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Patron Saint of Teachers: Or, On the Meaning of the
Second Semester | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 7, 2008
"'Your total ignorance of that which you profess to
teach merits the death penalty. I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian
of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli. His death, a
martyr's honorable one, made him a patron saint of teachers.'" -- Ignatius Reilly, in John Kennedy Toole, A
Confederacy of Dunces 
As the second semester begins, 'tis well to think of the lot
of the teacher. I had not known that there was a "patron saint" of teachers.
And if there was one, I presumed, at least for the college and graduate crowd,
that it was Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas, even though he spent a good deal of
time dealing with beginners, is usually considered the patron of the more heady
philosophical types. We know that Aquinas was not a martyr, even though he died
rather young at 49, leaving several unfinished works, including the famous Summa
So when I returned to Washington after Christmas from California,
I wanted a book to read on the Alaska Airline Flight #6 from LAX to Reagan
National. I was staying with my niece, who lives some twenty minutes from LAX.
Among the books on her shelves, I spotted John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy
of Dunces, a title from Swift. I began to
read this novel last summer but only covered a few pages. My good niece let me
have it to read on the five-hour flight to D.C. Since the Introduction was by
Walker Percy, I figured it would be a pretty good read.
Somewhere over the eastern United States, I came to the
passage that I cited above, about St. Cassian of Imola, the patron of teachers.
Needless to say, I had not heard of St. Cassian before, at least not this one.
As I recall, another Cassian, a medieval abbot, wrote something called The
Spiritual Meadow. So I looked up Cassian of
Imola (a town near Ravenna) on Google. I found a reference to his Feast Day,
August 13, from Butler's Lives of the Saints.
Cassian comes from the time of Julian the Apostate, in the
fourth century or so. It seems that the Emperor had ordered all teachers to
take an oath to the local gods, which Cassian, good Christian that he was,
refused to do. (Our modern teachers have to take an oath that they will not
refer to any gods, pagan or Christian, something known as "cultural
evolution".) Roman soldiers who were Christian had the same problem. It was a
local form of swearing loyalty to the state which was identified with the gods.
It seemed like state-supported blasphemy, which it was.
Cassian was evidently a pious professor and refused to make
such an oath. Whereupon, the local magistrate promptly decided to make an
example of him. Cunning man that he was, the official involved the man's own
students in his punishment. The students, not having finished the course,
evidently had no problem with this strange form of justice. Cassian was
stripped and tied to a post. From whence, his students, mindful of the man's
punishments for their own scholarly laxities, drew their iron styli—pens
used to mark on wax tablets—and stabbed the man to death.
So, here we have it. A Christian teacher was stabbed to
death, under orders, by his own students with their own writing instruments in
the name of the state for refusing to offer sacrifices to pagan gods. Today we
have a more cruel punishment. We do not grant tenure to such stubborn types!
But what could be a more graphic example for the scholarly vocation? One
shudders to think of the lessons that students may draw from this account of
how to deal with teachers!
In recording this remarkable history, the famous Butler
laconically remarks, "There is no record of his (St. Cassian's) becoming a
patron of teachers in spite of his pre-eminent qualifications for the role."
Well, from now on, St. Cassian is my man. Recently, I decided to forbid
computers from being used in my classes. But, so far, I have seen no indication
of my good students rising to bludgeon Schall to death with their laptops
because he would not let them type e-mails to their friends during class. Ever
since Ignatius Reilly referred to him, I have had a special devotion to St.
Cassian of Imola, patron of teachers. It is probably worth noting that the
"dunces" to whom Jonathan Swift referred were no doubt all of high academic
Actually, the patron saint of professors seems to be the
late medieval scholar St. John Cantius. But I did discover that there is also a
patron saint for "liars and fakes," for "mediocrity," for "hand-gunners," and
that even Harry Potter is listed as a patron saint. We academics can piously
hope, of course, that a patron saint of teachers or professors is not
interchangeable with one for "liars and fakes" or "mediocrity." The need of an
armed professorate sometimes comes up (as the case of the Virginia Tech student
killings might intimate) but for the most part we prefer our professors to be
The flip side of this "unarmed professorship" is
Machiavelli's "unarmed prophet." The most dangerous people are not necessarily
those with guns, but those with odd ideas. Before anyone goes to college or
graduate school, he should realize this simple fact. Machiavelli himself was an
"unarmed prophet," much more dangerous in that capacity than he ever would have
been, if, following his own advice, he dressed in armor and rode a charger
through the streets of Florence, yelling "To Arms, To Arms!"
The second semester of the academic year begins after the
Christmas holidays. Most universities are not allowed to use the term
"Christmas holidays," though they still use the term "holiday" even though it
really means "holy day." But they may not know that. The theology of it is that
you cannot really have a "holiday" if you do not also have a "holy day."
At the beginning of the second semester, students who are
seniors begin to realize that "this is it." They become a bit nostalgic while,
at the same time, furiously interviewing for jobs or applying to law schools.
