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Augustine, Education, and the Pitfalls of Academia

Over the past three or four years I have had a few, percolating thoughts on theological training and education. Or, more particularly, thoughts on my experiences at various institutions and on my reading of so-called ‘academic’ literature. A couple of months ago I was asked by a professor why I was so cynical about ‘the academy’ and ‘academics’. My reply to him was convoluted enough that I thought I should attempt to write a little on the issue. Perhaps it will help me. As with so many other areas, in the area of theological education I have found that Augustine is as relevant today as he was fifteen hundred years ago. So in this post I would like to show where I think Augustine presents a helpful corrective in how we think about and pursue theological education.

Of the works of Augustine that I have read I have found two places where he discusses education in general and theological education in particular. The first is in book one of his Confessions and in his work on theological education and biblical hermeneutics, On Christian Teaching. In the Confessions he reflects on the education he received as a young boy. He recalls how much he disliked learning languages, especially grammar. He took particular delight, however, in the fables that he would read in his Latin courses. Augustine has this to say about this experience:

For what can be more miserable than a wretch that pities not himself; one bemoaning Dido’s death, caused by loving of Aeneas, and yet not lamenting his own death, caused by not loving of You, O God…? I did not love You, and I committed fornication against You, and at the same time I heard, “well done, well done!” For the love of this world is fornication against You, and a person is ashamed if he does not hear “well done, well done” for his fornication; I did not weep at this…

In his reflection he notes how in his early education he was continually encouraged in vanity, even sin. This is seems odd because at first glance it appears that his teachers were merely encouraging him in his excellence. But Augustine saw deeper. Because he loved the stories, was captured and moved by them, he did well in the subject of Latin. And because he did well in the subject his teachers applauded him. But what were they applauding? As Augustine sees it, they were applauding his fornication against God. How so? These teachers, he says, applauded his fornication because they were concerned solely with the pretense of education, not with truth. And this meant that they encouraged Augustine’s misdirected affections:

But what wonder was it, if I were thus carried towards vanity, and estranged from You, O my God; whenas such men were propounded to me to imitate, who, if they were to deliver any of their own acts, though not evil, with any barbarism or solecism, they were utterly dashed out of countenance; but if they were to make a copious and neat oration of their own lusts, in a round and well followed style, they would take a pride to be applauded for it.

These teachers were so consumed with themselves and with giving off the impression of being educated that all that mattered to them were things like proper pronunciation, good style of delivery, copious verbiage, esoteric vocabulary (which makes one seem smart to those who don’t know better), etc. So long as they met these conditions, and so long as their students met these conditions, they could care less if they were propounding ideas and living lives contrary to truth, contrary to God’s will, contrary to God.

In a penetrating passage Augustine sums up this kind of educator:

Behold, O Lord God, and patiently behold, as You still do, how diligently the sons of men observe the rules of letters and syllables received from former speakers; and yet regard not the eternal covenants of everlasting salvation, received from Yourself. Insomuch, that he who either holds or teaches the ancient rules of pronunciation, if, contrary to those ancient rules, he were to pronounce hominem [human] as ominem without the H in the first syllable, he would displease men more than if, contrary to Your rules, he should hate a man…

This kind of educator, and this kind of (so-called) educated person care so much for keeping up ‘the ancient rules of grammar,’ for keeping up appearances of being educated, but care so little for God’s rules. So much so that they would be indignant over the mispronouncing the term human, but could care less whether the actual human is loved or hated. As we will see in Augustine’s next work, On Christian Teaching, the issue is that they cared for signs, not for reality, for shadows and appearances, not for substance and truth.

Augustine begins On Christian Teaching with the important distinction between signs and things A thing, he says, is “that which is never employed as a sign of anything else: for example, wood, stone, cattle and other things of that kind.” Signs, on the other hand, are “those things, to wit, which are used to indicate something else” (I.ii). There are, of course, things which are also signs of something else. For example, a lamb is a thing in itself, but may also be a sign of a religious action, the Passover lamb, say. Though a thing in itself, it also points to a reality beyond itself. And so Augustine says that there are things which are not signs, and things which are also signs. Another way to say it is, every sign is a thing, but not every thing is a sign (I.ii).

This distinction is important for theological education, indeed, for education in general, because real education, true education, according to Augustine, is concerned with things. That is not to say it is unconcerned with signs, of course. But, it is concerned with signs ultimately because they point to things. Things are the end of education, signs are the means. To put it in other terms, education is concerned with reality and with truth and uses signs in the discovery of and instruction in reality and truth.

Now this all seems rather obvious. But the way in which the end and means of education can get muddled up are varied and subtle. In book two of On Christian Doctrine, Augustine shows one of the ways in which the so-called educated miss the entire point of education. He is speaking about the ways in which one might misunderstand a passage in the bible by misunderstanding a word. And yet, he warns, some pay such close attention to a word that they miss the forest for the trees. Some, he says, are so worried about committing what they call a ‘solecism’ or a ‘barbarism,’ even though these are mere conventions. In a passage similar to the ones we’ve looked at in his Confessions, he says this:

For whether the word ignoscere [to forgive] should be pronounced with the third syllable long or short, is not a matter of much concern to the man who is beseeching God, in any way at all that he can get the words out, to pardon his sins… And men are easily offended in a matter of this kind, just in proportion as they are weak; and they are weak just in proportion as they wish to seem learned, not in the knowledge of things, which tend to edification, but in that of signs, by which it is hard not to be puffed up, seeing that the knowledge of things even would often set up our neck, if it were not held down by the yoke of our Master (II.xiii; emphasis mine)

I think this is a remarkable passage for its penetration into the dangers of education and the fact that so many so often fall into those dangers. These dangers, mind you, are not dangers solely of education. They are fueled by pride. So in a general sense they are dangers of most everything humans do insofar as they try to do them well. But having spent a number of years now in the academy, I can testify that that Augustine’s insight here is as deep as it is explosive. There is a particularly insidious pressure in the academy to prove one’s worth as an academic by demonstrating how much one knows. This pressure, I think, is a primary impetus for students to read lightly, think less, and talk much. It is often the push which throws students headlong into darkening counsel with words without wisdom. And, I say this with care and gravity, it is a pressure often fostered by professors and institutions caught up in the same kind of pretense.

