Richard Dawkins believes that Christianity is an intellectual vacancy. That's probably because he has never visited the astonishing Thomas Aquinas College, says Marc Sidwell "I look up now, past a rounded tree which quivers with bird-life, and I see a few of the students. Once again, its a kind of shock to gaze upon them."
It is unfashionable to acknowledge that good ideas come from America. Thirty years ago Christopher Denick discovered Thomas Aquinas College in southern California, and could not conceal his wonder. Here was a community of learning unlike anything left in Europe. He shared his delight in Escape from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if 7'ruth Mattered. Stumbling on his account last year while researching a new history of liberal education, I, too, was exhilarated. The decades have changed nothing; this college is as important as ever.
Thomas Aquinas College is a Great Books school. Its students engage directly with the profound thinkers that define Western civilisation: St Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Euclid, Plato and Shakespeare, to name only a few. Classes employ the Socratic method of dialogue. The curriculum is stretching, yet not impossibly demanding. Most important of all, the college is centred on the faculty's profession of Catholic faith. Beginning in wonder, the course aims at wisdom.
"What struck me first was the extreme happiness of the students," wrote Derrick. That still appears to hold true. The discovery of intellectual power in the context of an intellectually rigorous faith looks far more enjoyable than the usual campus freefor-all. For what Thomas Aquinas College rejects is the easy relativism that Pope Benedict XVI has so roundly denounced. Assured of the existence of truth, the mind is freed to engage with the great conversation of the Western mind.
Thomas Aquinas College is a modem exemplar of a great tradition. Liberal education stretches back to the birth of our civilisation — a golden thread of intellectual freedom. It begins in 5thcentury Athens, as the education due to a free man. Faith and reason intertwined in the Catholic Church, carrying our civilisation forward after-the fall of Rome. Now men spoke of universal freedom and therefore a universal education. Preserved in the Benedictine orders, transmitted by schoolmaster-priests, it was the Christian liberal educators who kept the life of the mind alive through centuries of uncertainty and civil strife.
It is extraordinary that the vital educational role of the Church is now so underappreciated. Only last year, suspicion of Catholic schools was common in the Press even as a survey demonstrated their above-average standards and their excellent work towards producing well-rounded future citizens.
Such excellence should come as no surprise. St Thomas Aquinas, the doctor angelicus, is proof of the high value Catholicism has always placed upon reasoned enquiry into creation. Yet the sceptics like Richard Dawkins continue to
sneer at Christianity as an intellectual vacancy. They misquote Tertullian as "I believe because it is absurd" and do not know St Anselm of Canterbury's Credo ut intelligam ("I believe in order to understand").
Recently, this teaching has been reaffirmed. Pope John Paul II published Fides et Ratio in 1998, which opens with a ringing endorsement: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."
Only last year I-lis Holiness Benedict XVI used his Regensburg address to say that "the encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance".
Even while Rome speaks, the ideal of a liberal education is almost lost from British discourse. Thirty years after Christopher Derrick's epiphany in Santa Paula, it seems little has changed at home. Instead, the exchange runs the other way. Two British students and one Irish citizen are currently enjoying the Californian sun, not the first to accept the 6,000-mile journey as the price of an education no longer available at home.
Today, Thomas Aquinas College is more confident than ever. For 30 years, its graduates have gone out into the world and proven their ability to excel in all fields. One American alumnus runs a network of pre-schools in London. When Christopher Derrick visited, only six years after its founding, there were 33 students. Today, there are 10 times as many, and a growing waiting list. For the Last three years, the college has been in the top 10 conservative colleges in America.
'The human mind is ordered to truth," says college president, Dr Thomas E Dillon, who was a member of the teaching faculty at the time of Derrick's original visit. He notes the Vatican's recent emphasis on this teaching and adds: "If anything, the mission and character of Thomas Aquinas College is more relevant now than it was in 1977."
A liberal education is not exclusively a Catholic prerogative. Protestant and secular schools all do fine work in this great tradition — again, now largely in America. Yet it remains true that the Catholic Church has played the greatest role, and is most likely to be in the vanguard of any revival. To me, an Anglican, it seems tragic that Britain, once the last bulwark of liberal education, should choose to neglect its heritage.
Perhaps foolishly, I find myself inspired by the great unbuilt British college, the College of Light. In 1641, Jan Comenius was invited to London by the Long Parliament to establish the Collegium Lads: the last moment when scientific thought and Christian faith might have
united in a modem British institution. Civil War intervened, and the Royal Society was established instead, without Comenius's (admittedly heterodox) faith.
America, they say, is always a few decades ahead. That makes it high time for Britain to catch up with the principles of Thomas Aquinas College. Meanwhile, the Californians join Pope Benedict in his prayer on the recent feast of St Thomas Aquinas: "Let us pray that Christians, especially those who work in an academic and cultural context, are able to express the reasonableness of their faith and witness to it in a dialogue inspired by love."
Marc Sidwell is a Research Fellow of the New Culture Forum and a freelance author. He writes articles on liberal education for the Social Affairs Unit and is currently editing a liberal education reader from Plato to the present day