A Living University: A Conversation with Rev. James V. Schall


What makes a good teacher? What is the most educational book ever written? Is there any advice you would give to young teachers starting out, who are possibly discouraged by the liberalism among the faculty and lack of enthusiasm among the students?

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How many years have you been teaching?

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.: First, I must touch on the prior-schooling question. From the time I was five till I was 37, I only missed one academic year, the year I was in the Army — and even there I went to mapmaking school in the daytime and night school at Rutgers. To put this lengthy scholastic stint in context, once at my younger brother's home in California, a friend of his at a party asked me this very question about years in school. My brother, who is not overly impressed with his clerical brother's weighty career, was listening to my response, which was "every year from five to 37." Before his friends could be too impressed, my brother quipped, "Yes, and if he had any brains, he would have graduated long ago."

I taught one year at the University of San Francisco (USF) in 1955-56 — a course in logic, a political-science course, and two courses in what was then called "Bone-Head English." From 1965 till 1969, I taught full-time in the Istituto Sociale at the Gregorian University in Rome. From 1969 till 1977, I taught the fall semester in Rome and the spring semester at USF. Most people thought this was an ideal arrangement. Its only drawback was that I was not at home in two places. From 1978 till the present, I have been teaching in the government department here at Georgetown. Sometimes, it is better to calculate teaching in terms of numbers of students rather than in numbers of years. I average about 230 students a year, since 1979, give or take a few either way. After a few years, you realize that when a class walks out of the door on the last day, the chances are very slim that you will ever see 95 percent of them again. It gives a certain poignancy to the art of teaching. Universities are not homes, but way stations, keepers of things no one else is likely to keep.

Lopez: In your years of teaching, how have things changed in terms of the quality of the student, the quality of university life itself?

Fr. Schall: Often I am asked this question. My answer is that, as far as I can see, questions about "quality" of the student, or the "quality" of university life are relatively useless. The students I had in my first year here some 25 years ago were as good as and often better than students today. But the students I have today are also very good. Students today, in fact, have less leisure, less real time to be educated, most often because of "requirements." Often I think that if I were to put in a large pot all the students I ever had and drew each out one by one, I would not be able to tell what year each went to school and it would not make any difference.

The real issue is always what is the student to read? And does he read it? My friend, Professor Brian Benestad at the University of Scranton, says, "take them to the book." This is right. There is no university if Plato is not read, even if it is called a university. Students who go through a university never having read Plato or Aristotle or Augustine or Aquinas, among others, are really wasting most of their time and money. Without them — and I add the Bible — they will not have a coherent clue as to what it is all about.

And I am not necessarily an advocate of what are called "great books," not that I am against reading them, however defined. My Another Sort of Learning, in fact, is written because the great books will not do it even though they are "great." I agree with Leo Strauss and Frederick Wilhelmsen, who remark that the great books contradict each other. They can and often do lead to skepticism. Likewise, I agree with Plato in The Republic when he warns us of exposing students to great things too early, before they have lived long enough to recognize what it indeed great. I do not deny that some students are brighter than others. One of the functions of the university is to find out which is which. But I am also aware that learning is very often a question of whether someone has his soul in order, whether he can be attracted by what is. Great things will not be seen by those whose souls are not ordered. I did not say that first. Aristotle did. But I do not mind repeating it as if I were the first to discover it. Indeed, when we are taught something, when we finally see "the truth of things," to use Pieper's great expression, we do "discover" it. It is now we who see.

Lopez: What makes a good teacher?

Fr. Schall: Some of the greatest teachers I have ever had would be called by most standards lousy teachers. One of the very finest teachers I ever had, Father Clifford Kossel, S.J., died about a week ago at Gonzaga University. If you did not sit in the front row and partly learn to lip-read in his class, you would miss half of what he said — but what he said was terrific. In Another Sort of Learning, I recount the remark of Rene Latourelle, S.J., then dean at the Gregorian University, himself a French-Canadian. He was a good teacher and theologian. We were walking on the roof of the Gregorian University one night after supper when this question of what is a good teacher came up. Latourelle replied that this question will be answered in different ways according to when the question is asked — after the first day of class, after midterm, after finals, one year later, five years later, or 30 years later. Quite often, someone whom we thought was a bad teacher when we were young, turns out, when we are older, to have taught us more than anyone else once we are old enough to see it.

