Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.
Students do not go to school to learn what teachers happen to think. 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 to the heart of reality, that to which our intellects ought to conform.
Let me begin with the following passage from Augustine's treatise "On the
For do teachers profess that it is their thoughts which are perceived and
grasped by the students, and not the sciences themselves which they convey
through thinking? For who is so stupidly curious as to send his son to
school that he may learn what the teacher thinks?...Those who are pupils
consider within themselves whether what has been explained has been said
truly; looking of course to that interior truth, according to the measure of
which each of us is able. Thus they learn, and when the interior truth makes
known to them that true things have been said, they applaud... 
Notice the seriousness with which Augustine stated the fact that students
must consider "within themselves" whether what has been said has been said
"truly". The truth does not leave us indifferent, and when it does, it is
not the truth that is at fault.
Students have obligations to teachers. I know this sounds like strange
doctrine, but let it stand. No doubt someone will object that teachers also
have an even greater obligation to students. Teachers who do not consider
this same "interior truth" of which Augustine spoke, woe to them. But the
former doctrine, if less popular, especially among students, is probably
still more important. For students are in some sense spiritual beings and
have, therefore, precisely "obligations". The order of soul ought to
correspond to the order of reality, the reality in which soul itself came to
be in the first place.
For his part, the teacher probably knows his basic obligation, even if he
does not practice it. The student may not yet know. The teacher-student
relationship is, in fact, primarily a spiritual relationship-both, teacher
and student, participate in what is not properly theirs. Something can be
known in the spiritual order without becoming less. This is what teaching
and learning are about.
Some writers, indeed, like Mortimer Adler, will say that there are no
teachers, only different degrees of learners.  There is considerable
truth here, if the statement is understood properly, I do not think I have
ever assigned anything to students that I did not want to learn myself-even
if I already knew it. Something worth learning is worth learning again.
Indeed, most things you cannot learn at all if you do not attempt to learn
them again. A teacher is someone distinguished only by the fact that he has
more time than most to learn again, someone who has hopefully tried to learn
again more often. Society desperately needs enclaves like monasteries and
universities wherein men and women have such leisure. But we should never
forget that the primary place of leisure and of the knowledge of the higher
order of things begins and ends almost always in our homes.
At a modern university, where the student or his good parents have to pay a
heavy, nondeductible penny to keep him in class, the issue of a student's
responsibility to the teacher may be also an economic one, even a mutual
contractual obligation of the kind that lawyers are trying to define in the
courts in order to attach tenure and the vagaries of rambling professors.
Such legal efforts to make the student-teacher relationship contractual and
legal are probably already signs of civilizational decay. The attempt to
bring "justice" into the classroom is at best a failure to understand things
beyond politics-the most important things, really.
At a university, students and teachers are formally related to each other
because each is related to something else outside of each. The essential
"activity" of teaching and learning is mostly independent of the personal
relationship of student and teacher, if there even be such. Too much is
made, I think, of the idea of the small, intimate atmosphere of a classroom,
where everyone can really "get to know each other". Much of my most
important learning took place in huge classrooms. I remember especially
Professor Rudolf Allers at Georgetown during my graduate school days. He
never actually looked at the class, but his wisdom did.  I do not want to
deny that sometimes-rarely, probably, especially in the Aristotelian
sense-students and teachers become friends. But at universities, students
are usually too busy becoming friends with each other-and changing friends,
as Aristotle also said-ever to worry much about crotchety old Professor
Jones, or Schall, as the case may be.
But I have had too many students in class over the years, in San Francisco,
in Rome, and now in Washington, D.C., to think that normally a professor is
going to know many students in more than a formal fashion during a brief
semester or two in Government 117 or whatever the course may be. Knowing
students too well can in fact be something of an impediment to learning,
especially for the other students in the class-acceptio personarum, as
Aquinas called it. The activity of learning goes on, perhaps even better,
when student and teacher are addressing themselves to the matter at hand, to
the reason why they are in the same place, at the same time, with a kind of
mutual awe before something they neither created nor made.
But here, it is the functioning of the student I am concerned about. From my
experience, I would say that the students I have had have been good
students; so I do not write about the problems of lack of intelligence, but
what to do with superior intelligence. Furthermore, I am one of those who
think we learn in order to learn the truth, so that the prestige of a
university is not necessarily a good criterion of education itself. I know a
lot of famous places where one can learn a lot of things that are not true.
Moreover, one can be a good student and still not be very bright, just as
someone can be very bright in native ability but quite a poor specimen of a
student. Some wag once said that college education is when the notes of the
professor pass into the notebooks of the students without passing through
the minds of either. The purest learning probably takes place in direct
speech with those who know or when we are alone, when, as my classes recall
with Cicero, we are never less alone.  With our memories, with our books,
we can also be taught by teachers like Plato and St. Augustine, who are not
actually living in our time.
Most universities, like the one at which I teach, have a system by which
students grade their teachers, an evaluation that can be helpful or
vindictive or worthless, depending on how it is designed, filled out, and
used. So students have some obligation to judge teachers both fairly and
frankly. But likewise the teacher must judge the students not merely against
each other, but against the standard of the discipline, against the
performance of the best. The teacher always stands, as it were, for the
higher law of the best before the student, even though teaching is also the
effort to pass on what can be learned, even if it be a minimum.
