On Teaching and Being Eminently Teachable


To provoke the student, the potential philosopher, he must first be teachable, eminently teachable.

Remarks on teaching and being taught, or as I put it, being eminently teachable, need certain initial and, frankly, provocative words to indicate the spirit in which this subject matter is here advanced. Let me begin with Leo Strauss’ comment that we are lucky if we are alive during the same time in which one or two of the greatest minds of our kind were alive. And even if we are alive during this time, we will not be very likely to meet them or, having met them, to recognize them for what they are. The beginning of wisdom requires a small dose of humility. We need to acknowledge how much was known before we ourselves ever existed.

Consequently, if we are to confront the greatest minds, we must do so in their books, in what they wrote, to which we attend with the greatest care. We must begin, I might add, with the firm conviction that the mind, including our own mind, is capable of knowing all that is, that it is capax omnium. What stands between us and Aristotle or Dante is not power, as we are often told, but an independent intelligence that exists in each of us, a vivid awareness that the principle of contradiction also governs our own mind and grounds all mind in the truth itself. Strauss concluded with a cautionary admonition: we will find that the great thinkers often contradict one another. The great books or thinkers, in other words, are not, as is too often implied, substitutes for thought itself. We do not, moreover, have time in one lifetime adequately to encounter even one of these great thinkers. [1]

From these initial remarks from Strauss, however, I do not conclude that we must despair about mind itself because of such contradictions. Rather we should take Aristotle’s advice from the Tenth Book of the Ethics, that reads: “We must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything” (1177b33-78a3). The fact of error or contradiction or difficulty is not a sign of the mind’s weakness, but of its strength.

In a basic sense, modernity means the lowering of our sights from truth and good to what is practical. Modernity has been an unsuccessful effort to prove Aristotle wrong. What modern thought has often accomplished, instead of a slim knowledge of the truth, is to use its power and prestige to forbid us from understanding why Aristotle might have been right. My initial observation is that the most important thing we can do to provoke students to want to learn is to confront them with Aristotle’s challenge, his reminder that the pursuit of the highest things, however difficult, however little we might learn in comparison to what is, is itself worth the effort and “surpasses everything.”

I cite these exalted lines of Aristotle having read the following sober lines from Wesley McDonald:

My young classroom charges, although wholly ignorant of Mill, have absorbed unreflectively his platitudes about tolerance and equality. If they agree on any moral principle, it could be summarized simply as, “You can do whatever pleases you as long as you don’t bug me.” They also believe, inconsistently like Mill, that government has the responsibility of guaranteeing more personal liberty while simultaneously bringing about greater equality. And social scientists confidently inform us that crime and social pathologies are mere manifestations of society’s failure to eliminate ignorance entirely. Mill flattered the mass of people with the notion that they are rational and good. Such beliefs, even though all experience refutes them, operate ... strongly on the popular imaginations... [2]

No one will seek the highest things if he believes that there is no truth, that nothing is his personal fault, that government will guarantee his wants. Let me cite three passages that give a sharp flavor to what I want to say about inciting and provoking students. The first comes from Yves Simon’s reflection on what it is to be a teacher. Simon remarked, that “no spontaneous operation of intellectual relations protects the young philosopher against the risk of delivering his soul to error by choosing his teachers infelicitiously.” [3] This passage says that man is a social animal. We are somehow bound together, for better and for worse. The life of the mind is not immune from its own form of corruption even in the most expensive universities, even from the most famous professors.

The second passage I will cite in the Latin of Thomas Aquinas. Remember in reading it, that the word, stultitia, means “foolishness”. It is the very word we find in the Latin translation of 1 Corinthians, 20, where St. Paul, speaking of the pride of the philosophers, asks, “Nonne stultam fecit Deus sapientiam hujus mundi?” (“Did God not make the wisdom of this world foolish?”). Stultitia is, in St. Thomas’ view, the contrary of wisdom, itself both the highest of the theoretical virtues and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is what St. Thomas says: “stultitia ... import quendam stuporem sensus in judicando, et praecipue circa altissimam causam, quae est finis ultimus et summum bonum” (II-II, 46, 2). [4] The reason why we do not reflect on the highest things, on our ultimate end or highest good, is not Aristotle’s honest recognition of the limits of human intellect. Rather we allow ourselves to be stupefied, to be deflected by what are admittedly many interesting and absorbing things, but we allow no ordering in our lives that takes us beyond what is before us.

