Things Not Due to Teaching

Aristotle said that there are some things we would want to have even if they did not give us pleasure. His examples were sight and hearing. St. Basil the Great (330-379), in his wonderfully titled Detailed Rules for Monks (N.B.: Jesuits are not monks, though they have no problem with St. Basil), wrote: “Love of God is not something that can be taught. We did not learn from someone else how to rejoice in light or want to live, or to love our parents or guardians. It is the same — perhaps even more so — with our love for God: it does not come by another’s teaching.” We did not “learn” from someone else how to “rejoice in light or want to live.” We just do these things and then reflect on the fact that we delight in them.

Such things are obvious to us, even though we do not often reflect on the kind of being we are given, whether we like it or not. We already do them before we think about whether we can do them. Ex esse sequitur posse, as the classic principle went — from the fact that we do something, it follows that we can do it. The opposite is not necessarily true. Many possible things never happen.

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The question of what can be taught or what cannot is an intriguing one, especially around a university. There, if you look at the course listings for any semester, they seem to think that anything can be taught.

Last summer, someone gave me a Far Side cartoon book. In one of the scenes, we are at the bar in a Wild West saloon. A rather mild-looking gentleman cowboy in spectacles and western hat is sitting at the bar. He has a drink in his hands. Hovering over him, threateningly, is a huge, mean-looking hombre. He has a scowl on his face, wears a black cowboy hat, bullet belt, and Colt pistol in his holster. He is ready to draw. Snarling, he challenges the mild cowboy whom he obviously never met before: “I asked you a question, buddy . . . what’s the square root of 5.248?” That would be either a quick learning experience or Boot Hill, unless the mild cowboy had a faster draw.

We do learn things quickly under such pressure. Ever since the calculator, I am not sure if I could do square roots even with the help of a pistol at my head. Yet the question can be answered: My calculator gives 2.2908513. (As I have not actually tested that result by multiplying it out, I take it on faith or authority.)


The first thing not due to teaching is the fact that the being we deal with must be teachable. That is, he must be a being with a mind that he did not give himself. You may try to teach your dog square roots, but it will take some time — like forever.

Another thing we must realize is that the function of a teacher is not to give to a student something that the teacher owns. Teaching is not, as it were, gift-giving, which is itself a perfectly noble and honorable thing. The teacher does not “own” what he knows, something necessary for gift-giving. If I give away what is not mine, I am arrested. What the teacher knows is free. What a teacher can do is to bring a student by a more direct or logical way to see a truth that both see and know as true. This is why truth transcends the university itself. The university does not serve itself or the student, except insofar as what is beyond both is found there.

Aquinas defined teaching as “contemplata aliis trader” — to hand to others what one has contemplated or pondered. No one says: “What I hold and give to you is false.” Oh, we can do this if we explain that we know that it is false. In that case, it is true that it is false. If I do not teach what I hold to be true, I also deceive the student. The check on both student and teacher is whether what is stated is really true.

We hear much of this “your truth” and “my truth” business. We hear of agreeing that nothing is true, so that we do not have to bother disputing or analyzing what we hold. This is fine, but it logically leads to silence. Why would we bother talking, except to impose our wills, if we are agreed that nothing is true? We certainly do not need a teacher if this is so, as there is, ex professo, nothing to teach and nothing to learn that makes any difference.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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