Sense and Nonsense: Unsolicited Advice to Young Scholars

Giving advice to high school graduates entering their freshman year of college is the privilege, if not the disease, of elderly professors. Such academics soon realize that all their students are always the same age. By Platonic standards, they are quite young, probably too young to yet be candidates for that wisdom that comes from discipline and experience. In today’s world, it is appropriate to congratulate the increasing numbers of students who were home-schooled rather than high-schooled. The former often display an intellectual freedom not always evident in contemporary high school education.

Let me begin with this observation: Anyone can in fact obtain a good education in universities or colleges that are not high on the various “best colleges” lists. The corollary is that one can obtain a perfectly awful education in the “best colleges.” Conclusion: Much is up to the student himself.

When finished with college, we are still rather young. Aristotle says rightly that we need time and experience to know many things, often the best things. The initial purpose of college is to protect us, for a time, from the huge and pressing world outside the front gates of academe.

The best professors will have us read and ponder books that, at first sight, have little to do with the intrinsic principles of this world outside the gate. The culture of our time, in other words, is already suffused with intellectual standards and books about which we are probably not aware. To read nothing but what this culture recommends, usually as reflected in the curriculum, is to be imprisoned by it before we know that we are captured.

The first freedom, as Samuel Johnson said, is the freedom to read a book. The second freedom is to have the moral discipline to cut out the pressing world so that we have time to read, to wonder about what is. Christianity praises the natural virtues but suspects that we will not fully acquire them unless we look to something higher. To attend college while neglecting or rejecting the moral advice of one’s faith is also to jeopardize the quality of our intellectual life.

Generally speaking, in today’s colleges, what causes most intellectual problems are moral problems—those caused by indulging in the various “vices,” as they are quaintly called, of which the classical authors spoke so well. The price we pay for lack of virtue, in the end, is obscuring our capacity to know the truth. What obscures this capacity is not something external to us. Our own minds seek to protect ourselves from acknowledging the consequences of what we do in our free and party time.

But are not wicked people, professors even, also intelligent? Indeed they are. This is why we are also to meditate on Lucifer, among the most intelligent of the angels. He is there to remind us that intelligence and good must be freely related. Intelligence does not create the good but acknowledges it.

We neglect the supernatural at a price. When we do so, we make theology into sociology. As the former Cardinal Ratzinger said in The Ratzinger Report, “The Gospel becomes the Jesus-project, the social-liberation project or other merely historical, immanent projects that can still seem religious in appearance, but which are atheistic in substance.”

Education is not a subject matter. It refers to the ways we “bring forth” out of our own souls a pursuit of what is, of what is true. At the end of our college years, we need to be less satisfied with what we know than unsettled about what we do not know. But we also need to know that the intellectual life is something that will be with us our whole lives, if we choose it. The mind is an exciting thing, once we realize that we have one.


  • 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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