Another Sort of Learning

Twenty years ago, Ignatius Press published my Another Sort of Learning. My initial “short” subtitle to this book was: “How to Get an Education Even If Still in College.” The actual subtitle turned out to be much longer. In fact, it was the wittiest subtitle I have ever written, and I am pretty good at subtitles. I shan’t repeat it here.

This book is designed to bypass the colleges without denying their existence. I have always thought that anyone can get an education if he can read, something I learned from both Samuel Johnson and my friend Anne Burleigh. Reading has the great advantage of making an end run around academic correctness, wherein little theoretic order is to be found. Reading can take us to things that no one in the schools tells us about. The problem is, as always, “What to read?”

My book does not argue for a “great books” approach. I just read Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books. Beam does not think highly of this famous tradition. Frederick Wilhelmsen acidly commented that the “great books” usually produce skepticism in the minds of their readers. The “great books” programs, Wilhelmsen thought, were poor substitutes for philosophy proper. But I am a fan of Thomas Aquinas College where they do great books right, as Ralph McInerny frequently points out.

When I wrote Another Sort of Learning, I myself suspected this skeptical bent of great books programs, however designated. I have no doubt that what are called the “great books” should be read. I read Plato and Aristotle every semester with increasing awe.

But the reading of great books does not do the trick, if I might call it that. What does the trick are books that tell the truth. And usually these books are very difficult for a student to come by. They are “notes from the underground,” to steal a phrase from Dostoyevsky.

Thus, Another Sort of Learning contains many book lists. Most of the works recommended are relatively short. It is not all that difficult to get at the truth, once you know where to begin. Universities are not a total waste of time, but most graduates earn degrees while reamining confused about the ultimate things. About these latter things, little is to be found in most universities. Still, graduates have their whole lives ahead of them, if they can read.

The second chapter of my book is called “Why Read?” It is a good question to answer for oneself. The third chapter, probably the most important one, is called: “What a Student Owes His Teacher.” Many students have told me over the years that they had never thought of that question before. Briefly, the student owes the teacher his willingness to be taught, provided we recall that teaching does not mean telling a student what the professor thinks. As Aquinas says, teaching brings both professor and student to see the same truth.

The next chapter is on “Grades,” followed by one called “On Teaching the Important Things.” Later on there is a chapter called “What Is a Lecture?” and one that always surprises students because it treats of another thing they have never thought much about, “On the Seriousness of Sports.”

In the middle of the book stands “Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By.” Of course, that word “sane” or “sanity” is a word that recalls Chesterton. I include a chapter about him: “On Doctrine and Dignity: From Heretics to Orthodoxy.” No students are more surprised than those who come across Chesterton for the first time. No one ever told them before that the very purpose of the mind is to make dogmas, to state the truth. Generally, they have been told that the mind exists because there is no truth, that truth is “dangerous.” And I suppose it is in a way.

But the spirit of Another Sort of Learning is one of adventure, of discovering the incredible riches of used book stores, of Belloc’s walks, of Samuel Johnson’s conversations, of the content of the Old and New Testaments, all of which are almost a complete mystery to today’s university students.

Far be it for me to call it an iconoclastic book. But that is what it is. In every academic institution in the land, we find students who suspect that they need “another sort of learning” if they are to find what Josef Pieper called “the truth of all things.” It is a worthy, indeed at times a lonely, pursuit. Yet it is also a delight and a joy, as I hope those who have found this book over these twenty years will attest.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, and Catholicism and Intelligence.

  • Stephen MacLean

    Organic Tory
    To play the devil’s advocate amongst such company is either an act of bravery or foolishness—others can judge for themselves—but one strength of any competent university should be its introduction of students to books and ideas they would not choose for themselves, that they did not know existed. That is the great benefit of Fr Schall’s lists: an autodidact’s guide for the expansion of his interests and thus his mind. And ‘the wittiest subtitle I have ever written’, is readily apparent!

