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On Learning From Not Having Learned

by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

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  • Description:
    This article was originally given as an address at the Bosque School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 8, 2014. What Fr. Schall calls “another sort of learning” is the finding and reading those seminal books that take us to the truth and order of things.
  • Larger Work:
    The Catholic World Report
  • Publisher & Date:
    Joseph Fessio, SJ, June 22, 2014

“It (disappointment) occurs when the boy who has been enchanted by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It comes when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.”
— C. S. Lewis, from the second Screwtape Letter, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmilllan, 1962), 11.

“No man had a more ardent love of literature, or a higher respect for it than Johnson. His apartment in Pembroke College…was over the Gateway. The enthusiasts for learning will ever contemplate it with veneration. One day, while he was sitting in it quite alone, Dr. Panting, then head of the College…overheard him uttering this soliloquy, in his strong emphatick voice: ‘Well, I have a mind to see what is done in other places of learning. I’ll go and visit universities abroad. I’ll go to France and Italy. I’ll go to Padua—and I’ll mind my business. For an Athenian blockhead is the worst of all blockheads.’”
— From James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1730 (London: Oxford, 1931), I, 49-50.


Bosque” is evidently the Spanish word for a forest. Here in the southwest it refers especially to woods along river bottoms. In this school, the river is the famous Rio Grande. One can speak of being educated in a forest or even, I suppose, of being educated by a forest. Tolkien, who had a special love of trees, used to speak of what the forest taught. Our Scriptural heritage speaks of a “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” with a Garden as the original place of the First Parents. The relation of gardens to parks and forests is an interesting one. I believe that the City of St. Louis has a large “Forest Park,” as does Everett, Washington.

In one sense today, we must almost say that all of our national forests spread throughout the country are cared for as large scale gardens and parks. In the middle of Munich Germany, is a lovely park called “the English Garden.” We probably have no “forests primeval” left. Even the jungles in Brazil come under governmental control. We go out of our way to prevent development of certain woods and lands. In a way, nature becomes more nature when it comes under the scope of human understanding. Nature was not meant simply to be nature. It was also meant to be understood as nature. The things of nature have their own intelligibility.

A school in a forest setting is designed, in the first place, to be a school, not a forest. This particular school was founded in 1994, so it is a mere twenty years old. Its first graduates are still not nearly into what Cicero called “old age.” The state in which this school is located is not in “Old” but in “New” Mexico. New Mexico entered the Union on January 6, 1912. My father was born in Iowa in 1904. In the beginning, I cited a passage from James Boswell writing in 1730. This was forty-six years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and one hundred and twenty-seven years after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. I taught in a university in Rome founded in 1551. The usual date given for the founding of the City of Rome is 753 B. C. Thus, in terms of Roman dating, this year, 2014 A.D., is listed as Ab Urbe Condita 2767. That is, from the founding of the City of Rome, two thousand seven hundred and sixty-seven years.

I used to insist that students knew, among others, the dates of the deaths of Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas. From the time of Abraham to the time of Socrates was approximately eight hundred years. From the time of Socrates (d. 399 B.C.) to the death of Augustine (d. 430 A.D). was another eight hundred years; from Augustine to Aquinas was eight hundred years (1274 A.D.). From Aquinas to our days is likewise about eight hundred years. These are time sequences and dates that anyone can remember from early youth if he but learns them. They serve to give some time proportion and structure to our history. We also know of ancient Chinese, Hindu, and Inca calendars. The age of the universe itself is said to be around 13.7 billion years. We like to know what went on, where, and involving whom.

Some education in time and space statistics, in history and geography, is appropriate to the young whose memories are still alert. It is good to know the where’s and when’s of things. If we do not take the trouble to know what happened in time and space, we will not be able to place things in relation to each other. Everything will come together as if time and space were collapsed into one blurry time and one fuzzy place. Knowledge of times and places is not the most profound kind of learning. But it provides the context and arena for what are the highest things. Again, I mention this point here as such things are best learned when we are young. We do not waste our time when we know more than our own time and place.

