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Dr. McLean: The Case for a Catholic Liberal Education in the 21st Century

Posted: June 15, 2015

By Michael F. McLean, Ph.D.
President, Thomas Aquinas College
Talk given at the Catholic Professional & Business Group
Reno, Nevada
June 11, 2015

 

Thank you for the invitation to speak this morning. I am especially grateful to Eve and Jeremy McNeil (’96) for facilitating my visit and for extending their friendship and hospitality. It’s an honor to be here and to speak about Thomas Aquinas College and to use the College to make my case for Catholic liberal education.

Let me begin with a brief history of the College. It was conceived in the late 1960s by an intrepid and faithful group of seven laymen responding to the Second Vatican Council’s call to the laity to be actively involved in the evangelical and educational work of the Church. Believing strongly that “faith seeks understanding,” theirs was a vision of education which put the study of the Catholic and secular great books front and center, emphasized a coherent, clear, and comprehensive curriculum, and a pedagogical style of small classes and rigorous discussion. They were concerned, as well, that too many Catholic colleges and universities in those days had signed on to the Land O’ Lakes Statement, which asserted their independence from the Church, cut themselves off from the Church’s intellectual patrimony, and enshrined unbounded academic freedom as the guiding principle of Catholic higher education.

The College’s founders began with no money, no students, and no campus — just a mission statement (probably mimeographed) which articulated in a timeless way the true relationship between faith and reason and between Catholic higher education and the teaching authority of the Church. They were convinced that genuine Catholic liberal education is an important spiritual work of mercy and vital to the education of responsible and virtuous citizens and consequently, as the American founders realized, to the preservation of our republican form of government and our American way of life.

In my opinion, and that of many others, the mission statement is now, if not one of the great books of Western civilization, certainly one of the great pamphlets of Western civilization.

Thomas Aquinas College opened its doors in 1971, having been invited by the then-Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal McIntyre, to lease a former Claretian seminary in Calabasas, California, which is just outside of Los Angeles. Our first students, 33 brave souls, enrolled that year.

In 1978 the College relocated to our present campus outside of Santa Paula, California — about one hour north of Los Angeles on a good day — on 135 acres of donated land. We began with modular buildings — temporaries, or “temps,” as we called them. Some of them are still there 37 years later. Our kitchen in those days was a trailer we had gotten from a carnival, and for a couple of years it continued to bear a sign that said “hot dogs and cotton candy.” The campus did resemble an Army outpost in Afghanistan, and a number of families, intending to drop off their children for college, drove onto the campus only to quickly turn around and leave as fast as they could.

Today, thanks to God’s providence and the generosity of many benefactors, we have a beautiful campus — one that compares well with colleges and universities anywhere in the country. Presently we have 378 students, our largest enrollment ever, from all across the country and many other countries as well, and over 2,000 alumni. While we are small as colleges go, our enrollment is ideal for our facilities and for the academic program and spiritual community we have established and are working hard to maintain.

Our school is coeducational (evenly divided between men and women) and although I will be speaking this morning partly about our success in cultivating religious vocations, we are not a seminary or monastery, contrary to what many of our neighbors believe.

Vocations

Since you are a group of “Catholic professionals,” I thought I would speak about our educational program and make a case for Catholic liberal education this morning first by emphasizing “Catholic” and second by emphasizing “professional.” For the “Catholic” part of my talk, I am going to focus on our success in cultivating religious vocations; for the “professional” part of my talk I am going to focus on the practical value of a liberal arts education.

Let me begin, if you don’t mind, with a few statistics. We sometimes hear that there is a “vocations crisis” in the United States. Is that true? Well, let’s look at some numbers. Over the last 50 years the number of priests in the country has declined from approximately 59,000 to 38,000 while the number of parish-connected Catholics has increased from approximately 46 million to 67 million. The number of graduate-level seminarians has declined from approximately 8,000 to 4,000. The number of diocesan priests dying or departing the priesthood annually is larger than the number of new priests ordained. What results is a net loss in the numbers of diocesan priests — in 2010 the net loss was around 300. Many of the surviving priests ordained in the 50s and 60s are now in their 70s or even older. Replacing them all is a big challenge — while the number of ordinations over the last 15 years or so has ranged from around 450 to 500 per year, the Church needs more like 700 per year to establish stability in the numbers of U.S. diocesan priests overall. Perhaps some of you have experienced the bishops’ efforts to deal with this problem by bringing in international priests who have been ordained outside the United States, entrusting the pastoral care of parishes to permanent deacons or laypersons, clustering parishes, or merging or closing parishes.

The numbers and the trends do suggest that there is a “vocations crisis” in this country — in my judgment, not because God is not calling young people to the priestly or religious life but because, for a host of reasons, young people are not hearing or not responding to the call they’re receiving — one of those reasons is that, to my knowledge, God does not text, use a cellphone, or post on Facebook .

