Augustine and Liberal Education
reviewed by Daniel Hendrickson - January 15, 2009
In my undergraduate ethics course recently, I asked the students whether they would side with Saint Augustine or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The option was a choice between Original Sin and the Noble Savage, that is, Augustines concern about a sinful human condition which craves salvation and Rousseaus own contrasting version of an original pristine innocence fearful of corruption. With a chatty group often poised for debate, silence lingered. I reminded the students that they had read Augustines Confessions in a prior course, and that in our previous classroom session we had postured ourselves for Rousseaus Emile, and its opening line, that, Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things... (Rousseau, 1979, p. 37). Terms Original Sin itself, Rousseaus opposing correlate, amour-de-soi had been named and partially defined, and, moreover, all of the first book of the Emile was to have already been read. Silence thickened. I suggested that they had probably enjoyed William Goldings Lord of the Flies in high school, and I reminded them of another discussion earlier in the semester when many mused aloud thanks to New Line Cinema and, in many cases, more thankfully, J.R.R. Tolkien himself Frodos struggle, Sméagols demise, and Samwise Gamgees friendly loyalty all in The Lord of the Ring. Enough data seemed at-hand the stuff of our own lives ever-present everyday that semester, a bit of literature, the philosophical constructs themselves but silence won until, finally, a young woman boldly, and playfully, invoked the royal we. Were not taking sides, she said definitively, crossing her arms over her chest, but smiling. Thats unusual, I responded. She continued, Well, it doesnt seem so simple, that were one or the other, good or bad, but something both. But if anything, I guess, well, in trying to be ethical, Augustine pulls us along.
Seven hands shot up. Much was to be discussed. We needed to figure out the both-and possibility, but we first had to get a clearer sense of what it meant that Augustine pulls us along. However we resolved or, hopefully, failed to resolve the inquiry that day, Im certain about something else. With Augustine and Liberal Education, a collection of essays edited by Kim Paffenroth and Kevin L. Hughes, Augustine pulls us along. Richly, relevantly, an early medieval thinker pulls us along in conversant quest, right into parlors of educative discourse which ponder teacher-student relating, interpersonal as well as epistemic dimensions of authority, scholarly self-absorption, solitary reading, institutional mission and identity, dynamics of love, pedagogy, ways of life, and more. The Augustinian potpourri of topics does not, I was careful to watch for, pull Augustine along, resurrecting, resuscitating, or rescuing a tired philosopher. The treatise positions a philosopher already talking and waiting to take us in different directions, down the hallways of education and into classrooms, boardrooms, and the offices of scholars.
The essays written for this book are not necessarily written for this book. They represent something a bit larger and more broadly deliberate. Composed by scholars at Villanova University in Philadelphia, from one vantage, the essays represent an institutional effort to understand itself. A Catholic university wondering about its niche in higher education, Villanova looks back to its origins to better proceed. It reclaims its identity as an institution founded by the Augustinians, a religious order in the diverse matrix of consecrated Catholic religious life, which seeks to live the earthly life of Augustine himself. The members also emulate his spiritual legacy through his monastic rule, a briefly prescribed way of life described by some scholars as a Christian otium, (Drobner, 2007, p. 397) a leisurely life accordingly qualified not as comfortable or carefree but ascetic, specially ordered, and lovingly oriented toward the Christian God and the New Testament neighbor. Institutional values mindful of intellectual quest, holistic formation of students, and, in a particularly stratified university context, communitarian ideals, are honored in the essays. Moreover, some of them show Villanovas desire to be more explicitly engaged in postmodern discourse through the kinds of sentiments articulated by Jürgen Habermas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor, even if tacitly. Finally, the essays are obviously intentional about Villanovas dedication to undergraduate teaching. Alongside fundamental philosophical Augustinian precepts, teaching is a thread which connects many of the multi-disciplinary essays.
As the collection manifests its own core values and an institutional identity, it also leans in one direction toward the specific nitty-gritty of curriculum issues and, in another direction, the especially esoteric of the meaning of life. Learning, loving, and losing all in reference to authentic ontological expressions are discussed. But this latter essay and its grand discourse of what life means and how to live it is nearly as nitty-gritty as the other. It is focused in practical and detailed ways, and it represents one of the books best essays. Thomas Martin, a member of the Augustinians, a dedicated scholar of their spiritual mentor, and a lecturer with an impressive cosmopolitan curriculum vitae, astutely represents Pierre Hadots widely celebrated work, Philosophy as a Way of Life, and compellingly offers Augustines Confessions as a worthy response. It itself is a spiritual exercise for any of us, he insists. [P]erhaps the most intriguing tool [of the Confessions] is to be found within the very fabric of Augustines self-narrative, Martin explains. He continues in the same breath,
The power of the language and images, the intensity of the movement, the passion of its candor, the intricacy of its recurring interwoven themes, the profound depth of self-revelation, the constant heightening of the stakes involved: none of this, it may be argued, is mere display or arbitrary disclosure. (p. 39)
The Confessions are positioned as an Augustinian pedagogy in an educative setting and, also, as a pedagogy for life. If you start with this essay, youll see Hadot through a good lens and youll revisit Augustines Confessions through the attentive care of a long-standing friend who knows him intimately.
As the book is not necessarily the achievement of a goal of its own, it is not an afterthought, either. From the school of education as well as disciplines of philosophy, political science, theology, Russian literature, and others, it is a conversation from many corners of Villanovas campus of scholars discernibly intentional and contagiously passionate about Augustine. The essays have been discussed through colloquia of scholars and seminars with students. Limitations of the book, however, might be present through the inexperience of young scholars seeking voices of their own or, more noticeably, an occasional gridlock within Augustinian constructs. Not frequently but certainly in some cases, an essay or two seem so fascinated with Augustine that the reader is left right there, with Augustine. What he teaches us about human pride, devotion, prayer, natural human desires, and restlessness, among others, is not at all insignificant. These teachings are useful today, good topics of inquiry for the educative milieu and just daily life, but an author or two leave us with the question, How so? That is to ask, What is pride today, why is it important, and what might Augustine say about it, today? Finally, I wondered if the social dimension of life is left unaddressed, particularly in regard to justice. Some of Augustines own writings lend themselves to this important dimension of human living generally and, more particularly, of Christianity. Explicitly social, Augustines enormous accomplishment, the City of God, is scantly referenced. If liberal education hopes to cultivate good persons, it also hopes to cultivate good places where people together live.
Drobner, H. (2007). The fathers of the church: A comprehensive introduction. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Rousseau, J.J. (1979). Emile: Or, on education, trans. by Allan Bloom. New York, NY: Basic Books.