Sense and Nonsense: On Professors and Students

In an interview shortly before he died, Hans Urs von Balthasar was asked about young priests. His response was rather frank:

Matters which cannot be embraced in prayer are not worthy to be thought of, and even less to be preached. Thus [many young priests] have arrived at a good criterion for what theology really is, without falling into a moralizing or, worse still, politicizing pragmatism. Theologies which have been invented in 1968 or later as a dernier cri of modernity are no longer of interest to them.

As we think of the twenty-first century, the Holy Father’s “Third Millennium” upcoming, these words of von Balthasar about the last cry of modernity, about how the young no longer much listen to the ideologues, may indeed be prophetic.

I read this passage of von Balthasar a couple of days before receiving a letter from a student I had in class several years ago. She is now out in California, doing some rather good free-lance writing. This young woman sticks in my mind for several reasons. I especially remember her rushing late into class one day, all grimy and out of breath. Obviously, she was agitated. She told me that she was late because she had to drive her car over into Virginia in a hurry.

 

The “hurry” turned out, on inquiry, to be that her car had been booted by the local police so she could not drive it. She, completely broke and just a mite of a thing, had, with the help of a couple of young men passing by on the street, taken the wheel off of her car, tossed it and the heavy boot into the trunk, put on the spare, and drove across Key Bridge to Virginia out of local jurisdiction. She was planning to sell the car up in New Jersey someplace, I believe.

Anyhow, this student had transferred from another Catholic university. In her letter—this is what made me think of von Balthasar—she recalled her experience at the former university. Here are my young friend’s recollections:

I remember freshman year when a new course called “Perspectives” was initiated. It was a two-semester combination of philosophy and theology that was intended to teach us everything we never learned in high school about the “history of philosophy” (sorry about that one) and how theology was tied into philosophy. In many cases, I think, it merely shook a few trees and left perfectly good church-going freshmen confused about many things.

Such a passage makes an aging professor pause, I must say.

From all you can tell from the outside when you watch them, students take notes—about what you have not a clue—they listen, they gaze out windows, they go away from the university to their own lives eventually. Sometimes, several years later, they write you a letter, or run into you on the street. They tell you they remember something you said or did in class or while walking down the street with them. Maybe they even remember something you wrote.

Or you remember them. Just now, for instance, I was reading my term papers. I had explained, in the course of talking of Book VI of Aristotle’s Ethics, about the Latin definition of art —the famous recta ratio factabilium, the “right order of things made.” Roughly, this means that artistic truth consists in the relation of what the artist had in mind to what actually is implanted or embedded in the thing he made.

So here I was reading this term paper. The Latin sticks out on the page. I noticed that this student had been reading his notes. He defined art as the “recta ratio potabilium.”Now, of course, you have to laugh at that when you realize that it must be translated as the “right reason of things to be drunk.” What you don’t know is whether this citation was a deliberate error, made by the student who knows enough Latin to see if the professor is napping, or just one of those classic errors of the earnest student trying to impress the professor with his own notes. Since, you had just taught the class that Aristotle had said that a deliberate error in artistic things is a sign of genius, you hesitate to make any corrections. Our campus has a student pub on it, so you have to be cautious; there is a “right reason of things to be drunk,” after all, as all readers of Plato know.

My young friend, however, not only remembered the college course that left “perfectly good church-going freshmen confused,” she also remembered her grammar school. In sixth grade, it seems, she had a nun with the wonderful name of Sister Landeberta. (My former student—I will give her a false name in what follows—could not have made this name up, I am convinced!) It seems that this nun, as a disciplinary measure, was used to “tweaking noses,” much to the displeasure of my young friend.

One day Sister Landeberta approached my newly pierced ears, and I told her “don’t you dare.” “Caroline, I don’t like you,” she responded. “Sister Landeberta, the feeling is mutual,” I said. Weeks later, when my ear developed an infection, she said, “See what vanity will do.”

I think that one of the rules of professorial viability is this: Students don’t forget! The second is that they remember such outlandish things with mellowness as the years go on. Time itself is somehow redemptive, as a friend once told me.

Thus, what students are most likely to remember, on the surface at least, is the nose tweaking in grammar school. My brothers and their classmates, I recall, had one of the toughest Jesuit disciplinarians that Bellarmine Prep in San Jose ever produced. Their memories of how his “secular arm” enforced his rules became in later years a badge of affectionate courage and unity for all the hapless students who ever had been given a good and, they usually acknowledged, well-deserved bat on some strategic place on their anatomy. The poor students who waltzed through with nary a scratch were considered definitely second-class citizens.

Professors and students, however, do not so much address each other. Rather, they address a common world and the truth thereof. Humility is likewise an academic virtue. No professor imparts “his” truth. No student, in turn, formulates “his.” Both are to seek what they did not themselves create.

“Matters which cannot be embraced in prayer are not worthy to be thought of.” There is an order in the world and in our souls which ought to correspond. The recto ratio potabilium has its point. All those who teach us some sort of discipline, the tweaked noses over the years, are really trying, at their best, to help the order actually in us by our choices to come to conform to what we really want to be there, because that is the way the world is, that is the way we who transcend the world are to stand.

We do not, in the end, want our freshmen confused about ultimate things. We do want them to have a chance of knowing what Aquinas said about the relation of philosophy and theology. No one much gives them this “perspective” any more, alas. We want both professors and students to embrace the things worthy to be thought of. And we want students especially to be told at least once in their lives, like the young priests of whom von Balthasar spoke, that they may also have to pray to know the truth.

I often wonder, in any case, what ever happened to that darn boot my student drove over into Virginia.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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