On Essays and Letters

“Your total ignorance of that which you profess to teach merits the death penalty. I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli. His death, a martyr’s honorable one, made him a patron saint of teachers.”

Ignatius Reilly, in John Kennedy Toole’s
A Confederacy of Dunces

As the second semester begins, ’tis well to think of the lot of the teacher. I had not known that there was a “patron saint” of teachers. And if there was one, I presumed, at least for the college and graduate crowd, that it was Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas, even though he spent a good deal of time dealing with beginners, is usually considered the patron of the more heady philosophical types. We know that Aquinas was not a martyr, even though he died rather young at 49, leaving several unfinished works, including the famous Summa Theologiae.

So, in early 2008, when I returned to Washington after Christmas from California, I wanted a book to read on Alaska Airline Flight No. 6 from LAX to Reagan National. I was at my niece’s who lives some twenty minutes from LAX. Among the books on her shelves, I spotted John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a title from Swift. I began to read this novel last summer but only covered a few pages. My good niece let me have it to read on the five hour flight to D.C. Since the Introduction was by Walker Percy, I figured it would be a pretty good read.

Somewhere over the eastern United States, I came to the passage that I cited above, about St. Cassian of Imola, the patron of teachers. Needless to say, I had not heard of St. Cassian before, at least not this one. As I recall, another Cassian, a medieval abbot, wrote something called The Spiritual Meadow. So I looked up Cassian of Imola (a town near Ravenna) on Google. I found a reference to his Feast Day, August 13, from Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

Cassian comes from the time of Julian the Apostate, in the fourth century or so. It seems that the Emperor had ordered all teachers to take an oath to the local gods, which Cassian, good Christian that he was, refused to do. (Our modern teachers have to take an oath that they will not refer to any gods, pagan or Christian, something known as “cultural evolution.”) Roman soldiers who were Christian had the same problem. It was a local form of swearing loyalty to the state, which was identified with the gods. It seemed like state-supported blasphemy, which it was.

Cassian was evidently a pious professor and refused to make such an oath. Whereupon, the local magistrate promptly decided to make an example of him. Cunning man that he was, the official involved the man’s own students in his punishment. The students, not having finished the course, evidently had no problem with this strange form of justice. Cassian was stripped and tied to a post. From whence, his students, mindful of the man’s punishments for their own scholarly laxities, drew their iron styli, pens used to mark on wax tablets, and stabbed the man to death.

So, here we have it. A Christian teacher was stabbed to death, under orders, by his own students with their own writing instruments in the name of the state for refusing to offer sacrifices to pagan gods. Today we have a more cruel punishment.We do not grant tenure to such stubborn types! But what could be a more graphic example for the scholarly vocation! One shudders to think of the lessons that students may draw from this account of how to deal with teachers!

In recording this remarkable history, the famous Butler, who wrote all their lives, laconically remarks that “There is no record of his (St. Cassian’s) becoming a patron of teachers in spite of his pre-eminent qualifications for the role.” Well, from now on, he is my man. Recently, I decided to forbid computers from being used in my classes. But, so far, I have seen no indication of my good students rising to bludgeon Schall to death with their laptops because he would not let them type letters to their friends during class. Ever since Ignatius Reilly referred to him, I have had a special devotion to St. Cassian of Imola, patron of teachers. It is probably worth noting that the “dunces” to whom Jonathan Swift referred were no doubt all of high academic standing.

* * *

Actually, the patron saint of professors seems to be the late medieval scholar St. John Cantius. But I did discover that there is also a patron saint for “liars and fakes,” for “mediocrity,” for “hand-gunners,” and that even Harry Potter is listed as a patron saint. We academics can piously hope, of course, that a patron saint of teachers or professors is not interchangeable with one for “liars and fakes” or “mediocrity.” The needof an armed professorate sometimes comes up, as the case of the Virginia Tech student killings might intimate, but for the most part we prefer our professors to be “unarmed.”

The flip side of this “unarmed professorship” is Machiavelli’s “unarmed prophet.” The most dangerous people are not necessarily those with guns, but those with odd ideas. Before anyone goes to college or graduate school, he should realize this simple fact. Machiavelli himself was an “unarmed prophet,” much more dangerous in that capacity than he ever would have been, if, following his own advice, he dressed in armor and rode a charger through the streets of Florence, yelling “To Arms, To Arms!”

The second semester of the academic year begins after the Christmas holidays. Most universities are not allowed to use that term “Christmas Holidays,” though they still use the term “Holiday” even though it really means “holy day.” But they may not know that. The theology of it is that you cannot really have a “holiday” if you do not also have a “holy day.”

At the beginning of the second semester, students who are seniors begin to realize that “this is it.” They become a bit nostalgic while, at the same time, furiously interviewing for jobs or applying to law schools. Freshmen are, by now, used to the place. They know where the dining halls are, the library, the class rooms, the ball fields, probably the local bars. They also have met new friends so that they no longer miss home or high school friends quite as much. They have also taken the measure of teachers and have heard the opinions of upperclassmen about the rest.

Sophomores and juniors are probably the best students during this period. They have usually learned to discipline themselves enough to do the work they are expected to accomplish. One of the main impediments to college learning is indeed lack of personal discipline, and even more, lack of what used to be called morals. To learn something, we have to be free to do so. We need especially to be free from ourselves, from the notion that what “I want” is the most important thing about us. The great adventure of learning begins the day we realize that there is something I really would like to know. I like to add, with Aristotle, “really would like to know for its own sake.”

