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On School and Things That Are Not Fair | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 24, 2006

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"He wishes us to be aware that not only does He take heed to noble and to great things, but also to little and small things, to lowly and simple things, both to one and to the other' and so means He in that He says 'All manner of things shall be well'; for He wills that we be aware that the least little thing not be forgotten." -- Julian of Norwich, Revelations, ch. 32.


When we were younger, on returning to school in the fall, a favorite topic of conversation and back-to-school essays was "What did you do during the summer?" Usually, everyone had done something memorable, either actually or imagined. And the end of the summer always came as a shock. I still vividly remember the feeling of exhilaration I used to have -- and still do -- after the last class in May. The length of summer seemed, at its beginning, the nearest thing we know to eternity. But by September, eternity was alarmingly brief.

One of the things I did this past summer was to visit, with my friend Jim Kline, the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. I was overwhelmed by the number of Peanuts strips I had never seen. Though I am something like this myself, I was likewise impressed to know that Schulz was a man of routine. He went to work pretty much at the same time every day, in the same place, at the same desk (which you can still see). He lunched at the "Warm Puppy," next to the Ice Skating Rink that he built for the city. There, you could have a sandwich and watch, through the glass windows of the restaurant, old duffers in spiffy hockey outfits looking like it was never too late to score their last goal, even though it probably was.

In an interview in 1987, Schulz was asked about his initial realization that he could draw. He recalls that he was in tenth grade in high school in Minnesota. Another guy, a better student than Schulz, had decorated and illustrated his essays with watercolors. The pleased teacher put them around the room for all to see. The same teacher knew Schulz could draw. She thus asked him, "Why didn't you do that, Charles?" Schulz's tenth grade answer is quite surprising. "The reason I didn't do it is because I didn't think it was fair." He assumed that only himself, the kid with the watercolors, and a couple of others could draw anything at all. He did not want to be unfair competition to his drawing-handicapped friends.

But Schulz's high school teacher, rightly, would have none of this justice nonsense. He was "stunned," he tells us, that this teacher gave him a mild "dressing down" for not drawing on his papers. But he got the point, if slowly: "It took me a long time to realize the value of drawing." We are not, in fact, being "fair" to others if we fail to know or develop our own skills and talents, however minimal they might be.

On the other hand, neither is being "fair" to others if we claim to be able to do more than we have capacity for. The world is full of both unused talent and overestimated talent. A friend of mine, whose daughter is a grammar school principal, told me of a couple who insisted that their little fourth-grade daughter "must" be put in fifth grace because she is so smart, the latter quality being, evidently, totally unknown to the child's teachers. It is not uncommon today to have college classes in which every student in the room had straight "A's" in high school. Naturally, every such student who gets anything less than an "A" thinks that he is being treated unfairly and unjustly. His parents may sue. All "deserve" "A's" in fairness and justice. We cannot make any "standards" judgments without being "unfair." Not only are all men created equal, so are their grades. This view considerably simplifies life.

Every once in a while, in order to insure justice in education, we will hear proposals that there be no grades at all. This is the educational equivalent of a license to steal. Everyone, in this view, is given a grade that he "by right" deserves, which is, naturally, an "A." In such a system, I suspect, human nature being what it is, after a short period no one would be learning anything about everything. There would be no criteria of excellence, nothing to strive for in academic terms. We could not distinguish between those who drew well and those who drew badly, for to do so would be, well, "discriminatory," the worst of modern sins. Unfortunately, this "worst" of modern sins is also the basis of any real philosophy, the affirming that this is not that, and knowing that it is not. To think is to begin to discriminate.

Father Ronald Tacelli, S.J., from Boston College, recently gave a lecture here in Washington, D.C., in which he was reflecting on the "nature" of current students in the universities. His thesis was that students did not trust anyone. Not only did they not know whether or not there be truth, but they were even more distrustful of anyone who claimed there was. Tacelli asked himself why this was so. He thought the main reason, something Allan Bloom had already remarked about in 1986, was the prevalence of divorce in families.

