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On Learning and Education: An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 1 of 3 | August 3, 2005

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. Information about Fr. Schall's books, classes, and essays are available on his website.

In this three-part interview, Fr. Schall talks at length about learning and education (Part 1), writing and reading (Part 2), and Chesterton, sports, and politics (Part 3). Here is Part 1 of the interview.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What philosophers, theologians, and thinkers helped shape you and your thoughts as a young man?

Fr. Schall:
It all depends on what you mean by "young!" Being definitely not so young, one sees a whole lifetime full of things that he comes across at various stages and wonders why he did not seen them sooner. I never read any "children’s" books, for instance, until I was rather ancient. I read the Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit in my sixties. What cave had I been living in! And I definitely recall reading one Josef Stalin in high school, when he was still an ally, during World War II. This reading or lack thereof does not bode well, except that I recall a period in which I read and enjoyed many of the dog stories of James Oliver Curwood. I do recollect, Kazan, Son of the North.

Your question, however, recalls a chapter in my On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, entitled, "On the Mystery of Teachers I Never Met." We are not exactly "products" of what we read, or do not read, for that matter. I never met Plato or Aquinas or Chesterton, for instance. I probably would not have known what to do with them if I had. But teachers take us to things that are presented as true, even skepticism is presented as true. We have to have and use our own minds to affirm or deny whether what we read or are taught is true or not. We have to be incipient philosophers even to be readers.

So teachers or books of those who have thought and written do not "make" us this or that unless we, in turn, affirm or deny what we read or know. In that sense, we must say that truth belongs to no one, or, to everyone. No one can "own" it. That is why it is "free." In this sense, by reading or teaching, we are at best brought to the banks of the river of intellect as it flows on. When we jump in, we sink or swim by ourselves. But we already have a mind that, as mind, is ours, not of our own making. This mind is not given to us to think whatever we wish, but to think whatever is true. If what we wish is not true, it is no virtue to stick to our wishes. Tests of truth exist. We should know them.

But there definitely are writers that have made me wake up. I actually did not begin to read much until after I entered the Order after I was twenty. In a way, until then, I did not quite know what there was to read. I like to tell the story of being in the army just after World War II, stationed, as I recall, at Fort Belvoir, in Virginia. We had lots of time. By then, I had a semester of college at Santa Clara, enough to know that I should be reading something, whatever it was.

I recall, however, one day going into the Post Library — no Library of Congress, of course, but still a library. I remember looking at the stacks and stacks of books, ready to read something. But I realized, in a kind of flash of blissful ignorance, that I did not know what to read! What was I to do in a library with but little clue about where to begin! I might as well be reading a Chinese menu in Chinese and only guessing what to order.

This experience suggests the value of having, as Yves Simon says, good teachers, who lead you to things worth reading even if you initially do not know that they are or what they are about. Simon also reminds us that we cannot prevent the young philosopher from reading that which is not worthy even if recommended by a famous professor. I am Thomist enough, however, to know that we should know what is said in books that can well corrupt the soul. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy has always been my model since I first read it. Here he remarked that what brought him to reason and faith was not good books but erroneous ones. He had the intelligence to see the errors as errors. I have always marveled at Chesterton precisely because he could see the disorder of mind even when it was popular and demanded in the schools.

I also like to put in a good word for simply discovering good books, be it in libraries, used book stores, today even on-line, or recommendations of friends or even enemies. Students have given me many of the best books I read. Often before they gave them to me, I had not heard of them — I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World this way. This approach does not necessarily avoid reading stuff that is just stuff, sometimes awful stuff. Nor is it possible to read only "good" books. I once, as a graduate student, attended a class of the famous Professor Rudolf Allers, in which he recommended continual reading of novels, even lousy novels. In all books, he remarked, will be found something that is worth noting, even if it is disorder of soul in its depths.

IgnatiusInsight.com: On your Another Sort of Learning web site you state, "My academic background is in political philosophy, itself a discipline that touches about everything." Do you think that education today is too specialized? Does there need to be a more interdisciplinary approach to education?

Fr. Schall:
Frankly, I am rather skeptical of what is called the "interdisciplinary approach." What I have seen of it too often ends up to be a sort of mad jumble of conflicting claims with never enough basis to judge correctly of anything. It is no accident that we should know some logic.

The remark about political philosophy had something else in mind. I think that, logically at least, if you begin correctly anywhere, it can take you to everywhere. One can start with art or medicine or engineering or even, more dubiously, sociology or diversity studies, and get to everywhere. One has to come to the limits of his discipline. He must learn to locate what he begins with within what I call "the order of things." He will soon see that he needs to know more than he knows to know what he knows.

Political philosophy, of its very nature, has the advantage of being what Aristotle called "the highest of the practical sciences." But it is not, and should know itself not to be, the highest science. And even the highest science of Aristotle, metaphysics itself, ran into the limitations that leave it open to the answers of revelation. Machiavelli, as one of my great teachers, Father Charles N. R. McCoy used to point out, confused art and prudence, thinks politics an art and not a prudence. So artists better know what they are doing when they paint, compose, sculpt, just as politicians need to know what it means to be precisely "prudent," the right order of things to be done. Both need to know the difference between things that can be "otherwise" and those that cannot, which in essence is the path from art and politics to metaphysics.