Augustine says that those caught up in this kind of pretense are so just in proportion to their being weak. They wish to appear learned and so they major in the minors; or, to use Augustine’s terminology, they spend their efforts mastering signs, mere conventions, and not things. Augustine also notes that this kind of knowledge is the kind that the apostle Paul warns about, it is the kind of knowledge the puffs up. How true that is. The other kind of knowledge, knowledge of truth, he says, has the potential to puff up, of course. For we as fallen humans can turn most anything into a cause for conceit. But knowledge of truth won’t puff up, he says. I could, but it won’t. Why not? His answer is worth thinking about. It is because “our necks are held down by the yoke of our master.” I think what he is getting at here is this: insofar as education is of truth and reality, we are led to the one who says, ‘I Am’ and ‘I am the Truth.’ And insofar as we are led to Christ, we are led to submission to Christ. We take upon ourselves his yoke. And though it is light and easy in one sense, it is still to submit to follow the path of life he tread. It is the path of humility and service to others, not of trying to show one’s superiority over others. It is also the path of true knowledge of God, in whose light we see light. But that is just it, a knowledge of truth and reality is a knowledge that that very knowledge is ultimately a gift from God and has as its end God himself. “what do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks. “And if you received it, why do you brag as if it were not a gift?” Knowledge of truth, then, contains and inherent check on our pride.

Augustine says that those who wish to seem educated are weak. In closing, I’ll enumerate a few examples of such weakness in the contemporary academic milieu.

Think, for example, of the bizarre use of footnotes in academic literature. I realize that there are legitimate uses of footnotes, endnotes, etc. It is courteous and charitable to give credit where credit is due. If you have been especially helped in a given area of thought, you should pass along the credit for your thought to the one in whose debt you are. Or, if you are working within a specific word limit, say, and don’t have space to explicate an idea which has been more fully explicated elsewhere, then by all means point the reader who wishes to explore that idea more fully to that other work. Other examples of legitimate use could be given. But I will be so bold as to suggest that the majority of footnote use in contemporary academic literature of the humanities is simply for the purpose of appearing educated. One begins a footnote with “Time and space do not permit me to explore this issue here…” when closer to the truth is, “I don’t have a clue about this issue…” One learns to compose long footnotes ‘tracing’ the scholarship on a particular subject, which gives the impression that one has worked through that scholarship when in fact it remains to the composer of the footnote little more than a bibliographic list. Anyone who has spent time reading and writing footnotes for academic papers knows full well when he or she is trying to hide ignorance while simultaneously giving the impression of knowledge. Pretense.

I have also taken note of the way in which we speak about our academic endeavors. I think it is particularly telling. There are some ways of speaking that are simply puzzling to me. Take for example the common notion that by studying and writing about a particular figure or subject one is ‘adding to the field of knowledge’ or ‘body of knowledge’ of that particular figure or subject. I would like to ask just where this ‘field’ or ‘body’ is? So far as I can tell, knowledge is rather like a headache: if there is a headache in the room, somebody has it. That is, knowledge is had by a knower, not an abstract ‘field’ or ‘body.’ By this kind of speech I think we betray that we are often far more concerned that education be thought of as something to which we contribute from our already achieved state of knowledge. Pretense. By contrast, rather than thinking of our studying, reading, and writing as adding to a body of knowledge, perhaps we should think of it as a process whereby we ourselves become learned persons, growing in our understanding.

Or take the way we often describe our process of studying. “I am a researcher,” we say, “doing research on…” I don’t ever recall hearing, from professors or from students, “I am a pupil learning from…” Someone reading works from, say, Augustine or Aquinas will describe what they are doing as ‘working on.’ “I am currently working on Aquinas’ conception of…” we say. I can’t remember a time when I heard a professor or student say, “I am currently reading Aquinas and trying to learn from him on the subject of…” Academics are taught to take up the position of a master. But, in my experience, most academics are simply not masters. Pretense.

Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat savingly, there is widespread recognition that one’s mastery (feigned or otherwise) is of a very narrow subject. It is as though we recognize that even the pretense of mastery takes some doing. In order to make it manageable, we are taught to specialize to the nth degree. At least there is a some humility in that. But I think this is also a problem. Because as we attempt to know more and more about less and less, the delusion that we really are masters becomes ever more believable. Perhaps a turn in emphasis from particulars to universals, from individual loci to systems and structures is in order. Perhaps then we shall really feel our ignorance. Perhaps then we shall be in a good place to progress in our education.

One may think that some of these examples are unfair. That may be true. I had a coach in high school who used to say, “if the shoe doesn’t fit, leave it in the closet.” The purpose of these reflections is not so much to point fingers at or to question the motives of all academics. Rather, it is to say that the dangers present in education that Augustine noticed in his time are still present in our own time. And they are subtle. I know I have to question my motives now whenever I write a footnote; whenever I describe my educative work to others; whenever I set goals for my own education; etc. After all, if the goal of education is knowledge, and ultimately knowledge of God, then surely pride in all its subtle forms threatens that goal. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel grew up in Montana before going off to study classics, philosophy, and theology. He currently resides in St. Louis along with his wife, Bethanne, and three kids, where he is pursuing his PhD in theology.

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