The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

Spring Break: A Reflection
James V. Schall, S.J. - 03/11/10
Cherry Blossoms

Spring breaks at most universities mean taking off to beach or snow to “recuperate” from the rigors of the first half of the winter term. Looking at a class, reading their midterm tests, the professor wonders whether the students understand it all. He muses especially on what the students actually do. But more importantly, by now he looks for signs that his students show a sense of wanting to know, from their own souls.

Below is a reflection that Georgetown University’s James V. Schall, S.J., has sent to about one hundred students in an introductory class in political philosophy. The author of such acclaimed books as The Life of the Mind and A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning, Fr. Schall has reflected deeply on the true meaning of education. Now First Principles is excited to share with readers the advice that Schall likes to give to his students, what he expects, what he hopes they might learn to understand and, yes, to delight in.

Half of the semester is over, alas. By this time, each student should have read carefully, with at least some delight, the Ethics; something of the Politics; Cicero readings—the Introduction, Against Verres, On Old Age, and On Duties; Simon; the readings of the chapters on Old and New Testament; Deane on Augustine; Aquinas’s Treatise on Law; and the first half of Machiavelli.

During first half of the semester, I noticed absences, nonattendances, and attendance but without having attended to the reading. The syllabus, given on first day of class, is very clear. It says: “Please do not take this course unless you agree to discipline your lives so that you in fact and regularly do the reading.” While I love sports (see chapter in Another Sort of Learning), I do not think that they, or interviews, or whatever, are more important than class. Emphasizing that priority is part of my job description, as it were. Actually, I do not think anyone should be in this class who does not appreciate the readings independently of any assignment. Nothing is worse in a class than an uninterested student, one who has not taken the trouble to know what he is missing.

Not a few students were sick. I understand that. There are deaths or crises in families. These things have to be attended to. This is what prudence is about. But please, never, never tell me that, when absent, that you will “get the notes” of another student! There are no “notes” in this class, even the ones I send you. Ask yourself: why? The primary purpose is that you (no one else) read, understand, and, yes, enjoy the material we read together.

We have forty Monday–Wednesday–Friday classes in a semester. No student will understand everything, or even much, of what is assigned on his first reading the assignment for each class. That is what a great reading is: something that needs to be read more than once, more than twice. I do not assign things that are not worth reading. I have a good sense about what to expect of twenty-year-olds here (recall Augustine at twenty). Moreover, I expect you to keep these books, to read them again and yes again later in your lives. The fortieth reading is more insightful than the first. Believe me.

Man with Book, Parmigianino

On your own, please finish reading Another Sort of Learning. The various chapters of that book are designed to give you the spirit of what we are doing. The chapters on reading, grades, lectures, what a student owes his teacher, etc., give something of what I hope we are doing together. Your presence in class gives me a chance to think these things over again and reread the texts. They are always new, believe me. But I want you as students to see this for yourselves. That is why we are here together, for you, not Schall.

You are expected to know something of names, dates, geography, etc.; most of you went to high school and got straight A’s, though sometimes I wonder what you did there. (No, don’t tell me!) As you see by now, you need some chronology and geography to put things in place. These are aids, useful things, easily learned. You do not need to be a genius to know where Sicily is or when Aristotle died or that Nietzsche was a German.

Again, even at the halfway point, I do not want anyone in this class who does not want to be here, nor anyone who does not do the work assigned, and in the spirit assigned. If I ask a question and you do not know the answer, say so. Remember what Aristotle said about truthfulness in Book 4 of the Ethics. It is all right not to know, once, anyhow.

You are asked questions in class not to embarrass you but to carry on a conversation. This is why there are no lectures in this class. You have to come into each class with something already in your head which you have just put there in your personal reading. If you do not understand something, ask. It is no crime. It is a “crime,” however, if I ask you whether you read the assignment and you lie to me. Actually, I do not think that happens much, which pleases me. But I do expect you to have your books in class, call it a Schall oddity. But it comforts me to see that a student actually has the book in his very hands! Remember, it is a good book. You will learn things from it that you will not learn elsewhere, but only if you read it.

This is an academy, a place where some will understand better than others; some will work harder than others. That is the human condition and why grades are given. On the other hand, flashy repartee and solid learning are not the same. It takes time.

After forty years of teaching, the only students who complain about grades are those who get a B+. It is all right. When Schall was in graduate school here, he got a B+ from Professor Solterer, a great man. He did not complain. He still cites what he learned in that class. He still realizes that he did not know it all.

Nor does Schall think his own grading is infallible. He does it himself, no farming out. Book 5, Ethics, at work. As it says in the chapter on grades in Another Sort of Learning, a grade is a prudential judgment, based on as much insight that the teacher can muster, of a contingent object that could be otherwise.

What we have read so far will come back again and again in other authors. You should see that by now. We are involved in a continuous conversation that takes us back to Plato and Isaiah and Aquinas. You will notice that Locke is concerned with the Old Testament and Nietzsche with Plato. And we will come to Plato. As T. S. Eliot said in East Coker: “In my end is my beginning.”

You will see this recollection in other of your classes. Every serious thinker of our past has already read Aristotle and Cicero before you came along. It is part of the Great Conversation. But you can read it too, at this place, in this time, in these circumstances, to quote a famous author.

What we read has little to do with books as such but everything with life. Books, however, are very helpful. They are the way we contact other minds, one of the ways. Knowledge is an active thing. It is also a delight in its own order, as Aristotle often says. Anyhow, we have half of the semester to go. I am delighted if you learn something and enjoy doing so. You have souls.

Next, we will finish Machiavelli; then we will read Bloom on Shakespeare. Recall what Simon said about teaching and the different kinds of students: those concerned only with grades, the intelligently teachable, and those who assume that they already know everything. Be “intelligently teachable.”

Rest assured that having each of you in class is my pleasure and privilege.

To learn more about the purpose of genuine education, visit the ISI short course on Higher Education.

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