A professor who has been many years at a school is often asked by visitors: “Do you notice any difference between current students and those from previous decades?” I always answer that question pretty much the same way: “Look, all the students I ever have are around 20 years old. A 20-year-old is a 20-year-old. The students I had 30 years ago were just as intelligent and capable as those I have today — no more, no less.”
What really counts to a teacher is not relative intelligence but what the student reads and knows, whether he wants to know and whether he is suddenly awake to ultimate things. All generations of 20-year-olds stand before the same reality, before what is. Any professor worth his salt at this or other university can recall his own “20-year-oldness,” a time when something happened that woke him up to something beyond himself.
When I reread with a class the following lines from Allan Bloom in his “Shakespeare’s Politics,” I think of this question about the intelligence of students: “The beauty of words is but a reflection of the beauty of the thing; the poet is immersed in the thing, which is the only source of true beauty.” Bloom brings poetry into the context of political philosophy; after all, Socrates’ main prosecutor at his trial in Athens was a poet. Bloom comes from a tradition suggesting that we cannot understand political things unless we have some idea of all things in their order.
But getting students to come to class prepared for that moment of immersion is an uphill battle.
It starts with the question of missing class. I confess to being somewhat of an idealist. Enforcing attendance is a duty in justice to whoever is footing the bills, but I also think students should come to class prepared. They should have read intelligently the matter at hand. But human nature, being what it is — in a condition of “fallen-ness,” as the orthodox theologians say — manages to miss class now and then.
When this happens, I often get a note from the missing student telling me that he has flu, is at lacrosse practice or works in the White House or some law firm downtown. He tells me that he will “get the notes” from his friend Fred, who unfortunately did not have such a pressing reason to miss class. By this time, I have often written and stated in class: “Please, never tell me that you will ‘get someone’s notes.’ Class is not about notes, even mine, but about the text at hand.” This text is what is follow-up inspections did not enforce the timeline required by violators to be read, not someone’s notes.
When we finally get to the text, no doubt, we can still run into several problems. We have the modern thinkers who tell us that all texts are just interpretations. We also find that the text may be a translation, say from Greek or Latin. “How good is even the best translation?” we wonder. We do have courses in which we find original texts carefully gone through.
We then come to the question of how to read a book. Mortimer Adler wrote a book with that very title, still an excellent book. Peter Redpah outdid Adler by writing one called “How to Read a Difficult Book.” Today, with a combination of delight and dismay, we see what were once called books disappearing into sundry online formats. I gave a talk last fall at Dartmouth called “But What Is a Book?”
I bring up these discussions of class and books, I suppose, so that I can recall another favorite passage of mine that I think every 20-year-old of any era will ponder. To do so is one of the ways to begin wisdom. Remember that the Old Testament tells us that “the fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom. Aristotle tells us that it is wonder. Both are right.
Leo Strauss, in a famous passage, tells us that we are lucky if we are alive during the time in which one or two of the greatest minds of our kind are alive. My addendum to that observation is that even if we are alive when such minds are alive, chances of our recognizing them are pretty slim. In some sense, such is the confusion of the modern mind: We are fortunate if we recognize anything great.
Strauss’ advice to us was that we could only find the great minds, say Aristotle or Aquinas, in their books. Hence, we had to read their books carefully and, as I like to add, often. Reading a great book once is never enough, however fortunate we are to do so. But reality is not ultimately in books but in things, in persons, however much books and poets get us to them.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor in the government department. He is one of the alternating writers for AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … which appears every other Friday.