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Though I Give My Mind To Understand Augustine, But Have Not Love, It Profits Me Nothing

I would really like to hear more from your son during class discussions.

For years, I have written this in report cards and spoken it at parent-teacher conferences. For years, little has come of it. I explain to parents that over the high school years more and more is gradually required of students. If students do not become comfortable voicing their objections and questions as freshmen, they will not be prepared to do so as seniors. Not asking questions as a freshman might not put a student outside the book, because the books are simpler, and chances are good that a classmate will ask the same thing a silent student is wondering about. However, as a senior, layers of meaning in complicated texts fractal out; if you don’t express particular concerns and ask for certain explanations, chances are good no one else will. On a simpler note, participating in class discussions is the best way to enter deeply into the ideas of the author. Students who don’t participate often are more easily distracted, disengaged. These are my reasons why your son or daughter should say more in class.

I don’t exactly know what I have expected parents to do with these explanations. Will they go home, sit their son down and say, “You must participate more in class”? Will their son sheepishly agree to do this, come back to class, and slowly become Bill Moyers? Will these sons reflect, years down the road, “Well, everything changed after my parents told me I had to say something in class from time to time”? Last year, two young ladies graduated with whom I had spent more than a thousand hours in class, and I wager they had volunteered answers fewer than a dozen times. Yet they each graduated with a 4.0, wrote passionate and lucid theses, and to a great extent sympathized deeply with the call of classicism to live a contemplative, virtuous life. My standard apologia for talking in class was worth very little against their quiet brilliance. This year, I have not told parents that I would like to hear more from their sons and daughters in class. If students obeyed their parents and spoke more, something good might happen, but not necessarily.

David Smith and Paul Griffiths have both contributed remarkable essays for Teaching and Christian Practice: Reshaping Faith and Learning (Eerdmans, 2011) regarding the responsibility of the teacher to shape the atmosphere of the classroom such that students want to learn. Both authors argue that, while it is helpful to acknowledge that learning is not merely the transference of information, it is another matter to present a book or discipline such that students would want to read and study it, even if doing so were not necessary for a grade (and thus for a scholarship, and thus for a better college, and thus for a better paying job). What the good teacher offers the student is not information, but the ability to desire Truth, with ever greater fervor, for the rest of their lives, to the betterment of their immortal soul. The wager of classical education is that, even if a student died the evening before he graduated high school, all the time given to study would have been time well spent.

To this end, I have scrapped the idea that class participation is useful in helping a student understand the material. A student might try very hard to understand the material without really wanting to understand the material for its own sake. Some students try hard to understand the material merely to get better grades (scholarship, college, paycheck). Though I give my mind to understand Augustine, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Instead, I have tried to conceive of class in such a way that discussion is enjoyed as valuable in and of itself. Enjoyment is possible only when the heart is inclined toward God; understanding emerges from enjoyment. If the soul is not first postured properly, neither can the mind be, and neither does the soul necessary follow the mind. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. It is telling that in Thomas Aquinas’ “Prayer of a Student,” the student asks God to “dissipate the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of sin and ignorance.” First sin, then ignorance second. The darkness of sin is a darkness of soul, the darkness of ignorance is of the mind, and seems somewhat natural to human finitude.

In so ordering the prayer, Aquinas might obliquely reference the progression of healings commended by St. Mark twice in his Gospel, first with the Capernaum paralytic and later with the Bethsaida blind man. When the paralytic is lowered through the roof, though the physical needs of the man are obvious, Christ says, “Son, your sins are forgiven you,” which is probably not what the paralytic man’s friends were expecting. Only after restoring the man’s soul does Christ restore his body. Later, Christ passes a blind man outside Bethsaida who begs Jesus to touch him. Christ spits on his eyes, then asks him if he sees anything, and the man responds, “I see men like trees, walking.” Christ then puts His hands on his eyes and tells the man to look up and “he was restored and saw everyone clearly.”

In his commentaries on St. Mark’s, Austin Farrer has discussed how the Gospel moves through cycles which are ever repeating, echoing and explaining one another; everything that happens in Mark happens again later. So, too, with the first double healing. The Bethsaida blind man is not partially healed the first time Christ touches him anymore than the paralytic is partially healed. Rather, the Bethsaida blind man sees “men like trees, walking,” which reads far better as a prophetic vision of the whole life of man, ever taking up his cross, his tree, and so married to the cross that body and wood are indistinguishable. The Bethsaida blind man is restored in soul at the first healing and in the body at the second healing, when he “saw everyone clearly.” Unless the soul sits in proper relationship to God, restoring the body is of no ultimate value; if a man’s sins are not forgiven, though his body is restored in this life, yet it will be subject to everlasting fire in the life to come. So, too, unless the teacher appeals to the student’s soul first, learning may be accomplished, but not accomplished in love, and so it profits the student nothing. “You can get all A’s and flunk life,” as Walker Percy once wrote.

How does the teacher appeal to a student first in soul? I would highly commend Smith and Griffiths’ essays to inspire the imagination to possibilities. My own practices are not, thus far, particularly original and are borrowed largely from others who attended the recent Alcuin Retreat and graciously offered stories of their own successes as gifts.

Treat the classroom as a place set aside for learning, set aside from the outside world. The classroom is neither so holy as a church nave, nor as mundane as a McDonalds.

This year, I have asked students of Medieval literature to enter class silently and continue work on a long term writing project born out of a twelve week study of Augustine’s City of God. We have discussed temptation at length, why we give into temptation, the confusion which often sets in while we are being tempted, and the feelings of remorse and shame which come immediately after we cease to sin and begin reflecting on how sin has not made us happy. The students were all asked to consider their own souls, and to identify some sin which they were particularly troubled by. Students were asked to contemplate how miserable they felt after having given into that temptation, and to write a letter to them self, exhorting them self not to sin.

Every day when students arrive in class, they do not spend the first three or four minutes talking sports or video games, but in contemplation of their own frailty, of the strength in righteousness. Some days, they only had time to read over the exhortations. Other days they had sufficient time to add a few lines, as well. What better preparation to study a book aimed at the spiritual maturation of the reader?

We have only recently concluded our time spent on the letter. After having discussed the dominant role the martyrs played in the Late Antique imagination, students have begun writing a diary of how they would spend the next year if they knew they were going to be put to the martyr’s test at the end of that year. The discussion of the City which follows is framed as a continuation of the spiritual contemplation the student has already begun, on their own terms, and unto their own personal edification.

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