“Another Sort of Learning: Essays on How to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else” by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
“I never let school get in the way of my education.”-Mark Twain
Fr. James V. Schall’s Philosophy of Education is very unusual. This is a book for those who like to read and to think–about ultimate questions of existence and essence, about time and eternity, curiosity and learning, about humor and wonder. Fr. Schall believes that reading the best of books, especially the Greek classics, makes us not only wiser intellectually, but better people as well. By wrestling with the Ultimate Questions, he invites us into the inner journey of a lifetime, a quest to be frankly honest about what it means to exist at all. Our thoughts about these questions would be something interesting to journal about.
Another Sort of Learning is not only a critique of education, but offers some useful promising suggestions for those who never studied the classics. He defines philosophy as “the study of that which is.” We call the humanities “humanities” because, at their best, they help humanize us by allowing us to enter into dialogue with the past to inform us about who we are as humans. This book seeks to do the same. It’s a roadmap of the mind through the lens of various authors that have moved the human race in the past
Another Sort of Learning is a brilliant guide for the intellectually perplexed. I hope this volume finds its way to individuals willing to concede perplexity, because it offers a massive dose of truth as a remedy for those who may not know that they are wrong about the most important things.
This is a fountainhead of real philosophy, the love of wisdom, following the truth wherever it leads, in order to secure the proper convictions for the most pressing questions of mortal and immortal life. It is a book largely about reading and thinking.
The book begins with a quotation from Mad Magazine, and ends with a reference to Aristotle. In between the end-pages you will repeatedly encounter names such as Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Russell Kirk, Augustine, Plato, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Josef Pieper, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Flannery O’Connor, John Henry Newman, Dorothy Sayers, Chesterton, Hilary Belloc,and Maurice Baring.
Fr. Schall writes elegant essays on education, philosophy, science, politics, history, and revelation, and concludes each chapter with a short list of the books that nourish his own thoughts on the subject at hand. Examples of such lists include, “Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By”, “Books You Will Never Be Assigned”, “Seven Books on Sports and Serious Reflection”, “Seven Books on the Limits of Politics”, and “Five Books Addressed to the Heart of Things”. Part of the subtitle states “Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found”. You will find “Eight Books on Evil and Suffering”, “Five Books Addressed to the Heart of Things”, “Sixteen Books on Belief and Disbelief”, “Eight Collections of Essays and Letters Not To Be Missed”, etc. There is also an unusual list at the back of the book. The book contains 21 thought-provoking essays on a wide range of topics. One of the best features of this book is the list of books at the end of each essay – 37 lists in all, composed of 290 books.
Fr. Schall believes that to be educated is to confront the great questions about what is; that many modern students never learn to raise, much less answer, the great questions, thus are uneducated in the deepest sense; and that great books, past and present, which wrestle deeply yet non-technically with these questions rather than passively mirroring popular culture with its prejudices, can fill this vacuum for anyone, in or out of school.
Another Sort of Learning contains unusually sane reflections on education, unusually reflective reviews of books, and unusually discriminating booklists. Schall believes that only the “examined life” is a truly human life and that it is a good idea to read philosophical and religious classics if you want to have a deeper, more meaningful life, instead of just living as mindless consumer.
Few teachers can match Fr. Schall at conveying a sense of the life of the mind. “The student ought to have the virtue of docility.” says Schall. “He owes the teacher his capacity of being taught. We must allow ourselves to be taught. Students do not, as St. Augustine said, go to schools to learn what professors happen to think. Rather, they go that they might, along with their professors, hear together the ‘inner truth’ of things, a grace that engages all alike in one enterprise that takes them beyond the confusions and confines of the classroom to the heart of reality, that to which our own intellects ought to conform.”
I’ve watched Fr. Schall’s lectures on YouTube. Few academics I know would have the audacity to talk about `what a student owes his teacher’, or the charm to carry it off, and the wisdom to make it memorable. Fr. Schall never forgets that `to learn’ is a transitive verb, and that its essential object is truth.
Like many Roman Catholic intellectuals, Fr. Schall was a great admirer of G.K. Chesterton. I like this quote from Chesterton that he cites: “Sincerely speaking, there are no uneducated men. They may escape the trivial examinations, but not the tremendous examination of existence. The dependency of infancy, the enjoyment of animals, the love of woman, and the fear of death—these are more frightful and more fixed than all conceivable forms of the cultivation of the mind. It is idle to complain of schools and colleges being trivial. Schools and colleges must always be trivial. In no case will a college ever teach the important things. For before a man is twenty, he has always learned the important things. He has learned them right or wrong, and he has learned them all alone.”
After quoting this paragraph Schall comments: “It is a sober testimony to the fact that what is of ultimate importance is most often disclosed to us through our parents, our localities, our churches, and our rooted openness to the being, to the what is that stands before us wherever we are. Perhaps the most satisfying doctrine in Aquinas, in this sense, is his bold affirmation that each of us has his own intellect, complete in itself, looking out on a world none of us made, so that each of us first begin to know what is not himself. Only having thus begun can we reflect on the famous Socratic admonition to ‘know thyself.’”
Sooner or later we must come to realize that most of the important things we do not in fact learn are not learned because we choose not to learn them. At some point we must recognize that our own natural capacities are not the real causes of our personal status before the highest things. And we cannot, at times, but be conscious of the fact that we do not, often dare not, talk about the important things.
On the whole, modern universities let us down, throwing us intellectual virgins into a maelstrom of controversy and doubt where the posiblility of attaining truth is denied, as happened to me whEn I was a freshman at Duke. So why go to a university? Because “there is always a chance that we might find there, once or twice, if we are lucky, a wise man to teach us, or at least someone to teach us about the wise men and women who lived before our own lifetimes.” (p. 48).
Allow me to end by quoting from the book’s Conclusion: “I wanted to suggest that anyone with some diligence and some good fortune can find his way to the highest things even if such higher level concerns are not formally or systematically treated in the schools, even if they are in fact denied there or by our own friends or culture. Indeed, I would suspect that there is a certain basic loneliness in our relationships to the highest things. I am not a skeptic here, but we should not expect too much from our formal educational institutions in this regard.”