by Nancy Schwerin
CHARLESTON — In 1997, St. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., sought to attract students through a unique summer program.
“The idea was that if we brought students out for two weeks to get a taste of school, they’d give it some thought for their college years,” said Jon Daly, director of the Great Books summer program for high school students.
Sixty-eight students from across the country gathered for two weeks this summer.
“I wanted to learn about subjects that I haven’t studied before, and I wanted to see what was on the other side of the world,” said Ryan White, senior at Bishop England High School.
He and fellow classmate Katherine Melton were told about the program by a teacher, Jeff Kirby.
“The Great Books of the Western World” was written in the 1950s by Mortimer Adler. They’re a set of books written about philosophy, science, math, logic; “books that have stood the test of time,” said Daly. Over the years other books have been considered for the list.
The books the students at Thomas Aquinas studied included Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone, Plato’s Crito, the Book of Genesis, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Shakespeare’s MacBeth. They also discussed Euclid, Pascal and C.S. Lewis.
“We learned how to go back and analyze, not just read the words on the page, but what the author is trying to say,” said Melton. “We also looked at the time period to discern how that affects the author’s meaning.”
The 17-year-old said she was drawn to the idea of reading the great books and incorporating them into theology.
The classes themselves provide the greatest learning experience during the two weeks. Thomas Aquinas College uses the Socratic method in all of its classes. The students, guided by a professor, or tutor, share their thoughts and learn from one another.
“I liked it better than typical schooling,” said White, “because you got to share your ideas and hear others make their own point, and sometimes you realized you were wrong.”
Many students are nervous about sharing their thoughts in the beginning, but quickly warm up to the routine and conversations last well beyond class time.
Daly said, “The program has a spiritual, physical and intellectual aspect and is well-grounded in each one of these.”
To round out the program, afternoons are filled with recreational sports and hikes.
They took day trips to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles and learned to waltz and do the fox trot.
For Daly, one of the most rewarding parts of the program is the on-going response from students.
“We get letters three and four years later, thanking us and telling us that it was the most rewarding experience of their lives.”
He said that the effects of the program seem to last for years as students relfect, grow and experience life.
“The years teach much which the days never knew.” Ralph Waldo Emerson