CHRISTOPHER DAWSON, the noted social historian, once proposed that Catholic higher education be organized in such a way that students would be immersed in Christian culture. Although Dawson's suggestion was not immediately acted upon in the 1950s, it is “alive and well at Thomas More college,” according to a recent book, Being Right: American Catholic Conservatives (Weaver and Appleby, Indiana University Press, 1995).
Thomas More was founded in 1978 by Catholic lay educators. Located about 45 minutes from Boston in Merrimack, N.H., the tiny college (63 students are enrolled this year) is committed to a four-year liberal arts program that emphasizes the heroic Christian vision. In constructing its liberal arts curriculum, Thomas More received some program-design help from Donald and Louise Cowan (University of Dallas). The approach fosters the transformation of the individual student in such a way as to “evoke new sensibilities and depth.” Such a vision of education, according to Dr. Louise Cowan, “teaches a Catholic outlook— which, at the same time, is liberated from relativism, individualism and competitiveness, the hallmarks of secular modernity.”
At the core of the curriculum is the four-year humanities cycle. Each year a segment of Western culture is examined in an interdisciplinary manner, through the reading of original texts. The entire college community focuses on a period of time: the ancient classical world and its penetration by the early Church; the medieval world of Aquinas, Bonaventure and Dante; modernity, from its origin in the Reformation and Renaissance to the Faustian discontent of Feuerbach and Marx; and our own contemporary period. While humanities is taken for four years, students adopt an area of concentration in the junior year, where three majors are available: literature, politics and philosophy.
Yet what some view as the “jewel” of the Thomas More curriculum exists far and away from the Merrimack campus. This is the sophomore semester in Rome, an integral experience in which all the students participate. Each spring, Thomas More sophomores continue their normal course load as residents in the Eternal City. Each morning, students attend classes in a baroque convent, which dates to the 17th century. They have the afternoons free to study or to explore Rome.
“Rome is in many respects the capstone of all that we do,” says Dr. Peter Sampo, the college's president. “The great ages of the West that we study in humanities are, each one, incarnated in this city.”
Each age records, in stone and paint, the historical encounter with the Church: her ecclesial foundations, her splendid houses of worship and the hub of everything, St. Peter's Basilica. Thomas More college students attend papal Masses and participate in the Holy Week liturgy and Easter celebration in Rome. What many pilgrims wait a lifetime to experience, Thomas More sophomores enjoy as part of their college regimen.
“Seeing the sacred order in Rome made me evaluate and renew my own sense of the sacred,” says senior Kate Purcell. Suzanne Bercier, also a senior, reacted similarly to the profundity of the ecclesiastical imprint. “For me, the Vatican was the center of the action, a glorious presence.”
It is not simply Rome's “antiquities” that enliven the students, says Dr. Paul Connell, director of the program. “Rome reveals and makes visible the goods of the spirit: a capacity for self-renewal, a piety toward things eternal, and the manifestation of the action of grace.” Many of the students who have returned from their semester abroad to complete their studies talk about the great impact that the time in Rome continues to have in their day-today lives. “This is what we want,” says Connell, “the ordinary things taking on an extraordinary value.”
Students come to St. Thomas from a diverse geographical mix including Alaska, California, Minnesota, Louisiana, and the New England area. Most are drawn by the college's curriculum demands. The parcel on which the college is located dates back to a 17th century land grant, and the campus administration building is itself a postcard of that period with a 19th century Greek revival portico added to the original colonial building. The college has added two dormitories and an imposing library. A capital campaign is now underway to add two new dormitories and a new chapel (dedicated to the North American Martyrs).
The college attempts to forge a unique sense of community. Literary and philosophical works are read in common; thus the intellectual life of the campus becomes a cooperative affair, what the poet Alan Tate has called “knowledge carried to the heart.” Dr. Glenn Arbery, professor of English, explains that such an approach “de-emphasizes the spirit of competition” and is at the same time “more conducive to exploring the mystery in things.” The program seems to be having an impact, since many of the Thomas More graduates are pursuing graduate work as well as law, medicine and religious life.
The focus on contemplation within a small college atmosphere naturally raises the question of how the college views itself within the drama of late 20th-century Catholicism. For Sampo, the challenge of Catholic education is “to help transform the mind and heart of each student who appears in the classroom.” According to Cowan: “This kind of education can enable the Thomas More graduate to live redemptively both in the Church and in the world.”
For more information contact: Peter O'Connor, Director of Admissions, Thomas More College, 6 Manchester St., Merrimack, NH 03054; (603) 880-8308.
James Sullivan is based in Bridgeport, Conn.