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Editor's note: The following was originally given as an address at the Bosque School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 8, 2014.
“It (disappointment) occurs when the boy who has been enchanted by Stories from the Odyssey
buckles down to really learning Greek. It comes when lovers have got
married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every
department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to
C. S. Lewis, from the second Screwtape Letter, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmilllan, 1962), 11.
man had a more ardent love of literature, or a higher respect for it
than Johnson. His apartment in Pembroke College…was over the Gateway.
The enthusiasts for learning will ever contemplate it with veneration.
One day, while he was sitting in it quite alone, Dr. Panting, then head
of the College…overheard him uttering this soliloquy, in his strong
emphatick voice: ‘Well, I have a mind to see what is done in other
places of learning. I’ll go and visit universities abroad. I’ll go to
France and Italy. I’ll go to Paduaand I’ll mind my business. For an
Athenian blockhead is the worst of all blockheads.’”
From James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1730 (London: Oxford, 1931), I, 49-50.
evidently the Spanish word for a forest. Here in the southwest it
refers especially to woods along river bottoms. In this school, the
river is the famous Rio Grande. One can speak of being educated in a
forest or even, I suppose, of being educated by a forest. Tolkien, who
had a special love of trees, used to speak of what the forest taught.
Our Scriptural heritage speaks of a “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”
with a Garden as the original place of the First Parents. The relation
of gardens to parks and forests is an interesting one. I believe that
the City of St. Louis has a large “Forest Park,” as does Everett,
In one sense today, we must almost say that all of our
national forests spread throughout the country are cared for as large
scale gardens and parks. In the middle of Munich Germany, is a lovely
park called “the English Garden.” We probably have no “forests primeval”
left. Even the jungles in Brazil come under governmental control. We go
out of our way to prevent development of certain woods and lands. In a
way, nature becomes more nature when it comes under the scope of human
understanding. Nature was not meant simply to be nature. It was also
meant to be understood as nature. The things of nature have their own
A school in a forest setting is designed, in the
first place, to be a school, not a forest. This particular school was
founded in 1994, so it is a mere twenty years old. Its first graduates
are still not nearly into what Cicero called “old age.” The state in
which this school is located is not in “Old” but in “New” Mexico. New
Mexico entered the Union on January 6, 1912. My father was born in Iowa
in 1904. In the beginning, I cited a passage from James Boswell writing
in 1730. This was forty-six years before the signing of the Declaration
of Independence and one hundred and twenty-seven years after the
founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. I taught in a university in
Rome founded in 1551. The usual date given for the founding of the City
of Rome is 753 B. C. Thus, in terms of Roman dating, this year, 2014
A.D., is listed as Ab Urbe Condita 2767. That is, from the founding of the City of Rome, two thousand seven hundred and sixty-seven years.
used to insist that students knew, among others, the dates of the
deaths of Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas. From the
time of Abraham to the time of Socrates was approximately eight hundred
years. From the time of Socrates (d. 399 B.C.) to the death of Augustine
(d. 430 A.D). was another eight hundred years; from Augustine to
Aquinas was eight hundred years (1274 A.D.). From Aquinas to our days is
likewise about eight hundred years. These are time sequences and dates
that anyone can remember from early youth if he but learns them. They
serve to give some time proportion and structure to our history. We also
know of ancient Chinese, Hindu, and Inca calendars. The age of the
universe itself is said to be around 13.7 billion years. We like to know
what went on, where, and involving whom.
Some education in time
and space statistics, in history and geography, is appropriate to the
young whose memories are still alert. It is good to know the where’s and
when’s of things. If we do not take the trouble to know what happened
in time and space, we will not be able to place things in relation to
each other. Everything will come together as if time and space were
collapsed into one blurry time and one fuzzy place. Knowledge of times
and places is not the most profound kind of learning. But it provides
the context and arena for what are the highest things. Again, I mention
this point here as such things are best learned when we are young. We do
not waste our time when we know more than our own time and place.
can we not just look up times and places on our cell phone? No one
needs to remember anything. The machine will do it for us. Yet, machines
do not know relationships, how the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is
related to the Plantagenet House of English monarchs. No machine knows
that it knows. Yet, there is too much to remember, no doubt of it. Why
not let the machine do it? The machine is a helpful tool to memory, no
doubt of it. But if nothing is actually in our heads, we will not see
how this relates to that. That is what we have a mind for, to see the
connections, the order of things.