  • Willie

    Politics and Truth
    Father, we have been wisely told that happiness comes from the pursuit of the truth of “what is.” Academics today seems to be concerned with the idea that truth is merely a mental construct. In your book you note:
    Both Socrates and Christ were killed by the best states of their times, which leads us to suspect that truth may in fact be more insecure in democracies than even in tyrannies, where it is frankly recognized as dangerous.
    Do we have the freedom to be tempted by the untruth?

  • R A Sheetz

    A Fountain
    This book has been for me something more wonderful than a fountain of youth. It has been a fountain of wisdom. Thank you.

  • Joseph

    Good piece, father. Like Bishop Sheen, I prefer nonfiction over novels, but I heartily recommend Taylor Caldwell’s Great Lion of God (about St. Paul), and Dear and Glorious Physician (about St. Luke), which were highly influential in turning me from agnosticism to Christianity. Caldwell’s novel, Pillar of Iron, about Cicero, was also is a great read.

    Alas, these days it seems most younger folks rarely get beyond the back of a cereal box to expand their horizons.

  • Jennifer

    from the inside
    I’ve now taught at 5 different universities. Unfortunately, too many of them are trying to be buddies to undergraduates rather than having moral and intellectual leadership. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d think there was a deliberate movement to keep students from the Truth. Oh, wait, I guess I am.

  • Achilles

    What is reading?
    Fr. Schall, wonderful set of ideas! ASoL is a beautiful book, read all you can from Fr. Schall. The underlying assumption of this wonderful essay is that one is able to read. C.S. Lewis’ essay in God on the Dock, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” is worth much reflection. It suggests that we use the words read as a lens to see through, rather than what has been the result of scientism, looking at books; look along the beam, not at it. Most U Educated people can’t read anymore. They would disagree.

  • Chris

    Food for the brethren
    Fr. Schall, thank you from all my heart for writing this book. I cannot wait to read it. I have been out of college 2 years now, (I attended Northeastern in Boston), and even before graduation, it became painfully apparent to me that nowhere was I being taught where and how to find the Truth! This bothered me greatly. I felt utterly alone. Then I read C.S. Lewis, who suggested that we might begin by asking of great books: is it true? Would that God raise more scholars like him and yourself!

  • Jitpring

    Read it
    This is, genuinely, a potentially life-changing book – without any Oprahist connotations whatsoever. Read it and all you can from him.

  • Tod

    A treasure trove of sources that enlighten, challenge, and inspire the Christian intellect. This source and its intellectual underpinnings provide a much-needed addition to the public debate in favor of spiritually and intellectually robust Christianity. Kudos to Father Schall. May he write for years to come…

  • Dan McNeill

    In regard to your comment that the Great Books produce skepicism, I believe they do-except at Thomas Aquinas College. Two of my sons attended there and brought to my attention a booklet by one of the tutors, which said that without a standard, a context, the books are merely a set of opinions and can lead to confusion. With a Catholic context the books enlighten-Aristotle was right, Marx was wrong. Also the books can be overrated. The essential truths of life are found outside side of them.

  • Tom

    Great Book
    ‘Another Sort of Learning’ is a fabulous book – highly recommended. It opens worlds to you that you never knew existed. Fr Schall’s essays are thought-provoking, but the book lists are what brings one back to his pages again and again. I am not sure that God calls all of us to an intellectual life, but we are all better off having sought truth in our lives (not to mention avoiding television). This is the only book I have read that I consider a life-changer. Please try it.

  • Sebastian S.

    Forgive me for being autobiographical, but this article rings so true about my life: I spent my Masters years (in Engineering mind you, so I was in less danger of relativism) devouring Chesterton, whom I credit with teaching me how to think and to love God and his Church with all my mind. Now in PhD, I have followed on to Fr. Ronald Knox, some Vaclav Havel, Mgr. Cormac Burke, and may others, courtesy of my university library and – I found these hidden gems that teach you the truth.

  • Gail F

    One of My Favorites
    One of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. And what a nice present — an essay about it from Schall himself! Read it! The book recommendations alone are worth the price.