Thanks to a kind article by Lauren Weber (“Recovering From Jaw Cancer, Schall Will Miss Fall Semester,” THE HOYA, Aug. 31, 2010, A1), many know that I am out for the fall semester due to a combination of jaw cancer and asthma. Try to avoid both! Some scientists hint that they will find the key to perfect man by the time you are 50. Such perfection, I suspect, would be worse than jaw cancer, so be prepared. The essence of Christianity is that suffering is not the worst of the evils, while avoidance of it sometimes is.
Fortunately, at the invitation of the government department chairman, professor Emily Hoechst has taken my usual Elements class in 201A White-Gravenor Hall. She is very good. By the time semester is over – probably sooner – no one will miss me. When she was in graduate school, Mrs. Hoechst used to spell me when I was travelling. I always had rave reports of her teaching.
But I do hope to make it back for the spring semester.
I was sorry the Medieval Political Philosophy class was cancelled. A world of unknown wisdom is there, the importance of which few realize. Contemporary Europe, at times, tries to build itself as if this past never happened.
To learn more on the subject, I suggest reading one of my essays, “What Is Medieval Political Philosophy?” If you read nothing else in this area, try Rémi Brague’s “The Legend of the Middle Ages” or Christopher Dawson’s “The Formation of Christendom,” not to mention Aquinas, Dante, Bonaventure, feudalism, Gilson’s “History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages,” Josef Pieper’s”Scholasticism,” and, with Duns Scotus and Benedict XVI, why voluntarism, Islamic philosophy, and modernity are related.
When I do not have new students, but appreciate my former students who look in on me or write from this or that corner of the globe, it seems appropriate to expand a theme that I have touched on, namely, “Why Do Professors Need Students?” I gave a lecture at the University of North Dakota on this topic a couple of years ago. Some scholars do not teach, or teach much. Other scholars teach but do not write much. To be sure, some scholars never stop writing and never shut up.
“Silence” and how to be still, as a former student insists, are good things to practice. I know many folks, often students, who seem to have direct insight into things and can articulate what they know. In my advanced years, I am no longer surprised when students know more than I do, like how to turn off a cell phone, and other things, important things, too.
Teaching is, at bottom, a humbling thing. In spite of all the copyrights, truth is free. No one owns it. Every student walks into a classroom (hopefully today not an overly wired and technologized one, which makes it more difficult) with one basic advantage. He has a brain attached to a body that sees, hears, smells and thinks. The mind as mind already wants to know. What it needs is something to know, something that it does not already possess. Indeed, it cannot know even itself without first knowing something else.
About the time a young student is 20, he begins to realize that he does not know much that is really important. It is a rather healthy experience. Some tend immediately to be discouraged. They will never know everything. That is correct. They won’t. But we do not come to a university to know everything. We come to it to catch a glimpse of the most important things we should know if we are human beings. We have a destiny imprinted on our souls hinting that even if we knew everything, there is still something more to know that seems rather more like a person than anything else.
Teachers are but servants. As my friend Msgr. Sokolowski at Catholic University put it, we ourselves are “agents of truth.” It does not exist anywhere else except in our souls affirming or denying it, as Aquinas would say. And yet, it is a discovery of what is not ourselves. What a glorious thing it is to know that we are not alone, even when we see the truth of things. Nothing binds professor and student together more than a common love and grasp of the truth of things, something that is neither invented nor made up from the pits of his own mind.
So, I suppose, what I miss most of all in missing a fall semester here at Georgetown is the presence of students. I never knew them on the first day of class. Yet they gut it out with me as we read things worth reading because they take us to the highest things that define reality and our being within it. Nothing is quite like this experience, I assure you.