Another Sort of Learning

Twenty years ago, Ignatius Press published my book, 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. (See the image below. -Eds.)

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 remaining 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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many 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, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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