Some say that good teachers are born, not made. I have a cousin who was born on a farm in Iowa, as was I. He is my age (ancient). He never went to college. He worked on a farm or in the defense industry all his life. He had what Aristotle would call a practical intellect when it came to making things or organizing things. I do not ever recall being in an uninteresting conversation with him. On the other hand, many years of working over a subject matter no doubt make us better able to understand and teach something. There is a kind of "anti-wisdom" in academia today. The concern is with young professors, new things. And there is nothing more exhilarating than a young man or woman just out of graduate school, someone who has really learned something. I just read a doctoral thesis on Strauss from the University of Adelaide in Australia that was positively thrilling. But there are some things that require years of going over again and again. Plato died when he was 81.

I like to cite C. S. Lewis's remark that "if you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all." My addendum to that remark is that every time you read say, Aristotle's Ethics, even after you have read it 50 or 60 times, you will find something startlingly new in it, something that you never saw before, even though you read it over and over. This morning, for example, I was reading the Second Book of Aristotle's Ethics for class tomorrow. I again came across the following passage, which I had indeed underlined semesters ago. I saw that this passage had previously struck me: "For, first, we do not decide to do what is impossible, and anyone claiming to decide to do it would seem a fool; but we do wish for what is impossible, e.g., never to die, as well as for what is possible." When read attentively, the whole structure of reason and revelation, a topic on which I have often written, is contained in this one brief passage.

So what "makes" a good teacher? Basically, a good teacher is someone who leads us to ask the important questions, without at the same time being someone who suggests that there are no answers to such questions. The real mystery of teaching is not that there are questions, but that there are answers. Nor would I deny the paradoxical fact that students also "teach" teachers. A good teacher knows that out there in the classroom there is always likely to be someone brighter than he is. Michael Jackson is the current deputy secretary of transportation. He was a student here about 20 years ago. I learned much from him. What students do is to enable the professors to reflect again and again on the materials that the students usually see only once, while they are young.

Lopez: Are there any great teachers among us in public life today?

Fr. Schall: The purpose of "public life" is not to teach, but to make good laws and to give good examples of how to live well. Teaching is first a very private thing that belongs to the contemplative order, to things for their own sakes. This is even true of teaching the crafts and human action, even though these latter in their truth are ordained to doing or making. Laws, as Aristotle and Aquinas maintain, can be educative — should be, in fact. We can indeed be corrupted by the example of public men. This is in part what the lesson of the previous administration was about. But public men are not, strictly speaking, teachers. This is not to deny that the worst form of corruption ultimately comes not from politicians but from errant philosophers, as St. Paul and Plato understood. The great drama of the Gorgias of Plato is the dangerous public man rejecting the philosopher by refusing to engage him in conversation. The public man can and often does refuse to examine his conscience and his premises.

But Machiavelli understood that the real way to change a society is to change the souls of the potential philosophers — to write a book, not to rule. Plato knew this too. Plato knew it first. This is why Machiavelli tried so hard to remove the examples and teachings of Socrates and Christ, men who never wrote books, from the souls of potential philosophers and rulers.

The greatest teacher in public life today, the one who has talked to more human beings than any other man in history, is, no doubt, John Paul II. But he stands in a post beyond public life. He tells the young all over the world that the first thing they need to attend to is their own souls. Not a few worry that the Pope does not discipline or govern as well as he teaches and encourages. But this goes back to the fact that it is one thing to teach and another thing to rule, though the latter without the former, the public life without the truth, can corrupt us all by its example if we do not already have counteracting, worthy habits.

Lopez: What is the most educational book ever written?

