What Teachers Mean

What are students and what are professors or teachers? On coming to a university, the student will hear of the names and characters of the teachers who are there. Most student bodies will have a kind of underground evaluation of the characters and effectiveness of teachers. These can be unfair but often they serve as a good guide as in the phrase the proof of the cook is in the pudding. Furthermore, every university will have good teachers if they can be located. Good teachers are the most important thing that a student can find. As I said, sometimes these teachers will not be living, but living teachers can take us to them. A teacher is someone who takes us to what is worthy of knowing. Both Augustine and Aquinas have written much on teaching and learning. The biblical account of Simon Magus warns us about unworthy teachers.

But finding a good teacher, even if he is not in one’s own university or one’s own time, even if he is not really a professional “teacher,” is a great blessing. He can lead us to things that we otherwise would not have known or encountered. Both the teacher and the student are directed to something beyond themselves. They are not in competition. Both are judged by the same criterion. If we can assist someone in finding something that he might not otherwise find, then we do what a teacher really, at his best, does for us. And good teachers should help us to delight in knowing. As I like to put it, even if the teacher is teaching us about slimy bugs, he can teach us something about everything if he sees the mystery that is also present in all things, even the tiniest.

For his part, the students need to be what is called “docile.” That is, he needs to be willing to learn. He needs to be what I like to call “eminently teachable.” To be “teachable” means that we are ready to read or consider what we do not know or never heard of before. The canon of books, of which Bloom spoke, referred to books the not reading of which will make us miss something important to our being. We cannot read everything of course. It is all right to realize this, even though the fact is obvious. The numbers of worthy things to read and to know far surpass the ability of any one person.

Yet, we read what we can. Given a choice, which we always have, there some things more worth reading than others. But if we are fortunate enough to be stranded on the proverbial desert isle with only two books, Shakespeare and the Bible, we will in fact not miss much of what is humanly important if we read them, granted that it would also be useful to have a book on how to make a boat.

The teacher, as Aquinas tells us, is to “hand over” what he had himself pondered and contemplated in his own soul, in the time, as Cicero said, he was himself alone. Leo Strauss talked of finding those “teachers” who were not themselves taught. He was referring to people like Socrates and Christ, to people who never wrote a book, yet whose lives were such that the world was changed because of them. Such teachers, of course, needed those who listened to them, who wrote about them.

We know that the only way we have to the minds of most human beings is through what they write. But we also need to know the importance of conversation. Truth ultimately exists not in books but in conversation, in actively making alive in our souls what we know and that we know. Aristotle told us also that this is what friendship at its best was about. This is why reading what Aristotle says in his Ethics on friendship is almost always for a young man or woman an eye-opening affair.

Thus, we have teaching, learning, and books, we have conversation. We have souls that want to know. C. S. Lewis, in a famous quip, had a young devil being given a piece of advice by an older devil on how to prevent young atheists from losing their faith in atheism. He told him that the “young atheist can never be too careful of what he reads.” That is to say, of books that tell the truth, we will find that they are attractive to us, that they in fact call us out of ourselves. One of the things that I have always been struck by in Aristotle was his attention to the relation of virtue and truth. The very reading of Aristotle is ever a first step into almost anything that makes sense. If there is, as I have said, no university without the constant reading of Plato, so there is none without the constant reading of Aristotle.

But the entire Aristotelian understanding of the human soul had to do with what is of concern to us here, with our being free to know what is. The very meaning of “liberal arts” had to do not only with a subject matter but also with a condition of soul that was free so see beyond itself. Aristotle warned us that we would spend our lives justifying our actions in terms of what we chose for the purpose of our actions, a purpose he called happiness.

If we chose as out purpose money or pleasure or honor, the main alternatives of man over time in all places, we would not be free to see what the world is about or ourselves in it. For this we needed virtue, to be temperate, just, brave, generous. We were ourselves a kind of inner kingdom that we needed first to rule. If we failed here, we would probably never really understand what our lives were about.

All the way through the literature of most lands and cultures has been the suspicion that, if the world were “perfect,” it would be somehow boring. Hegel once remarked that a happy country had no history. He meant of course that what makes drama and headlines are the tragedies, the wars, and the disasters. One of the greatest books I ever read was Hilaire Belloc’s Four Men. It was a walk through his native county of Sussex in England. I bring this wonderful book up here because it is something of a contrast with the idea of a happy country has no history. It is a book about the love of land and friend, the finiteness of our short lives in this world, the laughter and joy that is no doubt there, yet the sense that we too are “wayfarers and pilgrims” if we would really understand ourselves.

To know such things, I think, is also something that we will only fleetingly “study” in our institutions, but which will be and are at the heart of our very lives. The fact is that we want to know what Josef Pieper called “the truth of things.” We are interested in what we should and might be because we are interested in what we are. By the very fact that we exist and know that we exist as human and knowing beings, we have already embarked in an adventure the meaning of which we must ponder both with the help of our own experience and with the conversations we have with our friends.

But along the way, we will be “educated.” We will receive degrees. We will accumulate books. We will wonder about what is. Criticisms of modern education have no other purpose but to be sure that we have a fighting chance to know what it is all about in a world with so many diverse, confusing, and, yes, erroneous ideas of what man is, what the universe is, and what God is. But we think that we have a chance. We are not alone. It does not take many bad turns before we know that we have taken a bad turn. And it does not take too many encounters with books and writers who tell us the truth before we begin to see that we are not imprisoned in our times.

Eric Voegelin, in a remarkable book of his conversations, once stated that “No one is obliged to participate in the crisis of his time. He can do something else.” We do not doubt that the times manifest a profound crisis the dimensions are often hidden to us. Much of what I myself have written is designed to call our attention to the origins of some of them. We can find a way, but we need to know where to begin, what we must know. We need to find teachers and books. We need to think. It is not, in principle, a bad thing to be exposed to intellectual and moral disorders if they incite us to wonder about the right order of our lives and our cosmos. Hopefully, reflection on the “strangest object” in the universe—man—calls our attention to the things we ourselves did not find studied in college.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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