Last week, as we at Grove City College held a conference on "Faith, Freedom, and Higher Education," in which we underscored the struggle against rampant secular relativism in our universities, American higher education lost a true apostle of faith and freedom. A continent away, Thomas Dillon, the remarkable president of the remarkable Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., was tragically killed in an auto accident while visiting Ireland. He was 62 years old.
I did not know Dillon well, though I interacted and corresponded with him a number of times. We were introduced by Judge Bill Clark, the close Reagan adviser who, among his many roles, is a longtime supporter of Thomas Aquinas College. I first met Dillon and his gracious wife, Terri, at Clark's office in Paso Robles, Calif.
A few weeks later, the Dillons took time from their busy schedule to host me and my family–all the kids included–at their college. They served us lunch, even preparing "kid food"–chicken fingers, spaghetti and meatballs. (My son, Mitch, when I asked him last week if he remembered that lunch, responded: "Yeah, they gave us Cherry Coke and Dr. Pepper.")
Like the college itself, founded in 1971 as a bulwark against the inanity of the Age of Aquarius, the Dillons were models of civility. We got a detailed tour, where we admired the architecture, including Bill and Joan Clark's donation to the St. Bernardine Library: a 17th century Spanish ceiling purchased from the William Randolph Hearst collection.
We learned of the school's celebrated Great Books curriculum, a rare gem amid the post-modern madness that suffices as contemporary "higher" education. The college hails the timeless beauty of the eternal classics, and employs the Socratic Method in its contemplation of the brilliant thinkers of Western civilization. The students, huddled in small seminars, are led by faculty in the study of original sources–not textbooks. "Come and experience the Great Books," says a current ad for the college. "Converse with Truth."
Like Grove City College, Thomas Aquinas College stands athwart history yelling "halt;" two of only a handful of places where I would dare send my kids and money.
The whole experience, and the college itself, was an exercise in virtue. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; faith, hope, and charity. Both Thomas Aquinas College and Thomas Dillon were testimony to the harmony of faith and reason–fides et ratio–long ago elevated by their namesake: St. Thomas Aquinas.
Speaking of which, I remember one particular anecdote that Dillon shared with me, which illustrates the sorry state of American higher education–and the uniqueness of Dillon and his college. Dillon had been at a recent meeting of university presidents. A matter of morality came up. One of the presidents, naturally assuming they were all secular relativists–excellent odds–casually chimed in: "There are no absolutes."
It was sophistry as old as Pilate, "What is truth?" and, more ancient still, as naked as the Garden of Eden, "Ye Shall Be as Gods." The first of sins that precipitated the fall: pride.
Dillon's students and faculty dispatch these things in their education, whereas the inhabitants of the universe of the other presidents flee these truths like a vampire bolting from a cross. As they converse with Truth, neither Dillon nor his school suffer post-modern platitudes. Their pope, Benedict XVI, decries the global scourge that is the "Dictatorship of Relativism." Nowhere is the specter as pervasive as in the American classroom.
And so, amid the nods and chuckles of the other university presidents, Dillon, no shrinking violet, refused to tolerate this affront to faith and reason. He quickly protested: "Are you absolutely certain about that?"
As Dillon told me the story, with an impish grin, I eagerly asked what happened next. He said that all the other presidents quit laughing, became dead silent, pushed their chairs back from the table–a parting of the sea, or, actually, by Dillon's description, more like a clearing of an Old West saloon–and eyed up the two cowboys. Dillon said it was like a pair of gunslingers, hands above holsters, ready for confrontation. It was a showdown. And though the observers failed to recognize truth, they knew wrath.
No shots were fired that afternoon. But Thomas Dillon regularly launched his share of salvos throughout academia, up and down the hierarchy, across the bow of the shipwreck of moral relativism that has destroyed higher education and, by extension, an uncountable collection of young, impressionable–and thoroughly confused–American minds and lives.
Thomas Dillon was a faithful servant, who now earns his heavenly reward. May he rest in peace, forever conversing with absolute Truth.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision Values at Grove City College. He is also author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007) and The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).