But can we not just look up times and places on our cell phone? No one needs to remember anything. The machine will do it for us. Yet, machines do not know relationships, how the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is related to the Plantagenet House of English monarchs. No machine knows that it knows. Yet, there is too much to remember, no doubt of it. Why not let the machine do it? The machine is a helpful tool to memory, no doubt of it. But if nothing is actually in our heads, we will not see how this relates to that. That is what we have a mind for, to see the connections, the order of things.

And how do we know what we should remember? It is known that 224 different languages are spoken in homes in Los Angeles. If someone knows how to read or if he speaks more than five or six languages, he is doing very well. Doesn’t or shouldn’t every one speak English or Spanish, even those billions of Chinese and Hindus? Well, no. But some languages are more widely spoken and used than others. All through history there has been the phenomenon of what we call today “English as a second language,” that is, sometimes the main or second language was Greek. That was the result of the conquests of Alexander the Great (d. 323 B.C.). That conquest is the reason the New Testament was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic. But after the Romans conquered much of Africa, Asia, and Europe, Latin became the common language of use. When we speak Spanish or English today, we are using, for the most part, a dialect of Latin, though English also has a lot of German in it.

Am I suggesting that you go out and learn two hundred and twenty-four languages so that you can get along everywhere in Los Angeles? Obviously not. But I am suggesting that you had better learn to read, write, and speak at least one language really well, and it would help to learn a couple more. You can begin to do this in a school in the bosque, in the forest, but only if you will, only if you want to, only if you work at it. Many people with little education learn languages just because they want to or need to. But knowing how to speak a language and knowing how to write it and knowing its literature are much more difficult, but usually, at some point delightful, projects.

That was the point in the beginning of citing the passage from The Screwtape Letters about the young man who was enchanted with stories from Homer’s Odyssey, a good thing, but he found out that to read the Homeric tales properly, he had to learn Greek. And learning Greek was hard work, not impossible, but not always easy. Yet, unless he learned Greek, the young man was not “free” to read Homer. As in so many things, as in tennis or golf, for example, we are not really “free” to play the game unless we go through the difficulty of learning how to play well. No one is likely ever to have told us that much of learning is not IQ or native intelligence but will power, docility, the capacity to be taught. We need the will to discipline ourselves, to find good teachers, to follow instructions. We need the will to give up things so that we have time to do what is important. Where are we going to find the time to learn all that we need or want to learn?

I once heard the story of an old Indian woman. Someone was complaining to her that he did not have enough time. She looked at him for a moment and replied: “You have all the time there is.” This is one of the things that I want to tell you this evening: You do have all the time there is. We are all busy about many things. Our lives in this world pass within finite limits. It is said that, even though every fact is at our fingertip, we spend much time, as it were, horizontally, not vertically. That is, we spend much time on various electronic devices talking to each other about I know not what.

And one of the things that I will want to tell you this evening is that talking to our friends, while a good thing, improves in quality when we know what things are most important to talk about. Chatter, bantering, and vague musings have their places, no doubt, but they are not what we really mean by conversing about the highest things. For this latter endeavor, you need to read, think, study, pray, write, and experience life.

Again where do we find the time? I like to recommend the book of the Western novelist, Louis L’Amour, called The Education of a Wandering Man. This book is an account of how L’Amour found the time to read. He read his way through the history of the old West, its geography, Indians, hills, guns, animals, wars, and lore. He showed how everyone has many moments when he could read if he wanted to or disciplined himself to do so. In what would normally be called “free” time or “down” time, he read many books, the titles of which he recorded in his book. No book, with the possible exception of Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, is quite so useful in explaining to us how much time we have if we pay attention to the details of our daily lives.


This evening’s lecture I have entitled “On Learning from Not Having Learned.” Another version of the same idea would be that we can “learn from our mistakes.” But here I have something a little different in mind. It is quite possible to have many academic degrees but still not really be well-educated. It is possible to read widely, but not to have read well. I might call what I have in mind “remedial liberal arts,” but still that is not quite the point either.