This inner tension we feel within ourselves, too, is why Aristotle had said
of God that even if we cannot learn much about Him, still we ought to spend
as much time as we can learning what we can. Indeed, since I will often
refer to these powerful lines of Aristotle, let me cite them:
And we ought not to listen to those who counsel us "O man, think as man
should" and "O mortal, remember your mortality." Rather ought we, so far as
in us lies, to put on immortality and to leave nothing unattempted in the
effort to live in conformity with the highest thing within us. Small in bulk
it may be, yet in power and preciousness it transcends all the rest
Classrooms, then, are in a sense like golf courses, where the standard of
par looms over our performances, good or bad, no matter by how much we have
beaten the others in the foursome with whom we are actually playing. The
highest things require our attentive efforts no matter how satisfied we be
with what is less than the highest. The imperfect is not the perfect and
ought not to be confused with it. None the less, the highest things do call
us out of ourselves, even in our happiest moments.
This being said, let me state the obligations of students. The first
obligation, particularly operative during the first weeks of a new semester,
is a moderately good will toward the teacher, a trust, a confidence that is
willing to admit to oneself that the teacher has probably been through the
matter, and, unlike the student, knows where it all leads. I do not want
here to neglect the dangers of the ideological professor, of course, the one
who imposes his mind on what is. But to be a student requires a certain
modicum of humility.
Yet to be a student also requires a certain amount of faith in oneself, a
certain self-insight that makes a person realize that he can learn something
that seems unlearnable in the beginning. This trust in the teacher also
implies that the student, if he has trouble understanding, makes this known
to the teacher. Teachers just assume that everything they say or illustrate
is luminously clear. A student does a teacher a favor by saying, "I do not
understand this". But the student should first really try to understand
before speaking. To quote Augustine again, students should "consider within
themselves whether what has been explained has been said truly".
The student ought to have the virtue of docility. He owes the teacher his
capacity of being taught. We must allow ourselves to be taught. We can
actually refuse this openness of our own free wills. This refusal is mostly
a spiritual thing with roots of the profoundest sort in metaphysics and
ethics. In the beginning, we only have a "blank tablet", as Aristotle said
of our minds, but it is a brain we have and not just nothing. We can only
discover something, even ourselves, by being first given something.
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", as Aquinas said, when we possess the truth.
 When a teacher, crusty as he may be, sees his students leave his
classroom for the last time at the end of some fall or spring semester, he
wants them to carry with them not so much the memories of his jokes-though
he hopes they laughed-or his tests, but the internal possession of the
subject matter itself. The student ought to become independent of the
teacher to the point of even forgetting his name, but, not the truth he
learned. This latter is what education is about-not about class lists and
rank and the tenure of professors.
So the student owes to his teacher the effort of study. A good teacher ought
to exercise a mild coercion on his students, a kind of pressure that takes
into account their lethargy and fallenness and distractions, a pressure that
indicates that the professor wants the students to learn, lets them know it
is important, a pressure that has a purpose of guiding the students through
the actual thought process, the actual exercise of the mind on the matter at
hand. Few students, on being given The Republic of Plato or The Confessions
of St. Augustine to read, will bounce right up to their room, shut off the
stereo, cancel a date, and proceed to ponder the eternal verities in these
books. The teacher who assigns such books-and a university in which they are
not assigned has little claim to that noble name-always must wonder if the
intrinsic fascination, the thinking through of such works will somehow reach
into his students' minds. He hopes that the next time they read Plato or
Augustine, they will do so because they want to, because they are challenged
by them, and not because they might receive a C- grade if they do not.
Thus, the student owes the teacher trust, docility, effort, thinking. And
what is it the teacher can expect of his students? Augustine said it well.
The students actually learn, when they actively think the thoughts of
mankind, when the "inner truths" of things themselves actually make
themselves known to them, in their own minds. Thus, they learn as a result
of their own going through what the teacher hopefully advises, guides them
through, what the teacher has said. Only then, Augustine said, in the
marvelous passage we cited in the beginning of these reflections, do "they
applaud..." They applaud not so much the teacher who was once like them a
pupil, the teacher whom they will soon forget, but the "inner truth" itself,
which, as Aristotle also said, is a part of the "all things" of reality that
we are given, that we actually "become", that we are blessed to know even by
ourselves in this vale of tears. Ultimately, teaching is an act of humility,
as is learning. It is the realization that the highest things, of which we
possess but the beginnings, are to be known, can be known by each of us in
our own selves, and none of us is the less in the learning.
St. Augustine, De Magistro, chap. XIV, 389 A.D., in The Basic Works of St.
Augustine, vol. I, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948), p.
See Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940);
The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (New York: Holt, 1967).
See Rudolf Allers, The Psychology of Character (New York: Sheed and Ward,
1930); The Philosophic Work of Rudolf Allers: A Selection, ed. Jesse A. Mann
(Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1965).
Cicero thus began the third part of his De Officiis (On Duties) with these
famous lines: "Publius Cornelius Scipio, the first of that family to be
called Africanus, used to remark that he was never less idle than when he
was by himself." Selected Works, trans. Michael Grant (Baltimore: Penguin,
1960), p. 157.
Aristotle, The Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thompson (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969),
bk. X, chap. 7, p. 305.
See Etienne Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986); Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Man's Knowledge
of Reality (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960); Mieczlaw A.
Drapiec, I-Man: An Outline of Philosophical Anthropology, trans. M. Lescoe
et al. (New Britain, Conn,: Mariel, 1983), pp. 120-85; Schumacher, A Guide
for the Perplexed, pp. 40-120.
Six Books on Learning and Teaching:
1. Jean Guitton, Student's Guide to the Intellectual Life.
2. A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life.
3. Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book.
4. Eric Voegelin, Conversations with Eric Voegelin.
5. Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect.
6. Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching.
Schall, Rev. James V. "What a Student Owes His Teacher." Chap. 3 in Another
Sort of Learning. 30-37. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.
ISBN 0-89870-183, 30-37. Copyright 1988 Ignatius Press, San Francisco. All
rights reserved; reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues,
spirituality and literature.
Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press