Imagine, if you will, being seated in a college classroom. It’s a small room, with a small class, only 15 students and the teacher. Not only that, but the class is seated all around a large central table, so everyone is directly visible to the teacher – no hiding behind the student in front of you to hide the fact that you have no clue what the text is about. The teacher is a huge guy of Scottish background, about 6 foot 7, with a huge booming voice to match, and no compunction about using it on you if you don’t come up to snuff. He isn’t afraid to call things like he sees them, he can dole out a barrage of ideas that can be hard to keep up with sometimes. You better be listening, and if you ask a question it better be on point, or he will tell you about it. Fearsome, yes, he could be fearsome.
This vigorous teacher has a habit of emphasizing his points with thumping. He might thump the book, or he might thump the table, but as often as not he will thump the student to his right or left – “Isn’t that RIGHT, Mr. Jones?” and with “RIGHT” you better be braced or he could knock you over.
Except one time, the student to his right DID go over, and knocked over the student next to her, and then the student next to him,…all the way around the classroom table like dominoes. Right back to the professor.
What did this fearsome giant do? Why, he laughed uproariously for minutes at the practical joke played on him. Later, he told it to friends and colleagues – the students “got one over on me.” He would tell of other jokes of which he was the butt with great glee and abandon.
Such was my teacher, Dr. Ronald McArthur, the founding president of my college. At a time when Catholic higher education was intentionally turning its back on Catholic doctrine and Catholic morals, he founded a college in the reverse direction where Catholicism could be found in every nook and cranny. At a time when colleges had long turned their back on classical methods of teaching, he founded a college in which classical methods were to be used uniformly throughout. At a time when almost every institution was trying to out-do each other in conforming to novel theories of learning for the sheer sake of novelty, he founded a college that rejected novelty of all sorts in favor of well-balanced, long tested custom. At a time when colleges had abandoned the notion that education was for the sake of truth, he founded a college that insisted in the face of modern skepticism that truth could be known, and made truth the objective of the college. At a time when universities began to organize themselves primarily to turn out men capable of jobs, he founded a college organized to turn out men capable of the highest thing a man can be, a free man, in the sense of John 8 - liberal education in its proper sense. A college with no majors because every student is there to become a free man, a college in which there is one continuous discussion of the deepest matters of knowing for 4 years, a college with no electives because the totally integrated endeavor requires that every student learn from the same texts from which his classmates are learning in order to be part of the same ongoing discussion. Such a founding took more than one man, of course, but it took a man larger than life to set it on its course and be its visible spokesman in year after year of trial, adversity, and misunderstanding by others. Such was Dr. Mac.
Dr. McArthur died this week, more than 20 years after stepping down as president, which was after over 20 years of being its president, including when I was a student. I had the good fortune of having him for junior year philosophy – Ethics and Politics. I sat next to him and was thumped. That was years after my sister had sat next to him and was thumped. My wife sat next to him in class – she had known him for years before as a friend of her father – and was thumped. My daughter sat next to him for junior year theology – St. Thomas’s proofs for the existence of God – and was thumped in her turn. I like to think, at least I hope, that he pounded some sense into us. Because his fierceness, his intensity, his vigor was all expended in the pursuit of truth, because he knew that truth matters. He had no children of his own, I have no doubt because God planned that we, all of his students, would be his children, and we certainly are. If fatherhood means passing on to the young ones in your care the love of God, love of truth, passion for the freedom of truth, willingness to work for noble things, then he made us his children.
Now 45 years after he sat at a table with 6 of his closest colleagues and agreed to start a new college from scratch with no assets, that college and its alumni are his legacy. Thomas Aquinas College is universally recognized in college rankings as (a) one of the most rigorous programs of study; (b) one of the best liberal arts colleges; (c) having one of the most integrated curriculum; (d) having the one of the most solidly Catholic programs both in and out of the classroom; (e) among the highest for turning out religious and priestly vocations (per capita); (f) being a “great buy” in terms of how much you get for your dollar and modest student debt at the end; and finally (g) as having the highest alumni contribution rate in the country, BAR NONE. Taking in the success of Thomas Aquinas College, other institutions around the country have been founded or modified to reflect a serious commitment to Christian teaching and living, an integrated approach to learning and pedagogy, or both. As an epitaph, it’s not a bad one to have.
Please pray for Dr. McArthur and for his family and friends. R.I.P.