The third passage is from Book V The Republic. Socrates makes my point in a more positive manner, though only because he too is aware of sophists and of passions. The passage in the form of a question reads: “the one who is willing to taste every kind of learning with gusto, and who approaches learning with delight, and is insatiable, we shall justly assert to be a philosopher, won’t we?” (475c). In a sense, the whole Platonic corpus is addressed to the potential philosophers, to precisely those we are concerned about, to calling them out of themselves. We are concerned with those whose souls are drawn to many and sundry things, but who do not yet know how they will choose. Thus, if I might put it this way, Simon warns us about our professors; Aquinas reminds us about ourselves, and Plato seeks to know what we delight in, whether it is in all that is, the whole, whether we are able in our hearts to be gladdened by something for its own sake?

The question immediately before us concerns intellectual curiosity. How does one go about inspiring, cajoling, or inciting students or other inquisitive human types to address themselves to an interest and delight in the highest things? I would leave the issue formulated in that way except that the phrase, “intellectual curiosity”, contains some dangerous ambiguity. The point can be made by recalling to a secular world that the devil is intellectually “curious”; indeed, from all reports, Lucifer is the most intellectually curious of the angels. By creation, he was an angel of brilliant light, as his name implies. This same caution, perhaps, explains Aristotle’s gingerly treatment of Socrates’ notion that vice or error was merely ignorance, something Wesley McDonald also warned about in the social scientists. So I am not so much interested in “intellectual curiosity” as I am in an intense desire to know the truth of things, yes, “with gusto”, as Socrates said, even though, in one sense, as I acknowledge, knowing what the devil knows is also a part of knowing the truth of things.

The knowledge of error and vice, as Plato and St. Thomas have taught us, is itself good, itself an instrument of orderly education. Evil is not to be located in the intellect but in the will. Knowledge of error and vice is a necessary element in knowing the complete truth about anything. Aquinas wisely surrounded his famous proofs for the existence of God with the two most crucial arguments against such proofs, that from the existence of evil and that from the hypothesis that we can explain everything with our own intellect. And to make the point more forcefully, Aquinas proceeded to formulate these objections more concisely and accurately than anyone before or since has succeeded in doing. Indeed, no knowledge of truth is secure without an awareness of how multiple errors derive from and are related to truth.

And yet, as Simon intimated, we can deliver our souls to dangerous teachers; we can, and often do, call darkness light not out of ignorance but out of choice. We can embody evil and selfish choices in our own lives; we can legislate them as laws in our polities. As Augustine taught us, an element of will, indeed of self-will, puts at risk every truth’s capacity to manifest itself. Our will can obscure our very potential to affirm or judge of what is that it is. Or, as it is put positively, again in the Fifth Book of The Republic, “Doesn’t knowledge naturally depend on what is, to know of what is that it is and how it is?” (477b). Should we choose to answer “no” to Socrates’ very serious question, should we say that knowledge does not depend on our affirmation of what is, we can be sure our intellectual confusions run very deep.

How would we approach this particular issue about our wanting to know, about our wanting our minds to be conformed to reality, to what is? The Wall Street Journal editors did an interesting Editorial on campus bookstores (July 24, 1994). They discovered, much to their amusement, that the bestsellers in college bookstores were approximately the same as the bestsellers in airports. The editors, needless to say, did not think that this fact was particularly encouraging, though they did draw a positive conclusion to the effect that at least the students were voluntarily reading romantic novels rather than frittering away their time with the political correctness tomes that so often dominated the university curricula these days. The students may read the same common stuff that folks waiting for a flight to Toledo read, but at least the average student did not display that more dangerous trendiness that is found in the isolation of universities where there are no quotas for truth, for the affirmation of what is, that it is.