What I have in mind is an aspect of a larger project that I have called “Another Sort of Learning.” On one of my early walks when I had first arrived in Washington to teach, I went by a bookstore on L Street. Seemingly by chance, I went in. I saw a shelf of remainders for sale, mostly paperback books. In those days, I was busy fleshing out my own personal library, something I recommend as basic in learning, not Kindle, not iPads, but books, your books, things you can hold and mark as you read. In this sense, I am still a fan of used book stores where often the wisdom of the ages is available for a relatively modest price if you know what you are looking for. In this store, I came across a book of the British-German economist, E. F. Schumacher. The book was called A Guide for the Perplexed.

I had read Schumacher’s well-known book, Small Is Beautiful, but I had never heard of this one, at least by Schumacher. The title is the same as that of a book of the famous medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides. Just why Schumacher chose this already famous title was intentionally provocative. So, as a kind of act of faith, I bought the book and read it. I was astonished by this short book. Indeed, I have noticed how often the best books are the short ones—though not always, of course, I know about long Russian novels. I have recommended A Guide for the Perplexed and assigned it many times over the years since I first bought in 1978.

Schumacher recalled that the “perplexed” in the Middle Ages were those Jews, Muslims, and Christians who were suddenly confronted with the works of Aristotle finally reaching them from the East. They had their own books of revelation, but did not realize the extent of what Aristotle knew by the use of his own mind. So they had to relate reason to revelation, lest they be incoherent enough to hold, as some did, that both reason and revelation could be true even if they contradicted each other. This, of course, is impossible. What we know as a university actually came out of this background—universitas, “how do all things fit together in a coherent whole?”

What I am concerned about this evening is mostly the first chapter of this short, most illuminating book. Schumacher had been a young teen-age German in an English detention camp during World War II. When old enough, he matriculated at Oxford University, then generally held to be the premier university in the world. But as he, a no doubt precocious young man, studied there, he was increasingly upset and perplexed. While he was doing well as a student in the subjects actually taught—Schumacher was an economist—he had the growing feeling that little of real human importance was actually being taught or discussed in his studies.

Everything seemed to be based on a reductionist methodology that somehow filtered out any serious discussion of what could not be measured. Schumacher knew that the origin of this reductionist approach had to do largely with Descartes, usually said to be the founder of modern philosophy. But most of what is really important to us, as human beings, is not quantifiable. It must be reached by other philosophical approaches, his education seemed of little value to him. In other words, he realized that he had to look elsewhere for guidance and insight into those areas of reality that most concerned our kind. This little book was the result of his experience. It is astonishing how it matches the academic experience of so many other well-degree-ed people.


As a young man, I had a similar experience. I had been to a semester of college. World War II was just over. I found myself in the army at the Engineering School, then located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. We had some free time. Somehow, I had not read much in high school, even with getting pretty good grades. Still the time at Santa Clara gave me the feeling that I was missing something. I needed to read. So I recall going into the Post Library one evening. It was a fairly large, but modest military post library.

As I looked about, I suddenly realized that I had no idea what to read, even when I realized that I should read. I knew that you did not just pick up any old book, or begin with the letter A and work your way to Z—that library was still in the Dewey Decimal System of classifying books. No one had time enough to read every book in any good library, even in a long lifetime. Besides, knowledge seemed to have some sort of elusive order to it that I did not understand. Some things were more important than others. Indeed, unless you had read certain things—Plato and Scripture, for instance—other things would not be intelligible to you. Maybe it was this order that universities and colleges were originally designed to teach. At least that is what Dorothy Sayers thought in her famous essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

Later, I left the army and spent another year at Santa Clara. I had first tried to major in chemistry. My problem was the opposite to that of most students in the class, that is, I could work out the math but not the experiments on which the math was based. I was next in business school. I found it deadly boring, So I joined the Society of Jesus, a kind of leap in the dark. There, among other things, we were given fifteen or so years to read and study, get degrees and, hopefully, some start at wisdom.

