On teaching the liberal arts

My maturation as a professor came when I learned to love ideas more by way of coming to love them through—in pilgrimage with, in communion with—my students.


"Scuola di Atene" ("The School of Athens", 1510) by Raphael [Wikipedia]

I love ideas. I love them for the shudder they deliver—when one realizes that, in touching on just this, one, slender but universal truth, one has suddenly been enraptured, raised up to the presence of God. I love them in their detail. The way a word added to another word, added to another word, slowly builds into that smallest of artifacts, a phrase, and a phrase, a sentence, becomes a jeweled surface of thought that glisters before the light of the eye. As I sit with a book in my hand, I sometimes think I can see, in the white infinity of space behind the black print, the face of our Creator coming forth to greet me.

This joy in silent and solitary reading is no small part of the love I have for teaching in the college classroom. We are inclined to think of the intellectual or spiritual life as interiorized and private. St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life (1608), tells the novice at prayer to allow—should the feeling take her—recited prayer to drift off into silence. Silent prayer is the highest. St. Augustine marveled at his master, St. Ambrose, who had withdrawn from the world into the interior presence of God so completely that he often read books without moving his lips.

I do not think this is quite right, glad though I am for Ambrose’s literacy. Socrates, we are told, was happy to stand in a sheltered doorway and think: alone with himself and awkward to everybody else. But Plato wrote dialogues, and dialectic—the shared life of an inquiry, of questioning together—is what he has Socrates tell us leads us up to the plane of ideas, truth, and being. So also, the newly converted Augustine first glimpsed the fullness of heaven while in colloquy with his mother Monica.

No, there is a joy in the enunciation of ideas, in the voicing of ideas in the presence of others, that makes those ideas more strange, more beautiful, and more true. They gain in clarity and stability. Further, as often as not, they reveal themselves only when we have the chance to talk our way through, to scour the surfaces of, those little jeweled handiworks made out of words.

The intellectual life leads us not to one sort of communion, but to two. As we sense the mind withdrawing from appearances, from the senses, even from our bodies, we experience a sensation to be explained by the mind’s rising up to its true nourishment, the purely spiritual realm of ideas, of the intelligible itself. Through our spiritual natures we can participate in the absolute life of the God who made all things by knowing and loving them.

This withdrawal, however, frequently occurs through our entering into relationship with other embodied, but spiritual and intellectual, creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it is only because we inhabit the same plane of existence, the world, through our bodies, and only because we are nonetheless spiritual and intellectual creatures, that we can enter into conversation and intentional relation with one another. This outward extension of the self to join in the life of another is not the least of the joys of the intellectual life. In speaking with one another, reading aloud to one another, thinking with and through one another, we can come to share one another’s joy in gazing upon the truth. And so, liberal study enlists us in both vertical and horizontal kinds of communion. We are never alone. Such study is meant to be crowded with immortal spirits and our fellows in flesh and blood.

As I sit here, I know why the spark of philosophy is love, is eros. My body trembles before thought. Even the thought of thought—the memory, say, of reading a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem aloud and seeing, suddenly, and only because students are there, in the classroom with me, how the words dip, bob, and weave to bring meaning into being—even this is a kind of ecstasy. Reflection on the nature of the love of wisdom is itself an act of love, and perhaps among the highest, as we contemplate what makes contemplation such a joy. Plato and Aristotle are seldom more pleasurable to read than when trying to explain the pleasures of the intellectual life. We sense in the absolute of that pleasure an image of the absolute of the divine.

One has, unfortunately, to become aware of how powerful and possessing that love is, if one wishes not only to take joy in the classroom with one’s students, but to make that time together an occasion for their joy too. I am pretty sure I was a lousy instructor during my first years at it. The presence of the students was such a stimulus to reflection that I found myself absorbed in thought, absorbed in the act of finding words that would suffice to interpret this or that passage, words that would draw shards of observation into a crystal palace. To borrow an image from T.S. Eliot, the students were almost like bits of “finely filiated platinum.” Their presence was necessary to ensure a chemical reaction between “oxygen and sulphur dioxide,” even as they remained elementally unchanged. I would not have felt the pressure to see—and state—the full form of my thinking, had they not been there, but beyond mere being their presence was not required.

So far as I know, this did not lead to the students condemning their professor as self-possessed; students still generally understand that professors have a responsibility to work their thoughts out in public. But it did lead some of them to suggest, with all the subtlety of a scantron form, that their professor was an incredibly enthusiastic exponent regarding matters they themselves could not care less about. I shall never forget a post-semester comment from a particular business major, who was impressed by his teacher’s intelligence, but still had no idea what a particular book—indeed one of the greatest of modern books—on living a life of active virtue had to do with him. Wounded, I murmured, “Exactly nothing.” But, no. It was me, not the student, who had failed that test.

It would take a couple years before I discovered that the joy of dialectic is only increased when it really is a dialectic. When, as it were, Euthyphro’s company is not only necessary to inspire your own discovery, but comes to be viewed as a good in itself; when watching him walk down the intellectual street becomes at least as great a reward as the walking one does oneself.

The route itself is easy to follow. One has merely to point to an important passage in a book, to ask the students to explain it, and then turn to another, and another, until one and all are in a position to ask, how do all these words hang together? An author writes a book word-by-word and builds a whole greater than the sum of the parts. A good reader follows the author’s trail and is done only when he can see the whole like a finely detailed map before him, the major roads visibly distinct from the byways. A good teacher will be the one who knows in advance which parts are likely to lead one down the path, and, further, will have at the ready the word, definition, or formula that can bring the students’ thinking to clarity and completion—when the moment, at last, is right.

Early in my teaching career, I found I taught best those authors I loved least. Such figures one normally teaches because the structure of their ideas reveals something that needs to be seen and understood, but which, one hopes, the students will finally reject. This is the source of that familiar scholarly word “disinterest.” Someone who is uninterested in, say, Thomas Hobbes, will not bother reading him at all. But if one sees something malignant, impoverished, even evil, in such an author, the best thing to be done is not to condemn but to read with charity: to understand how the ideas work and to see when, or why finally, they do not. To read in a disinterested fashion is to read with justice, which Benedict XVI once said is the minimal condition of charity, of love.

With truly beloved good works, teaching is harder. You are already there, in the presence of some beauty, and all that splendor urges you on to shout for joy and to explain away, why what is good is so wonderfully good. Really good things of the spirit are seldom self-evidently good, and so to pronounce joy immediately very likely will prevent the beginning student from ever arriving there—or, at least in your company.

Hence the challenge of teaching is to recognize that the joy of that vertical communion, where the limited intellect rises up to contact with what is eternal, absolute, and universal, or relishes the perfectly realized form of some idea, is not the only sort of communion—is, indeed, incomplete in itself. One has also to take joy in that horizontal communion of slowing down, returning to the path, and joining one’s students on the way. The teacher does not want to discover the truth for the student, but to be present to help him do it himself.

As a young professor, I knew I loved ideas, but was not so certain that I loved my students. My maturation as a professor came when I learned to love ideas more by way of coming to love them through—in pilgrimage with, in communion with—my students. For this reason, Socrates standing alone beneath a threshold or the scholar secreted away behind crenelated piles of books do not strike me as the true images or realizations of the intellectual life. I think, rather and once again, of Saint Augustine sitting on the window ledge with his mother, Monica, overlooking the garden at Ostia. The expensively educated, well-mannered son, and the illiterate mother aware of her own poverty of spirit, still come together to embark on the intellectual life. Together they trade those words, back and forth, that lift both their minds up to catch a glimpse of That Which Is.

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About James Matthew Wilson 23 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).

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