Divorce is no doubt the great unexamined, or unacknowledged, modern scourge. This possible explanation is something no one wants to talk about, of course. After all, do we not have a "right" to divorce, to live our own lives, however we define them? The trouble is that we cannot exercise this "right" without it seriously and usually permanently affecting others. So the consequences go underground. Students from this background -- and they are many -- are already predisposed not to trust. The trusting basis of their own existence has already been undermined.

The implication is that if you cannot trust your own parents, how can you trust science, or teachers, or the government, or, yes, God? Students in this frame of mind are thus sent off to find at least one "trustworthy" thing so that they can think that their lives are worthwhile. A teacher or a professor, of course, is supposed to be "trustworthy." This latter quality, I think, means something more than the ability to present arguments that are "true," that is, that show their conclusions in the method whereby they arrived at them. It is not without significance in this regard that Christ was sometimes addressed as "Teacher." He was never, I believe, however anachronistic, addressed as "Professor." There may be a lesson there, but I shan't pursue it.


What "advice" does one give to college students entering or returning to the Fall Semester? I am tempted to say, "First, learn what 9/11 was all about." That event, more than any other -- whether you want to admit it or not -- has already shaped and is shaping what your world will be like. But normally, I am an advocate of the doctrine, "Do not let your college life be a 'major' in current events." This is a big temptation. Current events are not unimportant, but neither are they education. In 1944, during the World War II, T.S. Eliot, as if to illustrate this point, was invited to give a lecture to the Virgil Society in London. The lecture he gave was not about war. It was entitled, "What Is a Classic?" Why did he not speak of war? Because he thought war had a purpose and we better, at least some of us, know its purpose. Otherwise, we can lose the war even if we win the battles.

I have been much taken with a remark made by C.S. Lewis in his famous and not to be neglected essay, "Learning in Wartime" (it's in the Weight of Glory). "The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us," Lewis wrote. It is interesting that Lewis seems to hint between the lines that the intellectual life may not be the "safest" life. It might indeed be more dangerous to one's soul than the military life. Thomas Sowell caught some of this danger when he wrote recently, "Today a military draft would bring in large numbers of people who have been systematically 'educated' to believe the worst about this country or, at best, to be nonjudgmental about the differences between American society and its enemies." The implication is that even if the draft is based on a principle of "fairness," of equitable sharing of societal burdens, the fact is our society cannot and will not survive without those who take up the burdens dropped or declined by others.

The "logic" of this argument means that unless something more than "fairness" or "justice" exists among us, at least some of us, we will receive something less than justice. It has always been such, I suppose. There is a parable in the Gospels that always bothers people because it seems so "unfair." This is the story of the master of the vineyard who goes out in the morning to hire workers. They agree to a fair wage for the day's work. About every two or three hours during the working day, the master finds unemployed workers standing about because no one has hired them yet. Even an hour before closing time, he finds some and sends them into the field. Presumably, he needed the labor for an abundant harvest, but this does not seem to be the point.

When it came time to pay the workers, all received the same wage no matter how long they worked. Naturally, those who worked longest thought, on seeing the equality of wages, they were being cheated. They demanded their "rights." "Social justice" was being violated. But the manager replies, "Look, it is my money. You agreed to a fair wage. If I want to pay all the same wage, what is wrong with that?" The manager implies that he is actually being purposely generous. He calls the earlier workers on this score. "Are you envious because I am generous?" Now that, I have always thought, is a remarkably perceptive response. It makes us vividly aware that something more than justice exists in this world, without which something terrible would happen to us.

Behind this parable, I think, stands the figure of Christ's Father. If there is going to be salvation for most of us, it better not be based on justice. For on that level, we are not going to make it. The worker who works only one hour but receives the same reward is rather like the Good Thief who apparently lived a fairly lousy life but just happened to be in the right place at the right time, namely on a cross next to that of Christ's. The Good Thief has always been the symbol of those who make it at the last moment. Not unlike the Prodigal Son, they lived a rather indulgent life but finally came about to see where things really lie.

Yet, we have the impression that both the Elder Brother and the workers who put in a full day are in more spiritual danger than we might suspect. All of these are bothered not so much by fairness, though that is an issue, but by envy. They would have liked to only work an hour even though they agreed to the full day's fair wages. The Elder Brother wanted his father to throw a big party for his friends, but it never happened. And yet, in both cases, the envious ones cannot help but see the rightness in the logic of the manager of the vineyard who can do with his cash flow what he wants, or with the Father who welcomes his Prodigal Son back but reminds the Elder Son that all the father's possessions are, eventually, really his.