And how do we know what we
should remember? It is known that 224 different languages are spoken in
homes in Los Angeles. If someone knows how to read or if he speaks more
than five or six languages, he is doing very well. Doesn’t or shouldn’t
every one speak English or Spanish, even those billions of Chinese and
Hindus? Well, no. But some languages are more widely spoken and used
than others. All through history there has been the phenomenon of what
we call today “English as a second language,” that is, sometimes the
main or second language was Greek. That was the result of the conquests
of Alexander the Great (d. 323 B.C.). That conquest is the reason the
New Testament was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic.
But after the Romans conquered much of Africa, Asia, and Europe, Latin
became the common language of use. When we speak Spanish or English
today, we are using, for the most part, a dialect of Latin, though
English also has a lot of German in it.
Am I suggesting that you
go out and learn two hundred and twenty-four languages so that you can
get along everywhere in Los Angeles? Obviously not. But I am suggesting
that you had better learn to read, write, and speak at least one
language really well, and it would help to learn a couple more. You can
begin to do this in a school in the bosque, in the forest, but only if
you will, only if you want to, only if you work at it. Many people with
little education learn languages just because they want to or need to.
But knowing how to speak a language and knowing how to write it and
knowing its literature are much more difficult, but usually, at some
point delightful, projects.
That was the point in the beginning of citing the passage from The Screwtape Letters about the young man who was enchanted with stories from Homer’s Odyssey,
a good thing, but he found out that to read the Homeric tales properly,
he had to learn Greek. And learning Greek was hard work, not
impossible, but not always easy. Yet, unless he learned Greek, the young
man was not “free” to read Homer. As in so many things, as in tennis or
golf, for example, we are not really “free” to play the game unless we
go through the difficulty of learning how to play well. No one is likely
ever to have told us that much of learning is not IQ or native
intelligence but will power, docility, the capacity to be taught. We
need the will to discipline ourselves, to find good teachers, to follow
instructions. We need the will to give up things so that we have time to
do what is important. Where are we going to find the time to learn all
that we need or want to learn?
I once heard the story of an old
Indian woman. Someone was complaining to her that he did not have enough
time. She looked at him for a moment and replied: “You have all the
time there is.” This is one of the things that I want to tell you this
evening: You do have all the time there is. We are all busy about many
things. Our lives in this world pass within finite limits. It is said
that, even though every fact is at our fingertip, we spend much time, as
it were, horizontally, not vertically. That is, we spend much time on
various electronic devices talking to each other about I know not what.
one of the things that I will want to tell you this evening is that
talking to our friends, while a good thing, improves in quality when we
know what things are most important to talk about. Chatter, bantering,
and vague musings have their places, no doubt, but they are not what we
really mean by conversing about the highest things. For this latter
endeavor, you need to read, think, study, pray, write, and experience
Again where do we find the time? I like to recommend the book of the Western novelist, Louis L’Amour, called The Education of a Wandering Man.
This book is an account of how L’Amour found the time to read. He read
his way through the history of the old West, its geography, Indians,
hills, guns, animals, wars, and lore. He showed how everyone has many
moments when he could read if he wanted to or disciplined himself to do
so. In what would normally be called “free” time or “down” time, he read
many books, the titles of which he recorded in his book. No book, with
the possible exception of Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, is quite so useful in explaining to us how much time we have if we pay attention to the details of our daily lives.
evening’s lecture I have entitled “On Learning from Not Having
Learned.” Another version of the same idea would be that we can “learn
from our mistakes.” But here I have something a little different in
mind. It is quite possible to have many academic degrees but still not
really be well-educated. It is possible to read widely, but not to have
read well. I might call what I have in mind “remedial liberal arts,” but
still that is not quite the point either.