Freshmen are, by now, used to the place. They know where the dining halls are,
the library, the class rooms, the ball fields, probably the local bars. They
also have met new friends so that they no longer miss home or high school
friends quite as much. They have also taken the measure of teachers and have
heard the opinions of upperclassmen about the rest.
Sophomores and juniors are probably the best students during
this period. They have usually learned to discipline themselves enough to do
the work they are expected to accomplish. One of the main impediments to
college learning is indeed lack of personal discipline, and even more, lack of
what used to be called morals. To learn something, we have to be free to do so.
We need especially to be free from ourselves, from the notion that what "I
want" is the most important thing about us. The great adventure of learning
begins the day we realize that there is something I really would like to know.
I like to add, with Aristotle, "really would like to know for its own sake."
There is a view of college that it is something to "prepare
us for employment." From the time a young student reaches high school, and even
worse, college, he is bombarded with the perennial questions, "What do you want
to study?" or "What do you want to do with your life to make a living?" Now, I
do not disdain such questions. We really need to make a living someday. The
image of the "impractical" professor advising the "impractical" student to plan
for an "impractical" life is amusing. Student princes who want always to stay
in school are likewise worrisome. Actually, if we read Plato, as we will do
this semester in my classes, this suspicion about the nuttiness of academics is
generally the common man's view of what goes on in college.
The other, greater, danger in college is ideology. Almost
every other talk of the Holy Father mentions "relativism." The pope is an
academic man and knows of what he speaks. Christopher Derrick once spent a year
at Thomas Aquinas College in its early days. He went home and wrote a book with the marvelous title:
from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if the Truth Really Mattered. That title pretty much says it all. I am a great
admirer of good titles.
This title is mindful of the remark that Allan Bloom made in
his Closing of the American Mind that
every professor, when entering any classroom in the "best" universities, can
assume that all the students before him are already relativists. Actually, I
have found over the years with my students—and I have had many—that
they are tempted both by relativism and by truth. They are likely already to
know the case for the former, but are surprised and often pleased if a case for
the latter can be made, which it can. This latter is why the reading of
Aristotle is so important. He is the one that tells us, in the most laconic way
possible, that our problem with what is, with what is true, is not just a question of knowledge. It begins in
the question of how we live, with virtue.
A couple of months ago, I was in my doctor's office waiting
for him to finish with another patient. I was looking at his bookshelves. There
I spotted a book by Mark Frost entitled The Greatest Game Ever Played. As anyone who knows me will understand, I think the
understanding of sports is itself one of the great aspects of the philosophic
enterprise. (There is a chapter in Another Sort of Learning called precisely "On the Seriousness of Sports.") In
any case, when Dr. Cullen came in, I told him that I should read this book. He
said, "Go ahead take it and read it." I replied, "I do not like to read anything
I do not own." He immediately responded, "It's yours." This is a real medical
When I began first to read this book, which is about the
1913 US Open Golf Championship and, indeed, about the whole history of the
founding of modern golf in Scotland, England, the United States, and throughout
the world, I read a passage of the book in class. After the class, one of my
students, Sarah Olsen, came up and told me that this was one of the greatest
books she had ever read, that she had read it many times. I was rather
astounded by this and promised myself, on that basis alone, that I would finish
the book, which I did during Christmas vacation.
Why the book is important "academically" and "humanly," I
think, is because it is a splendid example of the discipline and love of
something that carries us through really to know the excellence of a thing. If
we long to know but one excellent thing, we can probably save our souls. The
very fact that Francis Ouimet, the young American golfer from Brookline, could
win the U.S. Open against the two great British champions was a drama of
riveting magnitude. And there is a truth in golf, as in all sports. It is a
game, indeed. It is a skill. But it is a test of the very existence of
excellence. The great thing about this book, in retrospect, was that Frost also
carried the story through the great early golfers even to their deaths. How
these men who won glory died is itself part of their story, something that
Plato told us about even in the beginning of his Republic.
A professor often has occasion to be grateful to his
students for pointing him to something he did not know. In this case, I am not
sure I would have finished the book that my doctor kindly gave me were it not
for a student who had actually read it several times and said to me simply that
"it was the greatest book I ever read." Now since this young lady under my very
eyes has now read some Plato and Augustine and others of that illustrious fame,
would she still say that a sports book on the 1913 US Open was so great?
After reading the book, what I would say is that, in many
ways, all really great books are the same book. That is, they are searches for
the truth, for the excellent, for what we do not have but what we search for .
So, at the beginning of a second semester of an academic year, this is what I
look for in students. I do not want to know whether they are prepared for law
school, but whether they wonder about the truth, even when they get to law
school, where they will probably need it most and find it sparingly. One of the
books we read last semester was J. Budziszewski's Natural Law for Lawyers. There is hope, as the pope said.
Msgr. Robert Sokolowski's new and much awaited book, Phenomenology
and Truth, should be out shortly from the
Cambridge University Press. As I mentioned in an earlier review on Ignatius
Insight of his Christian Faith & Human Understanding, Sokolowski often speaks of "the agent of truth."