Now let’s look at Thomas Aquinas College. After 44 years, 60 of our alumni have been ordained to the priesthood. 26 more are in seminaries or are preparing for ordination in religious orders. Of our 62 priests, 22 are diocesan priests serving in 18 different dioceses and 40 are in religious orders. 6 are pastors, 4 are seminary professors, 1 is a dean of a seminary, 1 directs an office of worship, 1 is a superior of a religious order, 1 is in charge of Hispanic ministry in his diocese, 1 co-founded an abbey, and 1 is studying canon law in Rome at the behest of the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan. At least 44 others, men and women, are pursuing the religious life in 18 different religious orders including the Nashville Dominicans, the Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California, and the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Of these, 27 are fully professed. By any account, Thomas Aquinas College is playing a role in the evangelical work of the Church, and this without taking into account what our lay graduates — who constitute the vast majority of our alumni — are doing to further the evangelical work of the Church — in business, education, law, medicine, politics, and a host of other professions.

Religious vocations, of course, are the work of God, calling the grace-filled soul in the quiet of prayer and contemplation. But grace does build upon nature, and Thomas Aquinas College is certainly doing something right in fostering this impressive number of vocations. I can point to three areas in which the College excels and which, in my judgment, are directly related to the number of our alumni who are pursuing religious vocations: its educational program, its moral life, and its spiritual life.

Educational Program

Thomas Aquinas College’s mission is education. Let me touch on a few things I alluded to earlier about our educational program which I think are especially relevant to the number of religious vocations we’re seeing.

Of fundamental importance is the fact that the College offers a single curriculum which is pursued by all of the students over four years — a curriculum which is Christ-centered in that it helps students to think as adults with Christ and the Church and to love as adults with Christ and the Church.

“Thinking with Christ and the Church” means, among other things, that our education instills a robust sense of the harmony between faith and reason and between religion and science, bringing to life the words of St. Peter, “to be always ready to give a reason for the hope which is in you.” It also means that our education instills a strong sense of the natural law, which St. Paul says “is written on our hearts,” and a deep appreciation of the fact that human laws should be framed, and our consciences formed, in harmony with the natural law. Finally, it means that our education instills a thoroughly Catholic understanding of human happiness, the good life, and moral and political virtue — the elements of the “understanding mind” sought by Solomon in the first book of Kings. Emphasizing the study of Catholic philosophy, including logic, philosophy of nature, ethics and political philosophy, as we do, is crucial to the accomplishment of all of these things.

“Loving with Christ and the Church” means, among other things, that our education instills a cultivated sense of the order and beauty of the natural world, a sense encouraged by the study of mathematics and natural science at the College and by the sheer physical beauty of the College’s surroundings and architecture. It also means that our education instills a strong attraction to good and noble things and a strong aversion to much of what is demeaning and anti-Christian in our contemporary culture, an attraction which is encouraged by the study of the fine arts and great literature at the College. Finally it means that our education encourages fidelity to the two great commandments — love of God and love of neighbor — a fidelity which is fostered by the study of Sacred Scripture and theology, which form the heart and soul of the College’s curriculum. Studying the right subjects in the right order, including, by the way, careful consideration of points of view opposed to Catholic teaching, is of enormous benefit to young Catholics.

I want to mention two more things about our educational program that make Thomas Aquinas College unique and which encourage religious vocations. First, we ask our students to read only the greatest works of our civilization — the so-called “great books.” This ensures that the great thinkers are the real teachers in our classes — chief among those are the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, but our lineup includes the best scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and poets as well.

Second, we conduct our classes as small-group discussions, which require our students to prepare seriously and to participate actively by raising questions, formulating arguments, and interpreting difficult texts. In this way, the students make the thought of the great figures in the Catholic intellectual tradition — figures like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, and the great popes of the Church — their own. In addition, they develop their analytical and critical thinking ability and learn to converse about serious things in a spirit of charity and friendship — skills which will help them not only in the religious life but in any career or profession they choose to pursue. An education like that I have briefly outlined, which increases our students’ knowledge and love of God and deepens their personal relationships with Christ and His Church, provides very fertile ground for God’s call to the religious life. So, too, does the moral and social life we provide.

Moral and Spiritual Life

Unfortunately, far too many schools have forgotten that a seriously Catholic education is impossible without the support of a genuinely Catholic moral and spiritual community. You can’t be trying to teach virtue and human happiness in your classrooms if your residence halls are occasions of sin and immorality — if you are going to talk the talk, you must walk the walk. Trust me when I say that our rules of residence, and the social and recreational life we provide for our students, encourage the formation of Christian virtue.

Our spiritual life, too, is essential. Again, trust me when I say that our chaplains, our chapel, and our curriculum encourage the formation of a strong sacramental and prayer life where the call of God can be discerned. Four Masses a day, confessions before and after every Mass, spiritual direction, daily prayer, religious devotions, and a tradition of excellent liturgical music instill the habits which are conducive to vocations and to a lifetime of Christian living — and all of this in a magnificent chapel marked by beauty, permanence, grandeur, and tradition.