Fr. Schall: No other book can match The Republic of Plato, or, a pari, all of the works of Plato. The best modern teacher is Josef Pieper, though C.S. Lewis, by comparison, is a close second. What about Aristotle and Aquinas? What about Augustine? Aquinas was very deliberate at making things clear so that beginners could quickly and easily get to the highest things. Peter Kreeft is very good in representing Aquinas, and Lewis, and Pascal, and Job. One cannot oppose Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas to each other. The latter always presuppose the former and add something. I have just finished rereading the Tolkien trilogy. Everything is there too in its own way. Strauss and Voegelin loom in the horizon of our time.

Lopez: Is there any advice you would give to young teachers starting out, who are possibly discouraged by the liberalism among the faculty and lack of enthusiasm among the students?

Fr. Schall: One thing to do is read The American Enterprise on diversity in the colleges. Basically, there is little if any political diversity in college faculties or administrations. All promotions, all rank and tenure are decided by the same narrow, political criteria. For the most part it means that no one can really get an education in most colleges. Education in the highest things must be pursued independently. One has to find journals and fora wherein one can speak or write. One has to learn to speak the truth without glory. It is not easy. My advice is that found in Aristotle, "This sort of inquiry is, to be sure, unwelcome to us, when those who introduced the Forms (Plato) were friends of ours; still, it presumably seems better, indeed only right, to destroy even what is close to us if that is the way to preserve the truth. And we must especially do this when we are philosophers, lovers of wisdom; for though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires us to honor the truth more" (1096a14-17). This is an agenda for a very humble life. But it also reminds us to seek the "pearl of great price." Nothing else will really satisfy us.

Lopez: What message do Plato and Charlie Brown have in common?

Fr. Schall: Both Plato and Charlie Brown are charming. Plato in part wrote The Republic to "out-charm" Homer. Charles Schulz wrote Peanuts to cause generations to think of Christian theology without knowing what they were doing. Read, sometime, Robert Short's The Gospel According to Peanuts or The Parables of Peanuts, or Charles Schulz's The Beagles and the Bunnies Shall Lie Down Together: The Theology in Peanuts. I swear I have cited every incident in this last book in some political or theological context. Charlie Brown is a good man for whom something always goes wrong. Plato knows that things go wrong. His whole life is devoted to founding a republic in speech in which things go right. To put this city in speech in our souls is the essence of what it is to know.

But, of course, Schulz wants us to know that Lucy will never allow Charlie to kick the ball off without her pulling it away at the last minute. Behind Charlie and behind Plato, there lurks a tremendous joy. Chesterton also pointed this out at the end of Orthodoxy. Plato called us the "playthings of the gods," that is to say, we exist but we need not be. We do not exist because it is necessary that we exist. It isn't. Therefore, if we exist, it is because we are, but need not be. Yet, our existence is worthy. Plato remarks that something was lacking to creation after it was all put out there. What was lacking was someone to praise it.

Charlie Brown — the parallel text, in a way, is Chesterton's book, St. Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox" — exists to praise and remember even the oddest things, like his watching TV while his sister Sally wants him to help her with her homework. It is often said that Plato's forms abstract from the particular, that somehow they needed to be subsumed into the Word made flesh so that nothing small would ever again be unimportant, even if it did not need to exist. If we spend our days reading Plato and Charlie Brown, we will soon arrive at what is, which is where we want to be in any case. There are other ways to arrive at the same place. But this way is the most pleasant and charming.

Lopez: How have we done since the attacks on the U.S. last year?