That is, truth is not somehow floating up there, even though it "exists" before
we know it. It must be known by a knower who can know. It exists in a judgment,
as Aquinas said. It must be actually known as truth. This central
issue—that there is a truth that not only can be known but should be
actively known—is what a university is about.
Thus, to go back to the second semester, to students who are
probably ready to return from their homes, with a faint realization already
that they have already left their father's home, not in the sense that they are
not welcome there, but in the sense they have to find their own way in the
world. Wendell Berry often points out what a dangerous thing it is for a family
today to send a child to college. Jennifer Roback Morse's lecture "Toward
Organic Feminism", which she gave at the Newman Club at the University of Colorado, spells out
much the same thing. Her books, Love and Economics and Smart Sex are not to be missed. But I mention these sources here to remind us
that we belong to a heritage that takes a real family–husband, wife,
children—seriously and that understands that intelligence is also what
the faith is about.
Second semester here is basketball season, lacrosse season,
baseball season, track season, rowing and sailing season. At Boston College and
the University of North Dakota, where I was last fall, it is hockey season. I
remember early last semester I ran into a young girl on campus who was in one
of my classes. She was on some team, field hockey, I think, or soccer. I asked
her how many hours the coach expected of her each day. "Something like three or
four." I said to her, with some envy, "I wish professors could demand such
But let me conclude with this point. Students are not in
college to "prepare" for some technique or craft, even the medical or legal
crafts. In a sense, as the pope implied in the Regensburg Lecture, they are
here for no purpose at all but to know, and know the truth on the grounds which
truth can be known. We have on this campus about twenty outside lectures a day
from national and international figures. With the upcoming election, it will be
a madhouse. May I say it? These are distractions, for the most part. Students
are not here this time of their lives to find out about current events. And if
that is what they do while in the university, that is all they will know. They
will have missed the important things while pursuing the ephemeral ones.
Now I am not opposed to "ephemeral" things. This is largely
what my book, The Sum Total of Human Happiness, was about. The whole is in the part. But we need time and space to
find it. We need conversation and purpose. We need to read, but to read what
tells us the truth. We need what Aristotle called theorein, to contemplate.
But before we can do this, to go back to the "greatest game
ever played," we have to find that spark in our soul that knows the relation
between what we can and cannot do in this world. We need to put the world in
its proper place, and us in it and beyond it. We need to have a taste for the
transcendent. We need really to acknowledge that we have restless hearts and
souls—and why. No undergraduate on leaving school in the springtime is
really old enough to know fully what goes on within him. Plato, who insisted on
this point, was right about this.
Still, and this is what makes undergraduate teaching one of
the great human adventures, minds become alert before your very eyes. Souls
long. Nothing less than the truth will satisfy. This life is not enough, but it
is where we all begin because it is where we are.
A student gave me a copy of David Michaelis' Schulz and
Peanuts for Christmas. As I often do, I
find ultimate things in Charlie Brown. On page 192, there is an early cartoon.
It shows Schroeder and Charlie sitting on a stoop. Schroeder says, "Guess what
I am whistling, Charlie Brown." He then proceeds to whistle something, with the
musical notation conveniently given in the cartoon.
After listening, Charlie replies, "'Old Black Joe,' 'Take Me
Out to the Ball Game,' 'Home on the Range'?" Rather annoyed, Schroeder replies
to a perplexed Charlie, "Nope, it was the last half of the tenth measure of
Sinding's Op. 32, N. 9..." To this information, Charlie simply says, "Y'know, I
almost said that. I don't know why I didn't."
Of course, we all, including Schroeder and Charlie himself,
know Charlie did not have a clue about what this music was. Nor did I when I
read the cartoon. Christian Sinding, it turns out, was a Norwegian composer who
died in 1949. I had to look it up myself, as I thought "Sinding" was a
misprint. I have never heard his Opus 32, but I am sure my friend Robert Reilly
has and will send me a disc of it on request.
But this is the point I want to make here. College is to be
what it is, a "liberal," that is, "freeing," education. And education means
that we seek to know (and see and hear and taste and feel) what is. To do this, we must free ourselves. And we free
ourselves by encountering the myriads of particular things amid which we live
and whose ultimate cause of being we wonder about.
One does not come to college to learn something, unless he
comes to learn everything. That is its real adventure and the only real
justification for freeing ourselves for four years from the busy things that
storm about us from every side and for which alone we are told, falsely, that
we exist. We cannot, in the end, help but wonder whether Charlie enjoyed the
music even if he knew what it was. It is not a sin both to enjoy it and know
who wrote it. This is what second semester is about.
Saint Cassian of Imola, Pray for Us.
 John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (New York: Grove
Weidenfeld, 1980), 146.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" |
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On "Losing" One's Faith at University |
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Molochs of Modernity | Dr.
Ivory Comedy Clubs: The Tragedy of Modern Education | Dr.
Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Learning and Education | An Interview with 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 School and Things That Are Not Fair | 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 Roger Kimball
Traveling With Walker Percy | Carl E. Olson
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his
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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