On Teaching

JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.

Each year a professor stands in some awe as he watches yet another class walk out the doors and into their world.


[Each year at Spring Graduation, the Seniors in the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown award the Bunn Medal for Excellence in Teaching to some member of the faculty. This year (1993), it was my honor to receive this Medal. Such a nice occasion gave me a chance to compose a few thoughts on the teaching side of my academic life. To teach, I have found, is a most rewarding experience. Each year a professor stands in some awe as he watches yet another class walk out the doors of the Healy Building and into their world. As you watch them depart, you hope that they have learned to read and reflect on books and ideas that lead them to the highest things, that they will have caught somewhere that spark of intellectual courage it takes to know the truth of the “things that are”. These are the few remarks that I thought to leave these good students, remarks “on teaching,” on what it means to a professor to have the honor of good students who listen and then go their way.]

To receive the Bunn Award for teaching in the College is a distinct and high honor. I acknowledge it. Honor and praise, as you know from at least Plato, are things that we cannot demand for ourselves. They are due in something higher, something more noble than justice. If an honor comes to us, especially if it comes from those for whom we have a great affection, as in this case, we can only be grateful. We can only hope with honest humility that we have given to those who honor us something that they will not forget, something that will nourish, something that will excite them for the rest of their days in these green, and sometimes happy, lands.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a book I called Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius Press, 1988). One of its chapters was entitled “What A Student Owes His Teacher,” a chapter that was originally written in The Hoya (a Georgetown student newspaper). Naturally, at this time, with the honor you have bestowed on me at this Graduation, my thoughts go to the parallel question, “What Does a Professor Owe to His Students?” I will not dwell too long on this edifying topic here.

But let me at least say one or two things about what a teacher owes his students. During the years (1965-77) when I used to teach at the Gregorian University in Rome, a city of never ending wonder and fascination to me, I used to return in the Summers to San Francisco, where I also taught. Every so often, I stopped over in Chicago where I had a cousin who was an FBI agent. He was a wonderful Irishman from Eagle Grove, Iowa, the town where I began first grade. My cousin’s name was Hubert Hart, or Hubie, as we called him. He simply loved everything about his job. I remember he once said to me, “My God, Jim, I would pay them to do this kind of work if I had to.”

I have often thought this way about teaching all of you. I would indeed pay to teach you, I enjoy it so much. But lest you think you might suddenly have a new source of ready cash, I need to remind you that Jesuit superiors would not approve of this lavish expenditure for my pleasure. Indeed, as you know, a Jesuit is not personally paid for teaching here. So there is a kind of symbolic purpose intended in this sort of financial arrangement. We Jesuits are here, hopefully because we love the truth and we love the brethren, all of you. Anything less is unworthy of us.

Let me grant, however, that a teacher owes his students many things. I think what I most am thankful for is simply the continued opportunity your presence gives me for reading and re-re-reading so many things, with the time to reflect on them. I have often cited for you C. S. Lewis remark that if you only read a great book once, you have not read it at all. But to begin at all, you must read it the first time. This is what I have tried to do for you in my insistence that you come to class regularly, after having carefully read the text. You have enabled me in return to read the text again and again. I am thankful to you for this rare liberty.

Some books, as I often tell you, take all our lives to understand. This is not a defect either in the book or in you or in your teacher. Rather it is an acknowledgement of the profundity of what we are and where we are. I have also cited to you that wonderful remark of Leo Strauss that we are lucky if one or two the greatest minds that ever existed happen to be alive during the same era in which we are alive. For the most part, we will have to encounter the great minds, even the few that may be alive in our time, in books, in the quiet pondering of what has been given to us from down the ages.

You are all the age of Plato’s potential philosophers, those young citizens of Athens whom Socrates was accused of corrupting. But their undisciplined souls, as Socrates also knew, were being torn one way and the other by the attractions of a thousand fascinating and often disrupting things.