Fr. Schall: The shrewdest thing that the Islamic forces did so far was not to do anything else, except perhaps bluster. This lack of further attacks that would unify the country has served rather to divide us. We are now asking about the logic of the Bush doctrine to find and destroy any potential power capable of repeating what was done on September 11. This leads us to foreign entanglement after foreign entanglement. We have decided that the enemy is a very narrow group with no name, but whom we call "terrorists." We refuse to inquire whether there is anything about Islam itself that might be the origin of the problem. Meantime, the "terrorists" make themselves scarce. The increasing — though still not very large — chorus to attack Iraq, whether or not it is associated with bin Laden, argues that Iraq is gaining the weapons and has the will to launch a massive attack, not to defeat us but to spread chaos. In a very judicious editorial, The Economist recently concluded that there is a real threat and war can be justified in eliminating it. If it is true that all objective evidence shows we are about to be attacked, it is madness not to do something. Certainly, Mr. Bush is in a dilemma. If he does nothing further (as seems to be what is most likely) and an attack of some sort does come, he will be accused of incompetence. If he launches a war and is successful, it will be said that there was no real threat — no matter what evidence appears on investigation. If he launches a war and is not successful, things will be as bad as possible.

Lopez: Have we learned the right lessons over the last year?

Fr. Schall: If the lessons are to prevent any further attack, this purpose seems to have been, till now, successful. It can be argued that the core of the "terrorist" apparatus was either destroyed or disabled. Hence, there were no further attacks on us because it was impossible to launch them, however many threats and scares were engineered. The president, in his quiet but forceful way, made his point. Don't do it again, or else.

The broader issue is the decline in European population and to some extent American population, and its replacement by immigration. Europe and America already have a basic Muslim population. After repeated chiding, there is still very little condemnation of Islamic attacks from Muslim citizens. There is a broad geopolitical hope that those Islamic populations with experience of democracy will calm or modify the terrorist groups. The counter-argument is that the Muslim populations will be the advanced guard for a further Islamic strike or takeover. One Baptist minister in England predicted that England would in fact become Muslim. A Jesuit I heard of predicted that St. Peter's would someday be a mosque.

The issue is whether the West is dying. At its core, this dying is because of its own population decisions. Its present jeopardy is self-inflicted. Western peoples are being replaced by newer peoples, many of whom are Muslims. One can hardly fault them for seizing in a peaceful way what they have been unable to attain by war.

Lopez: As we approach the one-year mark, how might we best learn what we still need to learn?

Fr. Schall: I have learned much from Belloc's two books, The Crusades and the chapter on Islam in The Great Heresies. The lesson of the Crusades was not that Christian powers attacked a helpless Islam, but that an almost defeated Christian West finally roused enough strength to counter-attack, itself finally stemmed or defeated. Is there hope in dialogue? In "peaceful" means? This is the official line of the Church, even when Christians are under direct attack in Muslim countries. If there is any Islamic state that deserves to be attacked on humanitarian grounds, it is the Sudan. But we prefer martyrs to war.

What we still need to learn, though, is not that we are under some sort of attack, but that the internal condition of our souls, our views about human life and family, about law and order, are the remote causes of all the problems. Islam is a threat, if it is a threat, not because of anything it might itself mount against us, but because we are in the process of eliminating ourselves. The final thing we need to notice is that Islam is not the only problem. Currently, it is dangerous, in part because we do not know what it is. Where China appears in this chessboard, remains to be seen.

The final lesson is that most democracies fail not because of some outside enemy, but because of something enervating in their own souls. The controversy about what policies to follow about Islam seems, at bottom, to be about ourselves. Peggy Noonan's essay after September 11 — about manliness, and the fact that there were still heroes when tragedy strikes — was a reminder that generosity and service are still present among us. The fact is that a year after September 11, we no longer know who our enemy is, or, if we do, we do not want to acknowledge it or do anything further about it, or so it seems. I suspect that so long as Muslim powers of whatever persuasion do nothing overt from now on, the net result will continue to cause deep confusion among us. September 11 will seem less and less like a plot, and more like a lucky shot that could never happen again. As has often happened in the past, the best way to unite us is for someone to attack us. Unless they are extremely shortsighted, any real enemies we have probably know it is best not to provide an occasion to unite us on this issue.


Kathryn Jean Lopez. "A Living University: A Conversation with Rev. James V. Schall." National Review (September 9, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.


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 Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, 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.

Fr. Schall has two websites, here and here.

Copyright © 2002 National Review

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.