Myself, I often think—though I too have a computer that, with the flick of about twenty buttons, I can get the library catalogue of the University of Perugia—that the bookstores that deposit and save civilization are not those on campuses, nor the Daltons nor the Crowns nor the Barnes & Nobles, nor the clones in airports, but the used book stores. There, for a couple of hundred dollars, one can still find, with some diligence, the essential books of our culture from the Bible and Shakespeare, to Plato, Augustine, and Pascal. What seems to be missing in our students—and we must remember that Plato himself thought this quality was itself a rare thing—is that Socratic Eros that is fascinated by reality, that is itself unsettled by our spiritual uneasiness and by what the Journal called “the emphasis on feeling instead of reasoning”. Higher education, education that knows about and reflects on the highest things, as I have tried to hint in my Another Sort of Learning, is today largely a matter of private enterprise, of good fortune, of reading things that few assign or praise. [5]

By chance of late, I found an old copy of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1946). In the early pages of this remarkable novel, itself, I think, a work that unfolds something essential to the needs of our souls, we come across a young British officer by the name of Hooper. Hooper is described by Waugh as the “new man”, itself a prophetic phrase, a man with no special illusions. What is remarkable about Hooper is that nothing noble really moves him. Yes, Hooper had often “wept”; but, as Charles Ryder, the novel’s hero, recalls,

never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now ... called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper. [6]

This is still the issue, isn’t it? Insipid education consisting of details about supposedly humane, though mostly lethal, legislation, about technological change confused with wisps of environmental madness—nothing to move souls, no real causes, no real romance. C. S. Lewis had described this same young man in The Abolition of Man, a description Peter Kreeft has reformulated for us in his remarkable C. S. Lewis in the Third Millennium. [7]

Are we not led to wonder, since the time of Charles Ryder’s musings, whether our educational institutions have not been filled with succeeding generations of Hoopers happily impervious both to what is disordered on our “hyper-politicized” campuses and to the call of the higher things? Are not St. Crispin’s Day and Lepanto still falling on deaf ears? From the books sold in campus stores, the Journal editors concluded, students still seem strangely “enchanted” by the “New-Age style wonderings”. They roam to every place but to where the truth might be found.

An old scholastic adage used to say that truth is one but that error tends to multiplicity. It is a bewildering experience, no doubt, for a young man or woman to sit down for the first time and begin to read a university catalogue, to note the variety of subjects, courses, and entertainments that are listed there. If in addition to this we add some awareness through the media, libraries, or internet of the incredible variety of other things apparently available to be learned, we can see that the temptation to write it all off as hopeless is very great. Most students are convinced that they have to have an “education”, a word, when we think about its derivation, that implies no content, as if we could have an education without knowing something in particular.

How, in conclusion, will we know whether we are educated? Let me recount one final story. On his Grand Tour, James Boswell reached the court of Dresden. Boswell was twenty-four years old at the time. On October 7, 1764, he met Monsieur Vattel, who was at the time the Privy Councillor at Court and the author of a famous book in international law, Principes du droit des gens. Vattel explained to Boswell that he composed his book on the law of nations while Saxony was in confusion and he expected “to lose all that he had.” Just writing the book served to calm his mind. Boswell was then introduced to Madame Vattel, who was, according to Boswell, a man with an eye for such things, “a handsome young Polish lady.” That evening the Vattel couple were going to dine with Count Schulenburg, the Danish Envoy. They graciously invited Boswell to accompany them. Several other gentlemen were also present. During the evening, they dined, played whist, and chatted.