If the percentages of religious vocations drawn from the Catholic population at large equaled the percentages of religious vocations drawn from Thomas Aquinas College and other faithful Catholic colleges, the “crisis of vocations” would be over. I don’t mean to suggest that my college or other colleges deserve all the credit for fostering those vocations — vocations are first born in the family and are, as I said earlier, the work of God. But Catholic educators have a duty to support the excellent work of so many Catholic families, not undermine it, and to cooperate with what God is accomplishing in the souls of young people, not undermine it, and so bring what has been well-begun, and is being well-nourished, to completion.

Liberal Education in the Marketplace

Having made one argument for Catholic liberal education, let me turn, now, for a few minutes at least, to the relation between liberal arts education and the professions.

While it seems to make sense that students ought to pursue programs narrowly focused on the labor market — at least to the extent that jobs are the be all and end all of education — there is growing evidence that this narrow focus may not work. As an article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, “nobody can predict where the jobs will be — not the employers, not the schools, not the government officials who are making loud calls for vocational training. The economy is simply too fickle to guess way ahead of time …[and] choosing the wrong path could make things worse, not better.”

Moreover, the article continues, “a narrow educational focus would have forced you to pick a career at 17, before you knew much about your interests and abilities. An incorrect choice would require starting over again later on, a not always easy thing to do.”

It would appear to be better, then, to have taken the logic class that improves thinking and reasoning skills and the seminar that improves writing and reading skills. For these, along with the conversational and analytical skills, liberal-arts students pick up along the way, will help in any field.

These common-sense observations are supported by the results of a couple of recent surveys which offer strong evidence for the practical value of a liberal arts education. The first, done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, analyzed data from the 2010-11 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Among the survey’s key findings: 1. At peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who had majored as undergraduates in the liberal arts earned annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields; 2. The unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates is 5.2 percent. The unemployment rate for mature workers (ages 41-50) with liberal-arts degrees is 3.5 percent — just .04 percent higher than the rates for those with a professional or pre-professional degree. 3. Forty percent of liberal-arts majors hold graduate or professional degrees; these graduates with advanced degrees experience, on average, a yearly boost in earnings of nearly $20,000.

The second, conducted in 2013 by Hart Research Associates, consisted of an online survey of 318 employers whose organizations have at least 25 employees and who report that 25 percent or more of their new hires hold either an associate degree from a two-year college or a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. So, let’s hear from the employers: 1. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed agree that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major; 2. More than 90 percent of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity and the capacity for continued new learning; 3. More than three in four employers say they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and written and oral communication; 4. The majority of employers agree that having field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates if they are to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge alone is what is most needed for career success; 5. Finally, 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

More surveys could be cited, but I hope I have given you enough data to indicate the utility or practical value of a liberal education. Income and employment levels, as well as the testimony of employers, provide strong evidence for the worth of a broad and well-organized education which is not necessarily directed to a specific vocation or profession.

One final point about the practicality of a liberal education: I am certain that God has a plan for each and every student who comes my way. One of the greatest gifts Catholic liberal education can give them, when it is undertaken in conjunction with a rich sacramental and prayer life, is the ability to quiet their souls and hear His voice. Discerning and following God’s will is certainly the key to human happiness and to finding that work for which we are best suited, which will be most fulfilling, and through which we can make our greatest contribution.

Seeking what is Above

For Catholics, however, more must be said. Utilitarian concerns inevitably play a role in life and ought to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, however, they have become something of an obsession in education, in families, and in the broader culture today. As I approach the end of this talk, I want to insist that the best answer to the question about the good of Catholic liberal education is found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians: “If, then, you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”

Catholic liberal education, the most important parts of which are Catholic philosophy and theology, helps students grow in the knowledge and love of God. The moral and political parts of Catholic liberal education infuse in them a love for the common good and prepare them for responsible citizenship in our 21st century republic. The spiritual life fostered by seriously Catholic colleges strengthens their personal relationships with Christ.

These are great gifts, examples of the higher things of which St. Paul is speaking. They make it possible for young people to strengthen their faith and to live it energetically in the face of the atheism and relativism of our time. They also make it possible for young people to heed joyfully St. John Paul II’s evangelical call “to work with God in the building of the civilization of love.” Finally, and most importantly, Catholic liberal education puts young people on a path which, if they follow it faithfully, will one day lead to their joining the angels and the saints in heaven, which, after all, is the real purpose of our lives here on earth.

Thank you.

Dr. McLean -- Reno -- 2015
Patrick Nazeck (’19) -- quote 1

“No one here tells us what to think. We read the great books, look into them deeply, and then discuss them actively in class, which has forced me to take responsibility for my own education.”

– Patrick Nazeck (’19)

Ridgecrest, California

“Thomas Aquinas College is a small college, but its reputation has spread far and wide. Because it lives off the masterpieces of thought and literature emanating from the Christian tradition of the Western world, it provides a first-rate education for a select body of talented undergraduates.”

– Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J (†)

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