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What A Student Owes His Teacher


Students have obligations to their teachers, obligations arising from the fact that the teacher-student relationship is primarily a spiritual relationship.


Let me begin with the following passage from Augustine's treatise "On the Teacher":

For do teachers profess that it is their thoughts which are perceived and grasped by the students, and not the sciences themselves which they convey through thinking? For who is so stupidly curious as to send his son to school that he may learn what the teacher thinks?...Those who are pupils consider within themselves whether what has been explained has been said truly; looking of course to that interior truth, according to the measure of which each of us is able. Thus they learn, and when the interior truth makes known to them that true things have been said, they applaud... [1]

Notice the seriousness with which Augustine stated the fact that students must consider "within themselves" whether what has been said has been said "truly". The truth does not leave us indifferent, and when it does, it is not the truth that is at fault.

Students have obligations to teachers. I know this sounds like strange doctrine, but let it stand. No doubt someone will object that teachers also have an even greater obligation to students. Teachers who do not consider this same "interior truth" of which Augustine spoke, woe to them. But the former doctrine, if less popular, especially among students, is probably still more important. For students are in some sense spiritual beings and have, therefore, precisely "obligations". The order of soul ought to correspond to the order of reality, the reality in which soul itself came to be in the first place.

For his part, the teacher probably knows his basic obligation, even if he does not practice it. The student may not yet know. The teacher-student relationship is, in fact, primarily a spiritual relationship – both, teacher and student, participate in what is not properly theirs. Something can be known in the spiritual order without becoming less. This is what teaching and learning are about.

Some writers, indeed, like Mortimer Adler, will say that there are no teachers, only different degrees of learners. [2] There is considerable truth here, if the statement is understood properly, I do not think I have ever assigned anything to students that I did not want to learn myself – even if I already knew it. Something worth learning is worth learning again. Indeed, most things you cannot learn at all if you do not attempt to learn them again. A teacher is someone distinguished only by the fact that he has more time than most to learn again, someone who has hopefully tried to learn again more often. Society desperately needs enclaves like monasteries and universities wherein men and women have such leisure. But we should never forget that the primary place of leisure and of the knowledge of the higher order of things begins and ends almost always in our homes.

At a modern university, where the student or his good parents have to pay a heavy, nondeductible penny to keep him in class, the issue of a student's responsibility to the teacher may be also an economic one, even a mutual contractual obligation of the kind that lawyers are trying to define in the courts in order to attach tenure and the vagaries of rambling professors. Such legal efforts to make the student-teacher relationship contractual and legal are probably already signs of civilizational decay. The attempt to bring "justice" into the classroom is at best a failure to understand things beyond politics – the most important things, really.

At a university, students and teachers are formally related to each other because each is related to something else outside of each. The essential "activity" of teaching and learning is mostly independent of the personal relationship of student and teacher, if there even be such. Too much is made, I think, of the idea of the small, intimate atmosphere of a classroom, where everyone can really "get to know each other". Much of my most important learning took place in huge classrooms. I remember especially Professor Rudolf Allers at Georgetown during my graduate school days. He never actually looked at the class, but his wisdom did. [3] I do not want to deny that sometimes – rarely, probably, especially in the Aristotelian sense – students and teachers become friends. But at universities, students are usually too busy becoming friends with each other – and changing friends, as Aristotle also said – ever to worry much about crotchety old Professor Jones, or Schall, as the case may be.

But I have had too many students in class over the years, in San Francisco, in Rome, and now in Washington, D.C., to think that normally a professor is going to know many students in more than a formal fashion during a brief semester or two in Government 117 or whatever the course may be. Knowing students too well can in fact be something of an impediment to learning, especially for the other students in the class – acceptio personarum, as Aquinas called it. The activity of learning goes on, perhaps even better, when student and teacher are addressing themselves to the matter at hand, to the reason why they are in the same place, at the same time, with a kind of mutual awe before something they neither created nor made.

But here, it is the functioning of the student I am concerned about. From my experience, I would say that the students I have had have been good students; so I do not write about the problems of lack of intelligence, but what to do with superior intelligence. Furthermore, I am one of those who think we learn in order to learn the truth, so that the prestige of a university is not necessarily a good criterion of education itself. I know a lot of famous places where one can learn a lot of things that are not true.

Moreover, one can be a good student and still not be very bright, just as someone can be very bright in native ability but quite a poor specimen of a student. Some wag once said that college education is when the notes of the professor pass into the notebooks of the students without passing through the minds of either. The purest learning probably takes place in direct speech with those who know or when we are alone, when, as my classes recall with Cicero, we are never less alone. [4] With our memories, with our books, we can also be taught by teachers like Plato and St. Augustine, who are not actually living in our time.

Most universities, like the one at which I teach, have a system by which students grade their teachers, an evaluation that can be helpful or vindictive or worthless, depending on how it is designed, filled out, and used. So students have some obligation to judge teachers both fairly and frankly. But likewise the teacher must judge the students not merely against each other, but against the standard of the discipline, against the performance of the best. The teacher always stands, as it were, for the higher law of the best before the student, even though teaching is also the effort to pass on what can be learned, even if it be a minimum.

This inner tension we feel within ourselves, too, is why Aristotle had said of God that even if we cannot learn much about Him, still we ought to spend as much time as we can learning what we can. Indeed, since I will often refer to these powerful lines of Aristotle, let me cite them:

And we ought not to listen to those who counsel us "O man, think as man should" and "O mortal, remember your mortality." Rather ought we, so far as in us lies, to put on immortality and to leave nothing unattempted in the effort to live in conformity with the highest thing within us. Small in bulk it may be, yet in power and preciousness it transcends all the rest (1177b31-78a2). [5]

Classrooms, then, are in a sense like golf courses, where the standard of par looms over our performances, good or bad, no matter by how much we have beaten the others in the foursome with whom we are actually playing. The highest things require our attentive efforts no matter how satisfied we be with what is less than the highest. The imperfect is not the perfect and ought not to be confused with it. None the less, the highest things do call us out of ourselves, even in our happiest moments.