Boswell, who was himself anything if not precocious, complained to Vattel that he (Boswell) was “ill-educated and had but little knowledge.” Vattel replied, “Excuse me, Sir, you are well educated.” Boswell continued: “The Envoy did not let this pass; he looked at me as one looks at one whom he admires, without well knowing for what. Vattel and I talked of learning in general, of the late war in Germany, of fate and free will, or more properly the origin of evil. He was for the chain of being. I stood well against him.” [8]

No doubt, Boswell at twenty-four, as he frankly tells us, had serious problems with personal morality. The young Augustine would have had no difficulty in understanding him. The young Scot thought himself ill-educated with but little knowledge. If we reflect on all Boswell was later to learn from Samuel Johnson, however, we know that he was right about himself. Yet, Count Schulenburg was also right. As he listened to Boswell and Vattel chat, as he reflected on the range of their conversation from current politics to metaphysics and theology, he was aware that this young Scot lawyer was curious about many things, mundane things, the highest things. Perhaps he did not yet possess Aquinas’ ordo disciplinae, but he did display a genuine Socratic eros for knowledge. Indeed, as anyone is aware in discussing these topics, he was also aware of the connection between discussions of evil and discussions of free will.

Thus, while it is true that some few of us can learn something of the truth by ourselves, from reality itself, as Aquinas once maintained, still the normal way, the best way is to learn the truth from someone who knows, from the few great minds that may not have existed in the time when we ourselves were alive. We can indeed be deceived by our professors and by our own passions. Still, what is essential, what is basic, is our own wonder, our own eros, our own willingness to be taught, having ourselves already become aware of our desire to know all that is.

Augustine, when he was nineteen, in a famous passage in The Confessions, tells of coming across a now lost “exhortation to philosophy”, the Hortensius of Cicero. In words that are redolent of the passage from the Tenth Book of The Ethics, that I cited above, Augustine wrote: “This book (the Hortensius) in truth changed my affections, and turned my prayers to Thyself, O Lord.... Worthless suddenly became every vain hope to me; and with an incredible warmth of heart, I yearned for an immortality of wisdom...” (III,4).

To provoke the student, the potential philosopher, he must first be teachable, eminently teachable. But the teacher must himself know, must know the order of the discipline and its relation to other disciplines. Many confusing and irrelevant things must be cut through, lest the task be loathsome and confused. In the end, both teacher and student must be concerned about the truth, about that which is, about what neither student nor professor made, but each must discover in a community of learning that includes not just themselves, but those who have lived before them. And there must be a vision and an eros, a sense that what is merely human or merely mortal is not enough for us, not that for which we are made. The truth is simply an affirmation of what is, because our place in the chain of being, about which the young Boswell was not so sure, is given to us.

The most intelligent of the angels fell. Ignorance is not the sole cause of evil. Students still think that “you can do whatever you please as long as you don’t bug me.” The drama of our learning what is is paralleled by the risk that we will choose ourselves over reality. This is a risk we cannot avoid taking. It is in the nature of things. For it is this risk that ultimately incites us to choose that life in which teaching and being teachable lead us to that vision of what is that some few of our kind. to be sure, have achieved, not having been taught. But, if what is learned by ourselves is true, it differs not a whit from the truth that we learn from the “docens”, from the “doctor”, the teacher, when we ourselves are eminently teachable.


  1. Leo Strauss, “What Is Liberal Education?” Liberalism: Ancient and Modern (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 3-8. Back to text.
  2. Wesley McDonald, “Recovering a Neglected Conservative Mind,” University Bookman, 34 (#4, 1994), 19-20. Back to text.
  3. Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), p. 100. Back to text.
  4. “Foolishness ... implies a certain paralysis of the senses in judging, and especially concerning the highest cause, which is the final end and highest good.” Back to text.
  5. James V. Schall, Another Sort of Learning (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988). Back to text.
  6. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (Boston: Little, Brown, 1945), p. 9. Back to text.
  7. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947); Peter Kreeft, C. S. Lewis in the Third Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994). Back to text.
  8. Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764, Edited by Frederick A. Pottle (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953), pp. 133-34.
    Back to text.


Schall, James V. “On Teaching and Being Eminently Teachable.” Crisis “Sense and Nonsense,” (September 11, 1993): 49-50.

Reprinted with permission of James V. Schall, S.J.


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 including Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.


Copyright © 1993 Crisis

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