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Inspired by Aquinas

August 16, 2007

Like many academics, Christopher Wolfe has lots of ideas about what the ideal university should be. Unlike all but a handful, though, he’s decided to take action in a big way, by creating a new institution.

After close to 30 years at Marquette University, Wolfe, a political science professor known for his course on constitutional law that weeds out the formerly pre-law undergraduates from the future lawyers, will leave his tenured job to prepare full-time for the fall 2011 launch of a not-yet-named university in a location to be determined. It's a dream he’s had since the 1980s.

Though Wolfe doesn’t yet know precisely what programs the institution will offer, how many students it will accommodate or where funding will come from, he does have a strong sense of the university’s core purpose: giving students “a unified, integrated conception of reality” based on the scholarship of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Roman Catholic thinker, and even further back to Classical thinkers like Aristotle.

“Contemporary higher education is increasingly specialized and disintegrated,” he said. “We want to go back to the kind of education where students develop a coherent understanding of deeply integrated areas of study.”

There are other institutions with a similar ethos, and the United States alone features half a dozen colleges and universities named after Aquinas, with differing levels of reliance on his philosophy. Thomas Aquinas College, in Santa Paula, Calif., offers an interdisciplinary curriculum with no majors, minors, electives or specializations. The college emphasizes "great books" and eschews lectures for tutorials, seminars and labs.

The university will offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees, starting in philosophy but expanding into the natural sciences and other fields according to “student interest and needs,” he said, and on the specific demands of the region where the institution makes its home. South Carolina and St. Louis, Mo. are possibilities being considered right now and Wolfe anticipates a decision on location by the end of this year.

Wolfe is co-director of the Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies, named in honor of a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. The center’s co-director, Fulvio Di Blasi, is a former visiting professor at Notre Dame who teaches at ARCES University College in Palermo, Italy.

The two men established the center in 2004 “to have something concrete before launching a university,” said Joshua P. Hochschild, the center’s assistant director and an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. “The center was created partly to start a … core around which a vision of a university can be created.” Its advisory board includes Robert P. George, a politics professor at Princeton University, and Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School.

Because of this network, unlike many start-up institutions of higher education, Wolfe anticipates that the university will be able to emphasize scholarship from its onset, initially hiring four or five distinguished scholars and then “building up the faculty around them.”

The university aims to unite academics and student life. “There’s a radical divorce in many places between studies and life -- in many places it’s party or other things not connected to academics,” he said, but that will not be the case at the university, where faculty and graduate students will lead tutorials in residence halls.

Though the university will depend heavily on Aquinas’s writings and “out of the Catholic tradition,” Wolfe said it will not be a place just for Catholics. “It’s going to be a school for everyone, though obviously not everyone will be interested.”

 

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