Graduation 2009

To say that a 21- or 22-year-old has “completed” his education seems odd. Several years ago, my brother and his wife invited some guests over. One mistakenly asked me, in my brother’s hearing, about my “background.” I explained that I graduated from high school in 1945, spent a semester at Santa Clara, then a year and a half in the army, and finally another year at Santa Clara. Next I entered the Jesuits. For the next 17 years I did nothing much but read. To this awe-inspiring information, my brother remarked to his friends, “Yes, and if he had any brains, he would have graduated long ago.” No doubt, God gives clerics brothers lest they forget the reality from which they hail.

In Republic 7, which we read in spring semester, Plato remarks that our education should begin with mathematics, then geometry, solid geometry, and astronomy. Military service is enjoined for a while, some dialectics, and then service in minor city offices. At about 50, we might have had enough experience and learning, reading and thinking, to become philosophers. At about 60 or 65, we begin thinking of the “Isles of the Blessed,” which are not in this world.

This year’s university graduation ceremonies are overshadowed by President Barack Obama at Notre Dame. Neither Harvard nor Yale can top this show. Wisely, they will wait till next year, though I do wish one had had the foresight to invite the man who is by far the most learned scholar in public life today: Joseph Ratzinger.

What does one say to graduates of 2009? Most voted for the new president, so the consequences are theirs. Their prospects are bleak. That, of course, presumes that they went to college for “prospects.” Why did they go to college, anyhow?

Are students “better” today than they were when I started teaching 30 years ago? The answer is no. Twenty-year-old students, no matter where they are, are 20-year-old students. What they need most, as Plato understood, can only be called intellectual awakening. Awakening to what? Well, to what it is all about — to “why there is something rather than nothing,” to quote the classical title from Lezek Kolakowski’s latest book.

At a lecture in Louvain on the 150th anniversary of Husserl’s birth, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski remarked that students need to know that philosophy is the quest for knowledge of the whole. Philosophy is the only discipline that must examine itself philosophically. Every 20-year-old needs to be aware of and excited by what is, no matter what else he is doing in college, even if it is nothing (especially if nothing). The “waking up” to what is, in fact, is the purpose of college. Nothing else matters much. Alas, the vast majority do miss it.

In Republic 7, Socrates talks of the usefulness of geometry. It is a beginning, something designed to wake us up to “the idea of the good.” He then adds, “This tendency [to seek the good] is possessed by everything that compels the soul to turn around to the region inhabited by the happiest part of what is, which is what the soul must by all means see.”

We attend college to “turn around” — that great Platonic phrase — so that we might encounter the “happiest part of what is.” It is something that our souls must see, if they are to be what they are.

Yet Socrates knows the minds of the potential philosophers, the 20-year-olds. He knows that they cannot be coerced, however, demanding the academic discipline. They must be “charmed,” as I like to put it. Students need to have intellectual courage, to seek and affirm the truth as it really is.

“What are the qualities that are conducive to this education?” Socrates asks. “Keenness of studies is a prerequisite for them, and learning without difficulty. For souls, you know, are far more likely to be cowards in severe studies than in gymnastics. The labor is closer to home in that it is the soul’s privately and not shared in common with the body.”

The “severe studies” are those seldom taught in college, the only ones that make it worth while. Where do we find them? Usually in books we have not read, because no one has told us about them. If we graduate from college in 2009 with nothing that is pressing on our souls to read, even if it takes the rest of our lives, we need not have gone to college in the first place. But if we are curious about what is, as Pope Benedict XVI said in Spe Salvi, there is hope, the real virtue of reality — the reality that is.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • Austin

    In many respects, a young person of 21 who is now graduating is only begining his or her learning experience, rather than completing it. One hopes that college or university at the very least, trains you how to learn. I think the Jesuits have advanced this idea, along with teaching critical thinking [which universities tend not to teach any more].

    With all this brouhaha about Obama and Notre Dame, it must be amusing for Father Schall to keep hearing about Notre Dame “the premier Catholic University in the US” since he teaches at Georgetown. A pity that Georgetown does not have a big time football team to play Notre Dame every year. It would be interesting to see who “Touchdown Jesus” roots for?

  • Tony Esolen

    Hello, Father —

    Excellent article. I had hoped to see you a couple of weeks ago at the Tocqueville forum!

    I have an old textbook in argumentation, hailing from the turn of the 19th century, wherein one of the topics of debate was whether high schools should charge parents a fee for their services. Little did they know that a hundred years later we would be encouraging parents to put their homes in hock over a hundred thousand dollars to provide their children some bizarre amalgam of high school, genuine college-level studies in the humanities and the natural sciences, orc-like corruption of mind and soul masquerading as education, and things that are utterly beside the point of any kind of education at all…..

  • Jennifer

    “The ‘severe studies’ are those seldom taught in college, the only ones that make it worth while. Where do we find them? Usually in books we have not read, because no one has told us about them.”

    Father, what are some of these books we have not had the privilege yet to read?

    Thank you.

  • Kenneth J. Howell

    It may hearten you to know, Fr. Schall, that there are students at the University of Illinois (UIUC) who share your devotion to the classic questions. They read Benedict’s Regensburg lecture and your commentary on it. In the midst of a big-ten university with premier science departments, these students begin to soar with the ancients such as Plato and Aristotle. I am more and more convinced that our current malaise in education derives from the self-limitation of reason. The Catholic intellectual tradition seems to be one of the few advocates of the full scope of human reason in our world today. Maybe education, like each human person, will spe salvi.

  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Father, what are some of these books we have not had the privilege yet to read? Thank you.

    Hi, Jennifer — Check out the books mentioned in Father Schall’s by-line; they would probably be handy guides to further reading.

  • Gordon Hall

    So what if Obama is receiving an honorary degree from Nortre Dame. Where is the outrage by traditional Catholics over Austria’s Archbishop Cardinal Schonborn awarding one of the Chruch’s highest honors, Knighthood in the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great, to Vienna’s Deputy Mayor Renate Brauner, a notorious pro-abortion politician?