I am inclined to think that education is not so much overly "specialized" as overly eclectic. I love the places where one can "major" in theology (six units) and fill it with one course in Islam and the other in Ethics, Christian or otherwise. In the meantime, the same student chooses a course in gay literature and Ben Jonson in the English department; he studies the history of Paraguay and the Ming Dynasty in History. In the meantime, he has a course in Basic Astronomy or Biology and Calculus. I suppose such a system looks "well-rounded," but it strikes me as essentially useless. And I am constantly advising students "don’t major in current events," a big temptation in Washington schools. What is current during one’s four years in college will be rudely out of date when they leave.

In recent years, after reading Plato again and again, I realized something that I had suspected but never quite realized. Namely, it is possible to learn or to be exposed to things too soon. This is a growing problem in what are called "good high schools." There is some discussion about whether we any longer need both a senior year of high school and a freshman year of college. We find philosophy courses in high school and in freshmen year of college. Yet, Plato in the Seventh Book of the Republic warned us of exposing the young to the highest things too soon.

Dorothy Sayer’s famous essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" reminded us of the proper order of education. We neglect memorization. We do not read of the great events that move souls, as Waugh satirized in the first pages of Brideshead Revisited. We can learn to speak and write well and correctly in grammar and high schools, but to learn philosophy, Plato thought, we need experience and time. I begin to think that what we really are doing in undergraduate schools (and I love to teach undergraduates) is to point them to things that they really will understand when they are older and with more experience.

But, of course, what political philosophy also points to is the centrality of virtue upon which a true reading of the highest things depends. And the trouble with universities today is that they are no longer schools of virtue; too often, in their actual campus lives, just the opposite. We are Christians, of course, so that we have a way to confront even our admitted lack of virtue. But this is mostly a private privilege today. I am aware of the depths of disorder in our souls.

Just recently, I was rereading Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. I often cite to classes Nietzsche’s (he is a favorite of mine, by the way) "the last Christian died on the Cross." This witticism was designed as a criticism of the lack of virtue of Christians. Nietzsche implied that he would be a believer if Christians themselves were believers in their actions. He seems to have forgotten the famous dictum, ex bono, sequitur et bonum et malum, that is, it is perfectly possible for one to witness good and do evil, and vice versa.

Chesterton, who began to write just after Nietzsche died in 1900, has the perfect response to this view: "It was the anti-clerical and agnostic world that was always prophesying the advent of universal peace; it is that world that was, or should have been, abashed and confounded by the advent of universal war. As for the general view that the Church was discredited by that War — they might as well say that the Ark was discredited by the Flood. When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do." Christianity never predicted a time in this world in which men would not sin and therefore would not need the graces of repentance and forgiveness. This understanding is the only solid foundation of all realistic theories about human nature and what to expect of it. It has divine origins, in fact.

But political philosophy as such is a central issue. Roughly five of my books are directly on the subject: 1) Christianity and Politics (St. Paul Editions), 2) The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (University Press of America), 3) Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy (Louisiana State University Press), 4) At the Limits of Political Philosophy: From ‘Brilliant Errors" to Things of Uncommon Importance (Catholic University of America Press), and 5) Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (Lexington Books).

Most of the others touch on the issue as well as the more general questions of what is it all about anyhow? What Is God Like?, Human Dignity and Human Numbers, The Distinctiveness of Christianity, and Does Catholicism Still Exist?, as well as my first book, Redeeming the Time, ask the broader questions of how it all fits together.

IgnatiusInsight.com: This year marks forty years that you’ve taught in a university setting. In those four decades of teaching, what significant changes have taken place in higher education? How is the average student today different from the average student of 30 or 40 years ago?

Fr. Schall:
I am ever leery of this question. I see, in fact, little difference between the nineteen to twenty-two year-old students that I encounter today from those I first met forty years ago, or indeed of the nineteen-year-old I was, or the nineteen-year-old Augustine was. This cant about "better universities" or "better students" is just that, cant. What you see when you walk into a class is a group of varied students who have learned to read and write. You know that many probably have a moral baggage that burdens their minds. But you have to have a certain confidence in truth for its own sake, even among the frankly wicked. You have to remember that it is not your truth and indeed not your mind, though it is mind. You can take students to Plato or Cicero or Augustine, or Aquinas, or even Machiavelli or Rousseau. But they have to see for themselves, even see that error is error but has a certain plausibility to it. There is in fact no error that does not also structure itself on a real truth, one well worth knowing about, even more vividly because it was first encountered in falsity.

I have been privileged, as we mentioned above, to be free to teach the books I thought, after much experience, carried the burden of wisdom and abiding reflection to minds just beginning the great adventure of the pursuit of truth and the encountering of goodness and grace. In a sense, I had to discover these books myself, become familiar with them. I only was able to do that because I had generations of students who patiently let me read and reread with them The Republic or the Politics or Augustine or Nietzsche. But these are not simply a list of "great books," about which, as an academic program, I am rather skeptical, unless done as at St. John’s or Thomas Aquinas College.