This being said, let me state the obligations of students. The first obligation, particularly operative during the first weeks of a new semester, is a moderately good will toward the teacher, a trust, a confidence that is willing to admit to oneself that the teacher has probably been through the matter, and, unlike the student, knows where it all leads. I do not want here to neglect the dangers of the ideological professor, of course, the one who imposes his mind on what is. But to be a student requires a certain modicum of humility.

Yet to be a student also requires a certain amount of faith in oneself, a certain self-insight that makes a person realize that he can learn something that seems unlearnable in the beginning. This trust in the teacher also implies that the student, if he has trouble understanding, makes this known to the teacher. Teachers just assume that everything they say or illustrate is luminously clear. A student does a teacher a favor by saying, "I do not understand this". But the student should first really try to understand before speaking. To quote Augustine again, students should "consider within themselves whether what has been explained has been said truly".

The student ought to have the virtue of docility. He owes the teacher his capacity of being taught. We must allow ourselves to be taught. We can actually refuse this openness of our own free wills. This refusal is mostly a spiritual thing with roots of the profoundest sort in metaphysics and ethics. In the beginning, we only have a "blank tablet", as Aristotle said of our minds, but it is a brain we have and not just nothing. We can only discover something, even ourselves, by being first given something.

Students do not, as St. Augustine said, go to schools to learn what professors happen to think. Rather, they go that they might, along with their professors, hear together the "inner truth" of things, a grace that engages all alike in one enterprise that takes them beyond the confusions and confines of the classroom to the heart of reality, that to which our own intellects ought to "conform", as Aquinas said, when we possess the truth. [6] When a teacher, crusty as he may be, sees his students leave his classroom for the last time at the end of some fall or spring semester, he wants them to carry with them not so much the memories of his jokes – though he hopes they laughed – or his tests, but the internal possession of the subject matter itself. The student ought to become independent of the teacher to the point of even forgetting his name, but, not the truth he learned. This latter is what education is about – not about class lists and rank and the tenure of professors.

So the student owes to his teacher the effort of study. A good teacher ought to exercise a mild coercion on his students, a kind of pressure that takes into account their lethargy and fallenness and distractions, a pressure that indicates that the professor wants the students to learn, lets them know it is important, a pressure that has a purpose of guiding the students through the actual thought process, the actual exercise of the mind on the matter at hand. Few students, on being given The Republic of Plato or The Confessions of St. Augustine to read, will bounce right up to their room, shut off the stereo, cancel a date, and proceed to ponder the eternal verities in these books. The teacher who assigns such books – and a university in which they are not assigned has little claim to that noble name – always must wonder if the intrinsic fascination, the thinking through of such works will somehow reach into his students' minds. He hopes that the next time they read Plato or Augustine, they will do so because they want to, because they are challenged by them, and not because they might receive a C- grade if they do not.

Thus, the student owes the teacher trust, docility, effort, thinking. And what is it the teacher can expect of his students? Augustine said it well. The students actually learn, when they actively think the thoughts of mankind, when the "inner truths" of things themselves actually make themselves known to them, in their own minds. Thus, they learn as a result of their own going through what the teacher hopefully advises, guides them through, what the teacher has said. Only then, Augustine said, in the marvelous passage we cited in the beginning of these reflections, do "they applaud..." They applaud not so much the teacher who was once like them a pupil, the teacher whom they will soon forget, but the "inner truth" itself, which, as Aristotle also said, is a part of the "all things" of reality that we are given, that we actually "become", that we are blessed to know even by ourselves in this vale of tears. Ultimately, teaching is an act of humility, as is learning. It is the realization that the highest things, of which we possess but the beginnings, are to be known, can be known by each of us in our own selves, and none of us is the less in the learning.


  1. St. Augustine, De Magistro, chap. XIV, 389 A.D., in The Basic Works of St. Augustine, vol. I, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948), p. 394. Back to text.
  2. See Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940); The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (New York: Holt, 1967). Back to text.
  3. See Rudolf Allers, The Psychology of Character (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1930); The Philosophic Work of Rudolf Allers: A Selection, ed. Jesse A. Mann (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1965). Back to text.
  4. Cicero thus began the third part of his De Officiis (On Duties) with these famous lines: "Publius Cornelius Scipio, the first of that family to be called Africanus, used to remark that he was never less idle than when he was by himself." Selected Works, trans. Michael Grant (Baltimore: Penguin, 1960), p. 157. Back to text.
  5. Aristotle, The Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thompson (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), bk. X, chap. 7, p. 305. Back to text.
  6. See Etienne Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986); Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Man's Knowledge of Reality (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960); Mieczlaw A. Drapiec, I-Man: An Outline of Philosophical Anthropology, trans. M. Lescoe et al. (New Britain, Conn,: Mariel, 1983), pp. 120-85; Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 40-120. Back to text.

Six books on learning and teaching

  1. Jean Guitton, Student's Guide to the Intellectual Life.
  2. A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life.
  3. Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book.
  4. Eric Voegelin, Conversations with Eric Voegelin.
  5. Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect.
  6. Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching.

This is Meaghen Gonzalez, Editor of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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schall Schall, Rev. James V. "What a Student Owes His Teacher." Chap. 3 in Another Sort of Learning. 30-37. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.

Reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press.

The Author

Schall3schall91James V. Schall, S.J. 1928-2019, who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being ForgivenOn Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018, Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press

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