ATiny World of Big Ideas in Texas
College of St. Thomas More is set on educating students-not to get a job-but for life
BY ELLEN ROSSINI
June 14-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/14/98 at 1:00 PM
FORTWORTH—Looking the part of an Oxford don, his black academic robes fingered delicately by a breeze, Dr. James Patrick recently stopped an informal tour to chide two young teens in parochial school uniforms: “These are my useless students,” he says, gazing down with a paternal smile. The girls from The Lady Margaret Roper School, a coed college preparatory which shares facilities and faculty with the College of St. Thomas More (CSTM), return the tease with undiminished, end-of-the-term smiles.
They are soon off with their giggles, at least until theology class, and Patrick is striding again through the academy of which he is co-founder and provost. In the vine-laden courtyard there is a statue of Our Lady and, to the right, a chapel where noon Mass is about to begin. Across from it is the refectory, where students and faculty share 12:30 luncheon and where the men are taught to stand when a lady enters the room. Up ahead is a library, a modest wood-frame building but with a more than modest 8,500 volumes.
There is not much more to see in this tiny world of big ideas. Texas' newest four-year liberal arts college and the only Catholic institution of its type in Dallas-Fort Worth consists of an eclectic block of seven former residences.
The faculty is made up of five full-time fellows, five part-time (called visiting) fellows, 20 associates who teach seminars and special courses, and three full-time staff. There is just one curriculum, one major—liberal arts —and a handful of students in each class. Next year the college, which began as a non-accredited institute in 1981, will grant its first baccalaureate degrees to just six students.
But there is more here than meets the eye.
There's the book list, for example, which takes up four pages, from Acts of the Council of Trent through Xenophon's Anabasis. CSTM also offers a “City as Text” program, which features guided tours and studies in Rome, Oxford, and Greece during spring and summer.
Unlike its sprawling neighbor, Texas Christian University, students here don't leave CSTM without their Latin, their Greek, and an intimate acquaintance with the great writers and thinkers of Western civilization. And unlike other liberal arts colleges that dot the country, CSTM follows the model laid out by John Cardinal Newman 150 years ago by organizing the classical studies—literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, classical languages, and history—within the truths of the Catholic faith.
“The purpose is to give people enough courage and imagination to lead a good life,” says Patrick, provost since 1993. “We are trying to introduce people to a universal human culture, citizenship in which will enable them to manage the culture in which they live.”
Otherwise, he said, “all they'll know is television and JFK, and they will spend their lives thinking their experience is unique, such as that no one else has ever asked anyone to do anything they didn't want to before.”
If Newman and Oxford are the models, why is St. Thomas More the patron, when half a dozen other schools bear the same name? “Because we love him,” quips Patrick. “He was a wonderfully happy combination of brilliance and holiness in a time very much like our own.”
For all its sense of tradition, the college does not hold appeal for many so-called traditional students, that is, recent high school graduates looking for career training, according to Jon Kerr, immediate past chairman of the board. Its students range in age from 18 to 75 and consist of part-time learners, those seeking an associate's degree and a few full-time students working toward their four-year degree. Among them are such diverse students as a Hispanic grandmother and professionals who feel their education was incomplete. For most, this is not their first educational experience out of high school.
“We're an odd place. You're not going to find many homecoming queens and quarterbacks here. We don't teach French, we don't teach computers, we don't let you goof off,” Kerr says. “You can't get a good job out of here. We can't train you to do anything but become a better person.
“I think the more people figure out what we do—it won't increase our popularity. The world is pretty hostile to us and we are hostile to the world,” he continues. “Some people want a direct correlation between the amount of time spent in school and the job they get. (At CSTM) if you want every assumption you've ever had challenged, if you want every idea you've ever had torn apart, and reconstructed … this is the place to come.”
Christopher Cleveland, 23, an associate's degree student in his third year at CSTM, remembers seeing a newspaper ad for the college, which featured it as “an eccentric oddity that had bloomed here in Fort Worth.” The Texas native took a look at the course schedule, including Latin, and figured he lacked the private school preparation he believed would be necessary. A nominal Catholic seeking a deeper spiritual life, he enrolled instead in a Protestant Bible college.
“I saw the [Protestants'] extreme piety with regard to Scripture, but it was not enough because I craved the Sacraments,” he says. “I missed the Sacraments and the liturgy and the sense of mystery.”
Four years later Cleveland was again considering the College of St. Thomas More. “It was too much money, I wasn't qualified…but (the faculty) kind of courted me,” he says. And, true to his fears, he did experience culture shock.
“I don't think I ever had a class with more than six people in it. There was no way to hide,” he says. “It made the Protestant college seem like pre-kindergarten Sunday school. It was wonderful. It was also very daunting.” Gradually, “I came alive, and now they can't shut me up,” says Cleveland, who manages the Catholic bookstore in downtown Fort Worth. “The books have a power of their own, (and the curriculum) is presented with so much excellence, it causes you to want to embrace that excellence. It makes you want to swim up to it.”
Cleveland, now vice president of student government, recently planned a May crowning, which joins twice-daily Mass (the chapel is too small for everyone to attend noon Mass) and 40 hours' devotion as a revived spiritual tradition that goes hand-in-hand with the college's intellectual revival. “This place is full of people who used to be something else,” says former board member Kerr. “Pound for pound we probably have more conversions than just about anybody else.”
Kerr himself came to the college as a lawyer (and former “nasty bad guy”) while on a spiritual journey that took him to the doors of the Anglican Church, where he considered the priesthood. After less than a semester at the college, he was directed instead toward becoming a practicing Catholic. Cleveland, too, who had become a member of the Anglo-Catholic Church of St. Thomas More in Fort Worth, joined with that congregation when it came into full communion with Rome a year ago. The wife of the pastor, Father James Hart, is also a student at CSTM, and her education had no small part in her's, her husband's, and their church's conversion.
According to Kerr, such conversions should be no surprise. “The effect of all this is … that devoting the intellectual life to Christ … is compulsively, unavoidably transforming,” he says. “You have to be pretty masterful to resist it for any length of time.”
However, Provost Patrick is quick to point out that the college is not a church, and it does not need to be.
“Our job is to teach them the best things,” he says. “The truth is good for the soul, and having something to lift up our hearts and mind to makes us better. It's a good in itself.”
Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas, Texas.
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