The great thinkers, as Strauss wisely said, contradict each other, so the pursuit of truth must always be aware of this adventure that sees how even great thinkers miss fundamental points. In this regard, of late, I have begun to reread Gilson’s great The Unity of Philosophical Experience. He says famously that we are free to choose our first principles, but once we choose them, we no longer think as we will, but as we can, that if we do not see the dangerous in our principles, some disciple down the ages will. This problem is why Strauss called the history of political philosophy merely an account of "brilliant errors," once the element of truth is eliminated from the discipline.

But your question is about students. My experience is quite straightforward. If a student will patiently read and reread with me great books and books that tell the truth, in their own way, his soul will be gripped, fascinated. He will begin to wonder about the truth of things. Students live in a culture in which disorder of soul is pretty close to the public order of things and their everyday lives. Almost the only hope of escape from this implicit intellectual disorder is to encounter, in Voegelin’s words, some grounding in order, in being. That they can do in the Platonic exercise of building in their own souls a city in speech or mind that enables them to see their actual city and its disorders. They will find this city in speech, I think, in good reading, but not just that. Their living must allow for their reading, and that takes discipline and a beginning order of soul.

But as I said, every student who walks into class is younger than Plato’s students of philosophy. What you can give them is a sense that there is something more out there. They will not know for years what it is about in all its dimensions, but we begin in small steps. There is no doubt, as Father Fessio once remarked to me, that the chance finding of a good book changes souls. Even more so does reading a series of books that display order and disorder in a way that, to use Aristotle’s tradition, makes sense.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Following up on the previous question, what is the usual perspective or worldview of most of today’s university students? What are the strengths and weaknesses of their intellectual makeup?"

Fr. Schall:
I am fond of citing the remark of Allan Bloom in his Closing of the American Mind, that any professor can be relatively sure, when he walks into a class, that most of the students will be or think that they are relativists. They will think that they should think that no truth is possible. They will think that that position, self-contradictory as it is, is the truth for which they live and on which they act. However, one does get, or at least I get, a good number of students who recognize, or come to recognize, the dubiousness of this cultural background. I rarely get students who cannot read and write well. The spell check and the grammar checks mostly have eliminated from papers the classic errors, to which even professors are too often subject.

Education is not a subject matter of study, as Chesterton remarked. It is a process by which we come to the truth of things, which is the proper subject of education. Strictly speaking, we do not go to college to get an "education." We go to know the truth of something, indeed of everything, though we may need something more that a mere university to know the whole truth of things.

The great Polish Dominican, J. M. Bochenski, in his really useful book that someone ought to reprint, Philosophy: An Introduction, remarks about the order involved in building a bridge. It turns out that there must be a conformity of the builder’s mind with the things put into the bridge in its own sequence. The law of mind and the law of things must correspond. If a mistake is made of the law of bridges, the construction will collapse, no matter how great the idea. The same is true with us. We need to learn the law of our own being, something we do not simply create for ourselves. We are already ourselves but we are required still to know what it is that orders us. We still must choose to live what we are.

One of the useful books to know about is that of another Dominican, A. D. Sertillanges, called The Intellectual Life. This book pertains to your remark about the "intellectual make-up" of students. Students get into universities by passing various tests and fulfilling various chits of service. They spend their lives writing resumes about themselves. During college years, they prove they are unique or different by adding to this resume. It is all right, I suppose, but it always strikes me as rather odd.

Students come to college wondering what they will "be," when they mean what they will "do." They already are what they will be. If they do not know what they are, what they do will definitely be a problem for them. In any case, the Sertillanges book addresses itself to the problem of how realistically to keep up with the higher things all one’s life. It is a book primarily about discipline, about ruling oneself, in Aristotle’s phrase.

There is a good deal of secularized charity about in our culture. That is why everyone has to join the Peace Corps or some such activity. Since it is easily misplaced, we see students "volunteering" to work at Planned Parenthood or some ecology movement as if that were a service and not an ideology. Mostly it is a simple participation in disorder. The only answer to bad charity of course is good charity. And charity is not justice.

Probably nothing is more confusing to students today than the difference between justice and charity, however each is called. The notion of social justice or virtue has replaced the notion of rule of oneself, or personal virtue. And nothing is more ungrounded than notions of social justice that identify one’s worth with the cause or movement that one follows, political or otherwise. I doubt if there is a more difficult minefield for students to negotiate than this pressure to make the university an arm of some notion of social justice. This is why philosophy must be studied for its own sake and why it too is in a crisis, as John Paul II wisely remarked in Fides et Ratio, when it does not know what it itself is.

The rest of the interview:
On Reading and Writing
| Part 2 of 3
On Chesterton, Sports, & Politics | Part 3 of 3

Recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

Wars Without Violence?
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth
The One War, The Real War
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness of Christianity
On Teaching the Important Things

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