Of the more than 200 Catholic tertiary institutions in the US, only a handful can be described as 'solidly' orthodox. Of these, several are recent foundations - the initiatives of lay scholars disturbed at levels of dissent and secularism in Catholic higher education. Last year, Renee Ryan, a member of a rural Victoria home-schooling family, won a scholarship to one of these institutions, the Thomas More Institute of Liberal Arts, in New Hampshire. Recently back in Australia for the long U.S. summer holidays, Renee wrote about her first year at The Institute for 'AD2000'.
The present situation in Australia clearly calls for the founding of a similar institution if the Church here is to ensure a future orthodox Catholic lay leadership.
Last year, when applying to various Australian universities, it hardly seemed possible that I would earn a scholarship to study at an American tertiary college such as The Thomas More Institute of Liberal Arts. Initially I had been intrigued to come across its prospectus and found its program of study exactly what I was looking for - nothing like it being available in Australia. In due course, I applied for and was successful in gaining a scholarship to the Institute.
Having now completed my first academic year, I can truly say that I look forward to my return in September. The following are a few reasons why.
Located in New Hampshire, one of the most picturesque of the New England states, the Thomas More Institute was founded in 1978 by two lay academics, Dr Peter Sampo and Dr Mary Mumbach. The present campus was built on the site of a 200-year-old farm donated by a well-wisher. The traditional red New England barn has been converted inside into a chapel, kitchen, cafeteria and several offices and classrooms, while the stately old white farm house serves as the administration building. The campus itself is surrounded by masses of deciduous trees which display their vivid, beautiful colours in autumn and their bare snow-covered branches in winter.
Most importantly, the dedication and example of the Institute faculty is exceptional: they not only spend long hours in teaching but make themselves readily available for help outside the classroom. They also take their meals with the students each day and are happy to discuss ideas with them. (Staff and students reside on or near the campus).
The student body, which comes from all corners of the United States, as well as from England and France, has proved to be a pleasure to live and work among, impressing on the whole as an intelligent, hard-working, enthusiastic and good-humoured group.
Being the first Australian at the Institute, (as well as the youngest), I have found the students' questions about my country intriguing - and of course I am teased about my accent and jar of Vegemite!
The Catholic atmosphere is particularly uplifting. Our chaplain, Fr Healy, makes himself available to students on a regular basis, celebrating daily Masses, leading Rosary recitations, saying grace before meals and joining in lunchtime discussions. Benediction and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament are also regular features, with Masses on Church feast days (together with special lectures and meals). Fr Healy keeps the students abreast of recent news and issues in the Church and makes available photocopied articles, (e.g., from L'Osservatore Romano.)
We study here what U.S. universities call a "core curriculum": each student, regardless of major, takes a 6-hour per week humanities course during a four-year liberal arts degree. All must study Literature, Political Philosophy, Theology, Philosophy, Latin or Creek, Physics and Mathematics. Each week the faculty and entire student body participate in these six hours of lectures and discussions. By the end of four years, each student will have read more than 100 of the great books of Western civilisation in their entirety.
The benefits of having all students from first through to fourth year studying the same subjects together are clearly evident: first and second year students add fresh insights while the upper-class students contribute their knowledge and experience. Discussions about the various Humanities subjects are evident in the dormitories and at meal-times, adding extra vitality to our learning. Indeed, there is rivalry between those who have chosen Latin and those who have taken Greek.
The Institute also offers as part of its course of study a "Writing Seminar", which provides students with the necessary paper-writing skills. In third year we decide which field of study we wish to major in and take specialised classes in it.
The ideas which are shared among students both inside and outside of the classroom increase in number around the time of year when third and fourth year students are preparing and presenting their Projects and Theses respectively. Each third year student is required to choose a person who has contributed to the field of study selected and be prepared to answer questions from faculty members on the subject. Final year students not only take comprehensive examinations covering all they have learned in their Major, but must also present and defend a thesis paper to the entire school.
A focal point of the four years at the Institute is the second semester of the second year which is spent in Rome. While there we continue with our normal program but receive additional teaching on theology from a Vatican-based priest and benefit in our Fine Arts course from convenient access to Rome's treasures of art and architecture. This semester has understandably proved most popular and successful.
In addition to their study requirements, students are expected to help in cleaning and maintenance of campus facilities three times a week, with weekly turns taken in the kitchen. There is also extra work needed to prepare the campus for Graduation and Open Days. All these tasks have fostered a sense of pride in the Institute among students.
An important feature of each academic year is the Friday Night Lecture Series at which scholars and experts from across the United States speak to students on a variety of topics. The students host a reception for the speakers (e.g., Dr James Hitchcock and Fr Stanley Jaki OSB) and other guests after each lecture.
In short, my first year at the Thomas More Institute of Liberal Arts has proved challenging and enjoyable. I look forward to returning to a centre of higher education where hard work is blended with a sense of accomplishment and where I will strive over the next three years to meet the high standards set in both Catholic living and academic learning.