What I have in mind is
an aspect of a larger project that I have called “Another Sort of
Learning.” On one of my early walks when I had first arrived in
Washington to teach, I went by a bookstore on L Street. Seemingly by
chance, I went in. I saw a shelf of remainders for sale, mostly
paperback books. In those days, I was busy fleshing out my own personal
library, something I recommend as basic in learning, not Kindle, not
iPads, but books, your books, things you can hold and mark as you read.
In this sense, I am still a fan of used book stores where often the
wisdom of the ages is available for a relatively modest price if you
know what you are looking for. In this store, I came across a book of
the British-German economist, E. F. Schumacher. The book was called A Guide for the Perplexed.
I had read Schumacher’s well-known book, Small Is Beautiful,
but I had never heard of this one, at least by Schumacher. The title is
the same as that of a book of the famous medieval Jewish philosopher,
Moses Maimonides. Just why Schumacher chose this already famous title
was intentionally provocative. So, as a kind of act of faith, I bought
the book and read it. I was astonished by this short book. Indeed, I
have noticed how often the best books are the short onesthough not
always, of course, I know about long Russian novels. I have recommended A Guide for the Perplexed and assigned it many times over the years since I first bought in 1978.
recalled that the “perplexed” in the Middle Ages were those Jews,
Muslims, and Christians who were suddenly confronted with the works of
Aristotle finally reaching them from the East. They had their own books
of revelation, but did not realize the extent of what Aristotle knew by
the use of his own mind. So they had to relate reason to revelation,
lest they be incoherent enough to hold, as some did, that both reason
and revelation could be true even if they contradicted each other. This,
of course, is impossible. What we know as a university actually came
out of this backgrounduniversitas, “how do all things fit together in a coherent whole?”
I am concerned about this evening is mostly the first chapter of this
short, most illuminating book. Schumacher had been a young teen-age
German in an English detention camp during World War II. When old
enough, he matriculated at Oxford University, then generally held to be
the premier university in the world. But as he, a no doubt precocious
young man, studied there, he was increasingly upset and perplexed. While
he was doing well as a student in the subjects actually
taughtSchumacher was an economisthe had the growing feeling that
little of real human importance was actually being taught or discussed
in his studies.
Everything seemed to be based on a reductionist
methodology that somehow filtered out any serious discussion of what
could not be measured. Schumacher knew that the origin of this
reductionist approach had to do largely with Descartes, usually said to
be the founder of modern philosophy. But most of what is really
important to us, as human beings, is not quantifiable. It must be
reached by other philosophical approaches, his education seemed of
little value to him. In other words, he realized that he had to look
elsewhere for guidance and insight into those areas of reality that most
concerned our kind. This little book was the result of his experience.
It is astonishing how it matches the academic experience of so many
other well-degree-ed people.
young man, I had a similar experience. I had been to a semester of
college. World War II was just over. I found myself in the army at the
Engineering School, then located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. We had some
free time. Somehow, I had not read much in high school, even with
getting pretty good grades. Still the time at Santa Clara gave me the
feeling that I was missing something. I needed to read. So I recall
going into the Post Library one evening. It was a fairly large, but
modest military post library.
As I looked about, I suddenly realized that I had no idea what
to read, even when I realized that I should read. I knew that you did
not just pick up any old book, or begin with the letter A and work your
way to Zthat library was still in the Dewey Decimal System of
classifying books. No one had time enough to read every book in any good
library, even in a long lifetime. Besides, knowledge seemed to have
some sort of elusive order to it that I did not understand. Some things
were more important than others. Indeed, unless you had read certain
thingsPlato and Scripture, for instanceother things would not be
intelligible to you. Maybe it was this order that universities and
colleges were originally designed to teach. At least that is what
Dorothy Sayers thought in her famous essay, “The Lost Tools of
Later, I left the army and spent another year at Santa
Clara. I had first tried to major in chemistry. My problem was the
opposite to that of most students in the class, that is, I could work
out the math but not the experiments on which the math was based. I was
next in business school. I found it deadly boring, So I joined the
Society of Jesus, a kind of leap in the dark. There, among other things,
we were given fifteen or so years to read and study, get degrees and,
hopefully, some start at wisdom.
