What A Student Owes His Teacher


   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... [1]


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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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

(1177b31-78a2). [5]


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.

[6] 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.


The Author:


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