from them. So it is not quite as presumptuous as it might sound.

How would you answer the critic who says, “I don’t want my child to be taught by someone who is himself a learner? I want him to be taught by someone who is the expert in a given subject?”

That is a good question. I would say that the tutors set a good example for the students by making it clear that they are themselves learners. There is a kind of humility that is necessary in the intellectual life. Nobody here claims to be a wise man in the full sense of the word. We are lovers of wisdom, so we pursue it, in humility, and that becomes evident to the students when they see that we learn in class and we consider ourselves also to be students, just at a more advanced state of knowing these matters. We learn more and more by doing the program.

That encourages the students; it sets a good example about the right attitude about the intellectual life. There is a danger of thinking that you know it all and you have it all under your belt — “Just listen to me and I’ll tell you the way it is” — there’s a danger in that.

We have a tremendous faculty, and we understand the nature of the program well. We have members with an expertise in every part of the program. So if you, as a tutor, are doing something new and you have questions about it, there are people you can go to for help on the faculty. We also have the summer tutor development program, where tutors who are experts at various parts of the program teach those who want to learn those parts of the program.

Does the Catholicity of the College aid the integration of its curriculum, and by extension, aid the tutors who teach across the curriculum?

Yes. Our whole program is ordered to studying the highest wisdom, and the highest wisdom is found in theology, which we consider to be the queen of all the sciences. All the other sciences are the handmaids to theology. That is the principle of unity of the whole program. All of the parts of the program are ordered to a whole that finally makes it possible for us to study theology in the best way possible.

“We think that the authors of the great works that we are reading are the primary teachers, and we are just helping the students learn from them. So it is not quite as presumptuous as it might sound.”

In modern times scientists are considered the wise men. Philosophy is not seen to be a realm where one can actually arrive at truth. It is just your private opinion; it is what you think. It seems to me that if you have Catholic education and you think there is a teaching church, you obviously think that there is a higher truth than can be achieved by natural science. I think the bridge between theology and natural science is philosophy. It is what allows us to see how the truths that we have by faith fit with the truths that we come to by natural reason. Natural philosophy and metaphysics form the bridge between what we would call the natural sciences as they are understood now and what we know by Revelation. St. Thomas, our patron, was kind of an exemplar in showing how those things fit together.

Now that you have taught the whole program, do you intend to start it all over again, or do you want to remain more focused on a few particular areas?

Well, I remember Dr. John Neumayr, a founder of the College, once said that the philosophical life is essentially a circular process. You start at the beginning, then you go out and see what follows from those things, and then you get to some kind of terminus, come back, and look at the starting points again, much more deeply. I have seen that myself because I have done certain parts of the program over and over again, and I really do learn more every time.

Because the whole program is ordered toward philosophy and theology, there might be some tendency to rest in those disciplines, but I really enjoy doing other parts of the program, too. I have done freshman science over and over again, and I get something out of it every time. I put that program together, the biology portion of it, yet I still learn from it, and I enjoy working with the students when they wrestle with these things for the first time. I find that very enjoyable.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I enjoy seeing the effect this program has on the students. I enjoy seeing the way they learn the material, and I enjoy seeing them wonder about the things that we study and take joy in coming to learn those things. It is also very rewarding to see what they do after they graduate, how successful they are, and the good they are doing for the Church.

We form friendships with our students while they are here, and when we see them again it is great to see friends. I think that is the kind of relationship we have with our students. They really do become our friends, and some become lifelong friends.

Christopher Sebastian (’13)

“In our classroom discussions, we are not only given free rein to speak, but free rein to think. No question is off the table. Anything that can bring a more full understanding of the truth is welcomed and encouraged.”

– Christopher Sebastian (’13)

Livonia, Mich.

“This is truly a Catholic center of learning because it reverberates with the ecclesial life of faith, a faith which unfolds the richness of reason and is given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, and through prayer, acts of charity, and a passion for justice.”

– The Most Rev. J. Michael Miller

Archbishop of Vancouver

Former Secretary, Congregation for Catholic Education