The discipline of understanding


My oldest son is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, a “great books” school that rejects textbooks and lectures. Students read only the great books themselves, and the classroom utilizes the discussion method. The professors, who are called “tutors”, are present only to facilitate the discussion and keep it on track. Furthermore – and this surprised me at first – the college discourages reading outside sources as class preparation. The idea is that one is supposed to grapple with the text itself, not someone else’s interpretation of the text. Students are trained to ask “what does the text say?” and “what does the author mean?” without prejudice.

When I first attended one of their junior classes as a parent-guest, I found myself extremely impatient with the discussion. I had the answers, or so I thought, and wondered why the students would spend so much time on a single sentence when the meaning was obvious to me.

I have since been humbled. The meaning was only “obvious” to me because of the prejudices in my head derived from other sources and my own rash judgments. These students, by their junior year, were mastering the discipline of putting all of that aside for the sake of authentic understanding. What does the text say? What doesn’t it say? What can we learn from the context? What is the author’s perspective? How do we really know? Furthermore they were forced to listen to each other, to be challenged and corrected, and sometimes embarrassed by their own mistakes. By their junior year these young scholars were thinking clearly and methodically, choosing their words very carefully, and best of all, in true Thomistic fashion, interpreting each other’s words in the most reasonable sense possible. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

Thomas Aquinas College in the spring

We were privileged to visit Thomas Aquinas College again this month. I attended one philosophy class and two theology seminars, and left greatly impressed with the participating students. One of the children remarked that TAC feels more like “home” than home, and I can definitely see the point. Here are some photos taken by a family friend who accompanied us:










Diversity Programs Struggle at Golden Hills University

March 5, 2019

FORT JEFFERSON, CALIFORNIA – Despite the creation of a fully-staffed Office of Diversity, two new degree programs (LGBTQ Studies, and Multicultural Gender Perspectives), four years of expensive off-campus recruitment efforts, and an aggressive affirmative action program, Golden Hills University is risking more state penalties for its failure to meet state diversity requirements enacted by Governor Newsome in 2016.

“I don’t know what else we can do”, said Vanessa Poltran, one of the university’s several Junior Assistant Diversity Officers. “We’ve advertised. We’ve promoted. We’ve spent millions. We’ve hired outstanding faculty members. But we still don’t have a single student choosing to major in LGBTQ Studies, despite the fact we’ve made it one of the easiest degrees to obtain. Most of those classes are required for other majors anyway.”

So why don’t students just take another 12 or 15 units and earn a double major? Latisha Miller, the university’s Director of Multicultural Awareness, complains that “the students are just ignoring us and going about their business. No one seems to want these degrees on their record.  It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Adalyn Reynolds, the campus Student Groups Coordinator, notes that even the creation of new student organizations, such as the “Women of Color Solidarity Union” and the “Alternative Sexualities Society” never really got off the ground, despite flashy new websites and the involvement of prominent faculty members.

University officials remark that several new informal, unapproved organizations seem to be thriving. “They are mostly of a religious nature, together with all of the exclusivity and intolerance that implies”, said Dr. Alexis Corina, who teaches classes on “Patriarchal Constructs” and “Religion, Tradition, and Social Control”. “Worst of all”, she explained, “they are cynically exploiting our ‘free speech zone’ for their own unauthorized agenda”.

Golden Hills University has also come under fire due to reports that its seven chess tables, located in the student quad, seem to be exclusively occupied by male students, which is potentially a violation of Title IX. According to an attorney representing several female students who speculate that they might, someday, like to use the chess tables as props for impromptu dramatic performances, “the tables are always occupied by male chess players who are oblivious to the existence of the other half of the human race”.  University officials have pledged to remove the tables if the gross inequality persists.

Finally, the university’s switch in 2017 to gender-neutral restrooms, dressing rooms, and showering facilities has been undermined by students who, on their own initiative, seem to have designated certain facilities for men and others for women. This unwritten code among students has resulted in continued gender segregation at Golden Hills, much to the consternation of university officials and state authorities.

Logic and virtue

Though I’ve been derailed by a summer cold, I’m looking forward to returning to a class I’m leading with my three older children this semester: Traditional Logic I.  While going through this material and some supplementary sources, my thoughts have been drawn to many of the arguments I have made, heard, and read in recent times.

And something occurred to me: logic is a virtue, and the employment of fallacies is sinful. Logic as a discipline covers much more than fallacies – and indeed some preliminary work in logic is needed before one is competent to evaluate fallacies – but the study of fallacious reasoning is a good example of moral failure in argumentation. Let’s keep in mind that a thought process is only fallacious if it purports to do something it doesn’t do, to prove something it doesn’t prove. The sinfulness lies in the dishonesty. If I claim that a particular belief is traditional and therefore worthy of serious consideration, but do not claim that its being traditional is absolute proof that said belief is true, that may not be a fallacious argumentum ad antiquitatem, but an invitation to consider that said belief has served some human purpose with a measure of success and should not, therefore, be casually dismissed and replaced on a whim.

I have liberally employed all the fallacies myself over the years, and you probably won’t need to dig very far into the archives of this blog to find them. Fallacious reasoning is all too easy to justify. I’m willing to take the medicine. What is disheartening, however, is the fact that so few people seem to care enough about truth to learn how to reason well. Most people, it seems, are utterly without scruples when it comes to constructing an argument. Even more discouraging is the fact that few educated people, whose business it is to persuade, seem to know how to persuade properly without resorting to faulty reasoning. This has been my observation all across the political spectrum -left, right, and center.

I don’t know that formal or informal logic needs to be taught to everyone. A person who is intellectually honest and honorable will be logical enough. The temptation to bad reasoning is a temptation to sin against the truth in order to achieve a desired end (e.g., winning an argument) – consequentialism. Furthermore, although it’s not a danger for most, we shouldn’t cultivate the kind of hyper-rationalism that demands logical proofs for everything. In the first chapter of the text, readers are reminded that the claims of logic are really quite modest. Logic is a tool for deriving one truth from another truth, not for discovering truth in the first place. The truth of premises used in logical argumentation are discovered via observation, experience, philosophy, and religion. Nevertheless, for a nation with a heavily democratic ethos like the United States, the failure to teach logic and critical thinking to our youth is a salient contribution to the crisis that is upon us today.

TAC Summer Program

My two oldest progeny have returned from the two-week Summer Program at Thomas Aquinas College with incredible enthusiasm. One of the many highlights of their experience was the student-led choir in which they both participated, apparently a first for the program. The choir sang for the Ordinary Form Mass at 11:30am every morning. Here they are pictured in the loft of the magnificent Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity chapel.