The following excerpt comes from Schall’s excellent book On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs.
American cars often have on their rear windows stickers indicating the preferred college of the driver or the driver’s family—Ohio State, DePauw, Fordham, Cal Berkeley, Texas Tech, Iowa. No doubt, these emblems are placed on the car as a badge of distinction, as if it made a radical difference whether you went to Furman, Reed College, or Texas A&M. I have yet to see a decal saying MIT PhD. Such types are too cool. But you do often see Georgetown Law or UVA Med School. I suppose it would be too much to find hidden symbolism in such signs. Still, sometimes words speak louder than actions.
On my father’s car, we had “Santa Clara University.” I guess it meant that the frequent driver of my father’s car at the time was no mere high school dropout. But a university’s name on a car window might mean only that the driver roots for the Notre Dame football team, not that he actually went there. The college name also implies that the school to which the driver goes, or went, had or has a claim on him. The education presented there must have something distinctive about it. In this Honda Civic or BMW XL 900, the sticker implies, is no ordinary sophomore, but a brainy dude who is attending school with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Since I never really stopped going to school after Santa Clara, or at least never stopped teaching in one, I am not a good judge of the sundry claims that the various universities have made for their own peculiar excellences. I am in fact skeptical about it all. Political correctness is pretty widespread. I think in general that you can get a terrible education in the best and most expensive universities and that in fact most students do; I think Allan Bloom was right. I likewise think that today some of the finest educations can be had at very small out-of-the-way places like Thomas Aquinas College in California, or the University of Dallas, or Wheaton College in Illinois, or the philosophy department at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Moreover, if you are lucky you can get a very good education in the worst of schools. A lot depends on you and who you run into, something at which Plato hinted. It is even possible, indeed likely, that those who educate you in the truth may not be found in any university at all. Augustine found a book of Cicero in some out of the way place in Carthage, and he happened to hear Ambrose in a church in Milan.
We read the Symposium of Plato in one of my classes, a dialogue that is particularly relevant to my topic here. I think we have all been struck in class by the fact that our souls must be involved in the education we receive—or better, in the one we allow ourselves to receive. And this involvement of our souls, of our very selves, is not just for its own sake. The souls of the worst, after all, are as “involved” as the souls of the best in their own education. We have a soul in the first place to know and choose what we are in light of what is, in light of truth.
Ultimately, we are in charge of ourselves, whether we be in the worst, in the middling, or in the best academies. This fact does not mean that teachers are irrelevant, but perhaps they are not as relevant as they might like to think. Plato believed that the final overthrow of Athens was caused by a very handsome, exceptionally intelligent, witty, and carousing young man who could, but would not, rule himself. After we take a good look at what is there, outside of ourselves, as Aristotle said, all education begins and ends in our souls, in our view of the highest things, and in the courage we have to pursue them. As Eric Voegelin remarked, speaking of Plato, “The true philosopher is the man who loves to look with admiration at the truth. The truth of things, however, is that which they are in themselves.”
Plato thought, however, that very often what we choose to study or to take up as our career—what we choose to be our “lifestyle,” as it is now put—is a function of the disorder of our lives. This disorder can take root when we are quite young, as Plato knew. This was why he paid so much attention to the conditions of education. He figured that we often chose business, poetry, politics, law, art, science, or even philosophy because we did not want to know or did not have the time, intelligence, or most often the will to learn the right order of things. In the seventh of his Letters, Plato advises us that the best way to find out if an intelligent young tyrant—all potential philosophers are also potential tyrants—was really interested in knowing the truth is to explain to him how much he has to sacrifice in terms of hours of work, singular devotion, poverty, and ridicule in order to be a true philosopher. Our universities, no doubt, are full of young men and women, potential philosophers all, who like the rich young man in the Gospels turn and go away sadly when they find what they must do to be good, to be perfect, to know the truth.
To be sure, we think that everything we ourselves read is important, including our assignments. After all, the great cliché of modernity is captured in the question, “Who is to say what is important?” I suppose that no surer sign exists that a student will learn little of importance in his life than his articulation of this question as if it has the status of revelation. Plato held that we deal ourselves our own punishments. The cruelest punishment for not knowing is, and remains precisely, not knowing. The real punishment of hell, of which Plato also talks, is the consequence of allowing us the freedom to choose ourselves as if we were the center of the world. We are left with ourselves.
The best “ideal” university, the best university in speech, is probably still, after Plato’s, that found in John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University. But unlike Newman’s university, I believe that it is practically impossible to obtain an education in the highest things in most existing universities. I do not say that especially loudly, and it is not necessarily a cry of despair. But the first thing one must notice about today’s schools, if he is to begin at all, is that students have little real confrontation with the highest things, including the truths of revelation.
But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. For doesn’t spending so much effort in obtaining a genuine education distract us from more important things, like helping the poor? But the poor cannot be helped unless we know what it is that causes wealth in the first place. Good will or bad ideology is not enough. And on this issue, I fear, most universities are long both on good will and bad ideology. Again we must look elsewhere.
We can lose our souls even in the best of regimes, universities, or think tanks. Conversely, it is quite possible to save our souls in the worst places imaginable.
“What,” it might be asked, “has all of this to do with the college of your choice?” Little, perhaps. In De Magistro, Augustine reflected on the highest things with a young potential philosopher who was, in fact, Augustine’s own son, Adeodatus. This is what Augustine told him:
You desire to know now what it is we strive after or at least you want it to be mentioned. But I want you to believe that I wish neither to have occupied myself with quibbles in this discussion…nor to have labored for petty or unimportant ends. Still if I say that there is a blessed life, to which I desire that we may be led under God’s guidance, that is, by truth itself through stages of a degree suited to our weak progress, I fear to appear laughable because I have set out on such a road by considering not the things in themselves which are signified, but signs. But be indulgent with this preparation, since it is not for amusement, but in order to exercise the strength and keenness of the mind by means of which we can not only bear the warmth and light of that region where the blessed life resides, but can also love the true.
Augustine was aware that the pursuit of truth would, for the most part, appear to be “laughable,” particularly that truth that caused a Walker Percy to ask, “What else is there?” But Percy’s is a good question. You won’t find it asked much in universities, but still, ask it—no matter what college sticker you put on your car’s rear window.
James V. Schall, SJ, served for forty years as a professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He has written many acclaimed books.
Image by Tim Gouw via Unsplash.
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