Plato, in the Eighth Book of The Republic, moreover, warned you of those professors who seek to imitate their students in thought, speech, and dress, in habit of mind, as if these professors had learned nothing themselves and stood for nothing except the latest fad. So while being a student requires some trust on your part, as Yves Simon remarked in the wonderful book of his some of us read together (General Theory of Authority), it also requires a kind of Augustinian realism, an awareness that you are not yet likely to possess at your age, as Aristotle warned you, if you will recall the beginning of The Ethics,

I will close these thoughts, as I often do, by recalling Samuel Johnson, whose famous biography, I think, is something, with the Bible, that you should read a bit every day, if only for the delight of it. At least this is what I do.

Johnson had two young friends who must have been more or less your age, again men who remind us of Plato’s potential philosophers, as Johnson himself reminds us of Socrates. One young man was named Bennett Langton, from a famous English family that once included, during the reign of King John, a Cardinal of the Roman Church. The other was Mr. Topham Beauclerk. Both were very lively, witty men, both aware of and attracted by the power of Johnson’s mind and character. Langton, in fact, after he had read some of Johnson’s Essays in The Rambler, had gone to London especially to gain an introduction to Johnson.

In 1757, Bennett Langton was a student at Trinity College in Oxford. Johnson had occasion to write to him about the general relation of knowledge to life. Let me cite these lines from Samuel Johnson. They are ones you can take away with you either for testing the truth that you may have learned here or for finding it elsewhere, if you thus far succeeded in learning little of it.

“I know not any thing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between ideas and reality,” Johnson wrote to this young student at Trinity College, Oxford, in words that recall no one so much as Thomas Aquinas.

It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed. You, who are very capable of anticipating futurity, and raising phantoms before your own eyes, must often have imagined to yourself an academical life, and have conceived what would be the manners, the views, and the conversation, of men devoted to letters; how they would choose their companions, how they would direct their studies, and how they would regulate their lives. Let me know what you have expected and what you have found (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Oxford, 1931, I, p. 224).

Note what is said here. Ideas need to be tested by reality, by what is. If our ideas are not so tested, we will easily find life a disappointment, filled with phantoms of our own making. Yet, as Socrates and Christ taught you in considering their deaths, reality too needs its testing. (My classes read the chapter, in my Politics of Heaven and Hell, on the deaths of Socrates and Christ).

While you are young, as Johnson quaintly put it, you can “anticipate futurity” and easily “raise phantoms before your eyes.” The “academical life” has many imaginings. Doubt it not. We are asked, furthermore, to report back to Johnson, to the philosopher, what we have found, how our experiences have shown the limits of our expectations, not to the detriment of experience, but to the moderation of our own phantoms.

I think on the occasion of this touching honor you have bestowed on me, you whom I have tried to know the best I could, that there is nothing more noble that I can tell you than to let me, or someone down the ages, in some letter or book, perhaps, know what was the difference between what you expected and what you experienced. This is, after all, in part why we have friends, to recall a section in Aristotle (Books 8 and 9 of The Ethics) you all invariably and not surprisingly loved.

Do not be disappointed with life unless, as Aristotle also reminded you, you are the cause of the disappointment. I have tried to suggest to you that joy is more profound than sadness. Aristotle was right, moreover, when he observed that we begin our intellectual lives not with need or nor less with desire, but with wonder and enchantment.

So again, let me indeed thank you. I thank you, each of you, for so many fascinating and interesting hours when we sought to read together many books that we might otherwise have missed. We have made efforts to know the truth of things, the ordinary things and the highest things, that we might have overlooked had we not had these years here together.

I hope that your experience will prove to you that, at least once in a while, your professors did lead you to the truth in reality. I hope that your experience, in your will and in your mind, will conform, in your “futurity,” to ideas that are truths and not to mere phantoms. I hope you now realize that your minds are, as E. F. Schumacher said in his Guide for the Perplexed, in guiding your perplexities even while in college, “adequate” to know all that is. And, one last time, I hope that you will have something of that driven enthusiasm of the young Augustine to pursue the truth of things, to pursue it, yes, like him, even unto the City of God.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Schall, S. J. James V. “On Teaching.” A shorter version of this essay appeared in Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, 37 (Summer, 1995), 366-73.

Published with permission of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review and James V. Schall, S.J. Modern Age can be subscribed to from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc. web site.

THE AUTHOR

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 1995 James V. Schall, S.J.