A Shameful Glory

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.