There is a view of college that it is something to “prepare us for employment.” From the time a young student reaches high school, and even worse, college, he is bombarded with the perennial questions, “What do you want to study?” or “What do you want to do with your life to make a living?” Now, I do not disdain such questions. We really need to make a living someday. The image of the “impractical” professor advising the “impractical” student to plan for an “impractical” life is amusing. Student princes who want always to stay in school are likewise worrisome. Actually, if we read Plato, as we will do this semester in my classes, this suspicion about the nuttiness of academics is generally the common man’s view of what goes on in college.

The other, greater, danger in college is ideology. Almost every other talk of the Holy Father mentions “relativism.” The pope is an academic man and knows of what he speaks. Christopher Derrick once spent a year at Thomas Aquinas College in its early days. He went home and wrote a book, which is now republished by Ignatius Press, with the marvelous title: Escape from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if the Truth Really Mattered. That title pretty much says it all. I am a great admirer of good titles.

This title is mindful of the remark that Allan Bloom made in his Closing of the American Mind that every professor, when entering any classroom in the “best” universities, can assume that all the students before him are already relativists. Actually, I have found over the years with my students, and I have had many, that they are tempted both by relativism and by truth. They are likely already to know the case for the former, but are surprised and often pleased if a case for the latter can be made, which it can. This latter is why the reading of Aristotle is so important. He is the one that tells us, in the most laconic way possible, that our problem with what is, with what is true, is not just a question of knowledge. It begins in the question of how we live, with virtue.

* * *

Thus, to go back to the second semester, to students who are probably ready to return from their homes, with a faint realization already that they have already left their father’s home, not in the sense that they are not welcome there, but in the sense they have to find their own way in the world. Wendell Berry often points out what a dangerous thing it is for a family today to send a child to college. Jennifer Roback Morse’s lecture “Toward Organic Feminism,” which she gave at the Newman Club at the University of Colorado, spells out much the same thing. Her books, Love and Economics and Smart Sex are not to be missed. But I mention these sources here to remind us that we belong to a heritage that takes a real family—husband, wife, children—seriously and that understands that intelligence is also what the faith is about.

Second semester at Georgetown is basketball season, lacrosse season, baseball season, track season, rowing and sailing season. At Boston College and the University of North Dakota, where I was last fall, it is hockey season. I remember early last semester I ran into a young girl on campus who was in one of my classes. She was on some team, field hockey, I think, or soccer. I asked her how many hours the coach expected of her each day. “Something like three or four.” I said to her, with some envy, “I wish professors could demand such hours!”

But let me conclude with this point. Students are not in college to “prepare” for some technique or craft, even the medical or legal crafts. In a sense, as the pope implied in the Regensburg Lecture, they are here for no purpose at all but to know, and know the truth on the grounds which truth can be known. We have on this campus about 20 outside lectures a day from national and international figures. These are distractions, for the most part. Students are not here this time of their lives to find out about current events. And if that is what they do while in the university, that is all they will know. They will have missed the important things while pursuing the ephemeral ones.

Now I am not opposed to “ephemeral” things. This is largely what my book, The Sum Total of Human Happiness, was about. The whole is in the part. But we need time and space to find it. We need conversation and purpose. We need to read, but to read what tells us the truth. We need what Aristotle called theorein, to contemplate.

But before we can do this, to go back to the “greatest game ever played,” we have to find that spark in our soul that knows the relation between what we can and cannot do in this world. We need to put the world in its proper place, and us in it and beyond it. We need to have a taste for the transcendent. We need really to acknowledge that we have restless hearts and souls and why. No undergraduate on leaving school in the springtime is really old enough to know fully what goes on within him. Plato, who insisted on this point, was right here.

Still, and this is what makes undergraduate teaching one of the great human adventures, minds become alert before your very eyes. Souls long. Nothing less than the truth will satisfy. This life is not enough, but it is where we all begin because it is where we are.

A student gave me a copy of David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts for Christmas. As Ioften do, I find ultimate things in Charlie Brown. On page 192, there is an early cartoon. It shows Schroeder and Charlie sitting on a stoop. Schroeder says, “Guess what I am whistling, Charlie Brown.” He then proceeds to whistle something, with the musical notation conveniently given in the cartoon.

After listening, Charlie replies, “‘Old Black Joe,’ ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’ ‘Home on the Range’?” Rather annoyed, Schroeder replies to a perplexed Charlie, “Nope, it was the last half of the tenth measure of Sinding’s Op. 32, N. 9 . . .” To this information, Charlie simply says, “Y’know, I almost said that. I don’t know why I didn’t.”

Of course, we all, including Schroeder and Charlie himself, know Charlie did not have a clue about what this music was. Nor did I when I read the cartoon. Christian Sinding, it turns out, was a Norwegian composer who died in 1949. I had to look it up myself, as I thought “Sinding” was a misprint. I have never heard his Opus 32, but I am sure my friend Robert Reilly has and will send me a disc of it on request.

But this is the point I want to make here. College is to be what it is, a “liberal,” that is, “freeing,” education And education means that we seek to know (and see and hear and taste and feel) what is. To do this, we must free ourselves. And we free ourselves by encountering the myriads of particular things amid which we live and whose ultimate cause of being we wonder about.

One does not come to college to learn something, unless he comes to learn everything. That is its real adventure and the only real justification for freeing ourselves for four years from the busy things that storm about us from every side and for which alone we are told, falsely, that we exist. We cannot, in the end, help but wonder whether Charlie enjoyed the music even if he knew what it was. It is not a sin both to enjoy it and know who wrote it. This is what second semester is about.

Saint Cassian of Imola, Pray for Us.

James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University. This piece was originally published online at Ignatius Insight on January 7, 2008.