What does all of this have to do with returning to school in the Fall? In a way, everything. One more parable is worth mentioning, that of the talents, the place from which we get the very idea of a diversity of talents. One man has ten talents, one five, and one has only one. Our sympathy is naturally with the poor sap with only one talent. But he is the one who seems to be punished the most. Why? Is not the Lord just? Is He not fair? Well, no, He isn't. If that is all He is, none of us would be saved. But neither is He "unfair." He is simply beyond what is fair. He is, as it were, the volunteer who takes on another's burdens when He need not. He may die in the process -- something that happens all the time, in fact.

In the parable of the talents, all three men are told to go out and use what they are given to gain more than they had. The man with ten talents was not expected to return with just ten talents, or the one with five with only five. Thus, when the man with only one talent goes out and buries it lest he be punished for losing it, he discovers that it would have been better had he lost it, had he returned nothing after having tried to make more, rather than to return the one talent he had been given. In the mind of the New Testament, all the talents we are given -- be they many or few -- contain a certain strange dynamism. They are ferments in our souls. Not every one can do everything. But the one with one talent can do something. The man with the ten talents finds that he can create or earn another ten. The world is not parsimonious. Many people are poor because many talents -- even minimal ones -- though given, are not used.

Talents are not only used for what is good. IQ's, test scores, and ease of learning are not, by themselves, enough. The most dangerous people are almost invariably the most talented, the most intelligent. The history of the world is not best described as the creation of a stingy God who gave mankind so few talents that He, God, had to do everything by Himself. Some religions and philosophies do hold that attributing absolutely all things directly to God is to praise him. What it really does is to deny that God could create the world that He did create. By holding such an odd view, we easily end up, in "fairness," also blaming God, not ourselves, for what goes wrong, including wrong within ourselves.

The history of the world is perhaps best described as the drama of the most talented using their talents too often for their own purposes -- too often, to be sure, at the expense of the less talented. I do not want to deny, as many do, that the man with one talent cannot sin. But, as in the case of Lucifer, the greatest of these mis-uses of talent by the most talented is manifested in envy; envy meant to deny the good because someone else uses it rightly, virtuously, generously. We know little about ourselves if we think that our problems are due to a lack of talent in the world. We are much closer to the truth if we think that the real issue is the existence of a super-abundant of existing talent but used for what is, in effect, some purpose we concoct by ourselves divorced from or alienated from the real order in which we are treated more than fairly.

The Lord also takes heed of "little and small things," as Julian of Norwich wrote. However great the talent of the greatest is (and it is great), it is not enough for our world, which also finds use for the obscure. Indeed, this worthiness of the small and ordinary was the theme of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The mighty and the talented were not prepared for what the small and normal could do. But The Lord of the Rings, though it had Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam, also had Gandalf and the King.

As we look out on our classes again, we cannot help but realize that they are filled with talented and bright students, with those with ten talents and those with maybe nine or eight. It is not "fair" that a world exists in which some are more talented than others. But, we suspect, that if the world were created in complete "fairness," few of us would exist. The defense of the world includes the defense of both little and great things, and, yes, of everything in between. It also includes the realization that any of these, the great and the small, can lose his soul, or save it. If you think this is not "fair," the rest of us can still rejoice that you are not God.

In the end, Charles Schulz's tenth-grade teacher was right. It was best that he was not "fair" to his fellow students who could not draw very well at all. Though there is fairness in it, the world is not governed by fairness alone. Otherwise, we could have no excellence within it. The reason for creation, I think, is closer to splendor than to fairness. And splendor requires talent, even divine talent, that can find a place for the great and the small, even for the sinner and the weak. But, as the Elder Brother and the early workers in the vineyard suspected, in spite of their envy, what goes on here is not fair, but it is noble.

Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog!

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

On Learning and Education: An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Carl E. Olson
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Inequalities of Equality, or All Things Being Equal, Not Everything Can Be Equal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Life of the Mind | An interview with cultural critic Roger Kimball | Carl E. Olson

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website and on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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