Of Paintings and Plato and Fr. Schall’s Idea of Learning

Should send our students to visit art museums as part of their education? Jay Greene and Greg both think that we should, and I do, too. But Jay and Greg disagree on whether we should be able to simply justify such liberal learning as art and algebra on the grounds that “they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in” (Jay), or because they BOTH do all of those things but also have cash value (Greg).

As a teaching assistant for students who(se parents or banks) pay upwards of $40,000 per year to attend college, I would hope that students do care – as Greg insists they always will – about the likely returns, in cash value, of their education. But really, if their education is working, they will.

Why? Because an education ought to a) never destroy one’s common sense, and b) assist students’ moral formation. Both are involved in financial stewardship; even if a student(‘s parents) has so much money sitting around that they don’t notice $220,000 (four years of tuition + room and board) fall out of their pockets, that’s enough money to probably feed a good portion of Bangladesh for a month. Which isn’t to say that that’s what one should do with one’s own money at the expense of paying a child’s tuition, but just that it’s worth taking into account what the moral facets of stewardship are.

So, the abstract moral and concrete mundane features of learning absolutely must be intertwined. But what does this looklike in practice? More paintings and Plato -but talking about how those paintings and Plato can, cringe, be “applied” to “real life”?

I suggest that this kind of learning is best, er, learned by example. Father James Schall of Georgetown’s Government department is retiring today after 35 years of some of the finest teaching the world has seen since Socrates. No I will not retract that. I simply can’t do justice to his legacy – his dedication to his students’ learning, to the formation of their souls, to Christian truths or to the traditions that have given rise to Western civilization – so I will leave that task to the many others who have only begun their tributes:

Cindy Searcy (Georgetown 2004 alumna) captures well Fr. Schall’s commitment to the harmony of the abstract philosophical valueof education with its importance to our mundane existence (a mundane existence which, we can safely add, includes economic concerns). She writes:

As everyone who has taken a class with Fr. Schall knows…it is normal for him to pause in the midst of a profound discourse on Cicero’s On Old Age, or Yves Simon’s A General Theory of Authority, or any other great text of the Western tradition he teaches, and ask, “Miss Smith, how’s your mother in Long Island?” Or to quiz Mr. Jones on the last Notre Dame football game.

This seamless weaving of timeless ideas with very concrete discussions of small things in the here and now subtly underscores one of the truths that Fr. Schall endeavors to teach. Namely, that our daily lives are not separate from the things contained in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, etc. This is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned in my young adult life, and I learned it from Fr. Schall.

Nick Timamos (2006 alumnus) recounts Fr. Schall’s words to him during his closing days at Georgetown:“Soon, your education will end,” Fr. Schall said, “and it would be time to do something else in order to put that education to use as best as possible.”

This is, of course, common sense. And Fr. Schall’s sort of learning does what so few academics – and so few in the field of education more broadly – seem to do, which is to preserve and foster common sense in a student. But so much more than that, he tirelessly insists that students use that common sense to understand a world that is steeped in wonder, and truth, beauty and goodness in the fullest sense.

Professor Joshua Mitchell provides the closing words for a reflection on what real learning should look like:

Look to Fr. James Schall, S.J., a great admirer of Plato, for guidance. Consider his classroom. It is a place of face-to-face conversation, guided by a master, intended first to patiently turn his students towards the authors he has them read. I dare say, however, that that is only the preparatory work, akin to figuring out what sort of supplies you must bring if you are to embark on a great hunt. The hunt itself is undertaken through the conversation that occurs in the classroom. Fr. Schall asks his students about this or that argument, this or that author, this or that point of comparison. He does this with patience; he does this with cheer — as the philosopher must. And at the end of the hour, his students walk out knowing that something has happened to them, even if they cannot quite say what it was.

Should we always conceive of education in terms of its economic value? Probably yes, because everything in the world has some kind of economic value and our dollars should be invested wisely. Any student of Fr. Schall can probably tell you some way in which his education under this philosopher’s watchful eye benefitted his career. But we must, in my opinion, insist that education never be reduced to economic terms, for the student of any great teacher will know, indeed, that something has happened to them, but what that is – or what its true value is – we usually cannot say.

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