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A Shameful Glory Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Saturday, 18 June 2011

In his Confessions, St. Augustine makes some notorious complaints about his own education, which by all accounts (including his own) was pretty good, not to mention expensive.  His parents, who were not well to do, made sacrifices for what they hoped was his benefit.  In later years, Augustine realized it wasn’t the quality of education per se that was the problem, it was the ends the education was meant to serve: primarily worldly success and praise.  He was rewarded (“Well done! Well done!”) when he spoke well, regardless of the morality of his words, and punished severely, not for moral faults, but for errors in grammar or spelling.

Even his mother, the woman who was to become “St. Monica,” preferred, says Augustine, “that the unformed clay should be risked to them [his pagan teachers] rather than the clay molded after Christ’s image.”  “Their sole care,” he says about his parents, “was that I should learn how to make a powerful speech and become a persuasive orator,” because, of course, in Augustine’s day, that was the way to “get ahead in the world,” much as a degree from Harvard, Yale, or Stanford is today.  Augustine laments that his teachers: “did not care about the way in which I would use what they forced me to learn.”  Indeed, all of the adults around him seemed to take it for granted that the purpose of an education was to satisfy the human desire for what Augustine calls in purposeful irony “a rich poverty” and a “shameful glory.”

How many good Christian parents are there in the modern world, do you suppose, who like St. Monica, love their sons and daughters, but not wisely or well enough to send them to anything other than those schools where they would be said to get the “best” education, that is to say, the sort of education intended to make them successful in the world?  How many, like Monica, delayed their children’s desire for marriage, knowing that their child’s likelihood of entering into illicit sexual relationships was thereby increased, and yet justified the delay in order that he or she might complete the most prestigious degree at the best school?

In the first chapter of his Confessions, Augustine tells of learning his letters, and in retrospect, he understands how valuable this was.  It allowed him to read.  Yet letters are formed into words, and words into sentences, and those sentences are the material out of which are made both the immoral theater shows that corrupted him on the one hand, and the Holy Scriptures that saved him on the other.  Augustine’s education left him with only  “bits and pieces” — some Virgil here, some Cicero there, a bit of the Greeks thrown in for good measure — and yet to what end?  What story would he write with those fragments?  The story of a latter-day Aeneas perhaps, entertaining passionate evenings in the bedchamber of his own Dido?  Or would it be the story of the great Roman orator, like Cicero?  What awaited him?  Wealth?  Power? Fame?  A promising career in politics, perhaps?  All that, yes, and so much less.

         St. Augustine and Monica (Ary Scheffer, 1846)

Fortunately, Augustine wanted much, much more.  And by God’s grace, eventually he found it — which is to say, eventually, he allowed God to find him.  God was never far away, but sadly, as he became more “educated,” Augustine got further and further away from himself.  As the years passed, he simply became more like one of “them”: the elite, the successful few.  And isn’t that what his parents wanted when they sent him to school at such great expense?  Even the great St. Monica couldn’t understand education any differently.

In our own day, it has been Pope John Paul II who, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio and the apostolic constitution Ex corde ecclesiae, has called students and parents to a new vision of education: one meant to integrate the various fragments we now dump into our children’s brains at great expense into an overarching search for wisdom; one meant to nourish their spirits and “lead them forth” (to “educate” in its truest sense) to a union, a deeper communion, with God.  “Son of man,” warned T. S. Eliot, “you know only a heap of broken images.”  Christian institutions of higher learning are called upon to do better. 

They would do well to begin by learning the lessons St. Augustine has to teach: about the value of classical learning, as well as its dangers; and about the risks associated with sending young people to school when what they really want is love. “To Carthage then I came,” writes Eliot, paraphrasing Augustine: “Burning, burning, burning, burning.”  It is a sentiment most young people today could echo: To college then I came: burning, burning, burning.  And what do they find there at college?  Guidance for their blossoming intellects?  Discipline for their wandering appetites?  Answers to their questions of faith?  Hardly. 

They find, rather, what Augustine found: approval for the worst sorts of vice, as long as they obey their instructors and stick to the path of worldly success.  And after many long conversations with students, I have found they live with one certain message ringing in their ears from their parents: Whatever you do, don’t get pregnant.  And don’t even think of getting married.  Finish college.  Get into the best professional school you can.  And then — and only then — will there be time to think about things like “faith” and “family.” 

Such is the path to losing our own potential Augustines, preferring that they should turn out, rather, like Eliot’s “young man carbuncular,” one of those “on whom assurance sits as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire,” prepared for living the life, as St. Augustine tells us, of “a rich poverty” and a “shameful glory.”  What else, after all, would a good college education be for?

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Edward Radler Rice, June 17, 2011
Thank you, Dr. Smith, for offering to us your keen insights regarding the pursuit of higher education.
written by Manfred , June 18, 2011
What a great and timely piece! Thank you, Professor Smith. Let me pick up on what occurs with the subject you describe upon graduation: he/she eventually marries, and, because of this tremendous financial investment in her education, she elects to remain employed working 50 hours a week. She therefore contracepts, finally becoming fecund in her forties. She has one child. She also serves as a lector or eucharistic(sic) minister in her Novus Ordo parish. I have hundreds of these couples as my clients. That is why my impatience with modern "catholicism" comes through in my comments. True Catholics who do not contracept or abort have to compete with these fakers for housing, transportation, etc.
written by Achilles, June 19, 2011
Excellent article Professor! Greater truth about education can hardly be spoken.
written by Graham Combs, June 19, 2011
This article reminded me of two items I've read. One in the Detroit News; another this past week in the Wall Street Journal. In the News a retiring high school teacher from a local Catholic school was interviewed and praised for his dedication to his young female students. Certain words did not appear in the article, Catholic, God, Christ, Christian beliefs and values. Instead, it became subtly clear that the teacher was a promoter of various leftwing professors including Eric Foner and Howard Zinn. In the Journal this week, John Garvey wrote that he is ending co-ed dorms at his university. He talks about binge drinking, "hooking up," etc in the dorms. The essay didn't speak of morality or God or marriage or values in a distinct fashion. Only a note identified him as the president of a Catholic university. I suspect that co-ed dorms are not the only problem at that school. At least for the students.

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