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On Learning and Education: An Interview with Fr.
James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 1 of 3 | August 3, 2005
Fr. James V.
Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
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 "childrens" 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
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
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. Chestertons 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 Bradburys Dandelion Wine and Denis de Rougemonts
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
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 "dont
major in current events," a big temptation in Washington schools.
What is current during ones 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 Sayers 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 Chestertons Everlasting
Man. I often cite to classes Nietzsches (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 youve 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. Johns 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 Gilsons 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 Voegelins
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 Platos 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 Aristotles tradition, makes sense.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Following up on the previous question, what is the
usual perspective or worldview of most of todays 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 builders 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
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 ones life. It is a book primarily about discipline, about ruling
oneself, in Aristotles 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 ones 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:
the Delight of Truth
The One War, The
On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither
Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness
On Teaching the
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