But I always had this nagging image of the young man or lady who finds himself in the midst of vast reams of knowledge but no clue of where to begin or what to read. Subsequently, I imagined lots of students in all sorts of colleges in this and other countries who had the same experience as the young Schumacher. They were pretty sure that they were really learning little of what was really important. But they were implicitly told that what they were missing was not important. In addition I had my own experience. So this is the origin of the title of the present lecture: “Learning from Not Having Learned.”

In an old Peanuts, Lucy is sitting on the floor reading a book. Linus comes up to her, obviously working on his math assignment. He asks her: “Lucy, how much is six from four?” In the next scene, she looks up at him to tell him: “Six from four? You can’t subtract six from four.” As she goes back to her reading, while Linus looks on, she continues: “You can’t subtract a bigger number from a smaller number.” But this information makes Linus angry. He yells to a befuddled Lucy: “You can if you’re stupid!” And that is the thought I want to leave you with. We can do many things if we insist in being stupid. But something will always go wrong with them when we accept stupid or false ideas. Our stupidities are also sources of light if we would see where we are wrong.

Yet, it is a first principle, that is, something whose truth is seen in its very statement, that no one really wants to be stupid, not even Linus. He wants the answer. He is just not yet old enough to understand minus numbers. What I call “another sort of learning” is the finding and reading those seminal books that take us to the truth and order of things. No doubt there are many books that do this. I only know a few of them. But I constantly think of those students in their late teens and early twenties who somehow sense that what they are studying misses some vital element, some insight into the real nature of things. Or I have in mind many folks, who later in life after settling into their jobs and life, have realized that something has been missing in their formal education. I often receive letters or emails from men or women in their fifties who suddenly have some time from busy lives to realize how much they have missed.

But the spirit I want to leave you with is encapsulated in the title of a recent book of mine—Reasonable Pleasures. The title of that book is really from Aristotle who pointed out that all of our human activities are endowed by nature with a corresponding pleasure designed, in effect, to enhance and foster the activity in which it exists. And Aristotle pointed out that there is a pleasure proper to thinking. Indeed, he suggested that if we do not discover this delight in our own experience, we are likely to confuse it with other activities and other pleasures. Indeed there is a true delight in knowing. I have sought out and found many books that make sense, and, at the same time, delight us. These are the sundry book lists that you will always find me proposing.

One final word, in some sense, the most important chapter in Another Sort of Learning is the one called: “What a Student Owes His Teacher.” Students often tell me that it never occurred to them that they owed anything, not even gratitude, to their teachers. When we are fortunate enough to find a good teacher, he can take us to important things faster than we could make it there by our unguided selves. And remember, our best teachers do not necessarily have to be alive in our time or in our place. It has been my experience from many years of teaching, that the best teachers often lived thousands of years before our time. Plato remains the best in so many ways.

In the beginning, I cited also a passage from Boswell, a book that is itself an education in the highest things, a long book that is best read a few pages a day. Johnson is in Pembroke College. He is overheard in a moment of anguish. He realizes that what he is learning in Oxford is not everything. He had better find out what is going on elsewhere, in Padua, Paris, or Rome. He sums up his realization by the striking phrase “There is no blockhead like an Athenian blockhead.” What does this blunt phrase mean? Athens is the great city of the philosophers. It is still the city that represents Intelligence—Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, revelation, reason, and law. So if all we know is Athens, we know much. But if we think that this is sufficient, we are but “blockheads.”

So we think of what L’Amour called “the education of a wandering man.” We can, I hope, take as our own that searching for, that wondering about books that explain things to us, the important things, the highest things. Aristotle was right. There is a pleasure in knowing. We really will not “rest,” to use Augustine’s word, until we know what is to be known and delight in it. Nothing less explains why Schumacher was unsettled at Oxford or why we still want to learn, not having learned so many things from what we did, in fact, learn.

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

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