But I always had this nagging
image of the young man or lady who finds himself in the midst of vast
reams of knowledge but no clue of where to begin or what to read.
Subsequently, I imagined lots of students in all sorts of colleges in
this and other countries who had the same experience as the young
Schumacher. They were pretty sure that they were really learning little
of what was really important. But they were implicitly told that what
they were missing was not important. In addition I had my own
experience. So this is the origin of the title of the present lecture:
“Learning from Not Having Learned.”
In an old Peanuts,
Lucy is sitting on the floor reading a book. Linus comes up to her,
obviously working on his math assignment. He asks her: “Lucy, how much
is six from four?” In the next scene, she looks up at him to tell him:
“Six from four? You can’t subtract six from four.” As she goes back to
her reading, while Linus looks on, she continues: “You can’t subtract a
bigger number from a smaller number.” But this information makes Linus
angry. He yells to a befuddled Lucy: “You can if you’re stupid!” And
that is the thought I want to leave you with. We can do many things if
we insist in being stupid. But something will always go wrong with them
when we accept stupid or false ideas. Our stupidities are also sources
of light if we would see where we are wrong.
Yet, it is a first
principle, that is, something whose truth is seen in its very statement,
that no one really wants to be stupid, not even Linus. He wants the
answer. He is just not yet old enough to understand minus numbers. What I
call “another sort of learning” is the finding and reading those
seminal books that take us to the truth and order of things. No doubt
there are many books that do this. I only know a few of them. But I
constantly think of those students in their late teens and early
twenties who somehow sense that what they are studying misses some vital
element, some insight into the real nature of things. Or I have in mind
many folks, who later in life after settling into their jobs and life,
have realized that something has been missing in their formal education.
I often receive letters or emails from men or women in their fifties
who suddenly have some time from busy lives to realize how much they
But the spirit I want to leave you with is encapsulated in the title of a recent book of mineReasonable Pleasures.
The title of that book is really from Aristotle who pointed out that
all of our human activities are endowed by nature with a corresponding
pleasure designed, in effect, to enhance and foster the activity in
which it exists. And Aristotle pointed out that there is a pleasure
proper to thinking. Indeed, he suggested that if we do not discover this
delight in our own experience, we are likely to confuse it with other
activities and other pleasures. Indeed there is a true delight in
knowing. I have sought out and found many books that make sense, and, at
the same time, delight us. These are the sundry book lists that you
will always find me proposing.
One final word, in some sense, the most important chapter in Another Sort of Learning
is the one called: “What a Student Owes His Teacher.” Students often
tell me that it never occurred to them that they owed anything, not even
gratitude, to their teachers. When we are fortunate enough to find a
good teacher, he can take us to important things faster than we could
make it there by our unguided selves. And remember, our best teachers do
not necessarily have to be alive in our time or in our place. It has
been my experience from many years of teaching, that the best teachers
often lived thousands of years before our time. Plato remains the best
in so many ways.
In the beginning, I cited also a passage from
Boswell, a book that is itself an education in the highest things, a
long book that is best read a few pages a day. Johnson is in Pembroke
College. He is overheard in a moment of anguish. He realizes that what
he is learning in Oxford is not everything. He had better find out what
is going on elsewhere, in Padua, Paris, or Rome. He sums up his
realization by the striking phrase “There is no blockhead like an
Athenian blockhead.” What does this blunt phrase mean? Athens is the
great city of the philosophers. It is still the city that represents
IntelligenceJerusalem, Athens, and Rome, revelation, reason, and law.
So if all we know is Athens, we know much. But if we think that this is
sufficient, we are but “blockheads.”
So we think of what L’Amour
called “the education of a wandering man.” We can, I hope, take as our
own that searching for, that wondering about books that explain things
to us, the important things, the highest things. Aristotle was right.
There is a pleasure in knowing. We really will not “rest,” to use
Augustine’s word, until we know what is to be known and delight in it.
Nothing less explains why Schumacher was unsettled at Oxford or why we
still want to learn, not having learned so many things from what we did,
in fact, learn.