Do We Know Our Souls and the World We Live In? On Graduating from College | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 21, 2011Do We Know Our Souls and the World We Live In? On Graduating from College | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 21, 2011

On Graduation Day, reflecting on their collegiate four years, seniors can hardly believe it is over. They are both nostalgic and glad. They wonder about the friends they have made. Will they see many or any of them again? Will what they learned in college be "useful." The more reflective wonder about what was, to recall Plato, useless and unserious, about the "things that cannot be otherwise." Did they really reflect on the higher things? Did they fritter away their time on current events? Were their parties more memorable than their minds?

A student sent me an article about a study published by the University of Chicago Press, one of those statistical studies that pass for information, but still worth considering. In American universities, most students average about twelve hours a week study outside of class. This may be due to "boring" classes or little professorial demand. Courses known to have a lot of writing were shunned. Courses that required reading more than forty pages a week avoided. Surely, this did not apply to me!

The short sub-title to my book, Another Sort of Learning—it has a much longer one—is "How to Get an Education Even While Still in College." It is, I think, quite easy to graduate from college and remain, though literate, quite uneducated. With regard to "boring" classes, I am fond of Chesterton's remark that there is "no such thing as a boring subject, only bored people." But I am aware that hapless professors can conduct lethally dull classes. I may have produced a few myself.

As one looks back on his college days—sometimes spelled "daze"—he wonders if he learned much about the truth of things. Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, at Catholic University, wrote: "It is not the task of philosophy somehow to prove that there is such a thing as truth; rather, it is its task to bring out the various ways of achieving truth, and precisely in making these distinctions philosophy will have established the possibility of truth. The discussion of truth, of course, also involves a discussion of the various forms of error, ignorance, and concealment." Nothing is more depressing to the human soul or unnecessary to it, on finishing college (or life itself), than to maintain that "no truth exists" is itself a true proposition.

Plato devotes book seven of the Republic to education. He warns us not to be exposed to the higher things too soon in life, lest we be unprepared in our experience and habits to recognize them. "It is no easy task—indeed it's very difficult--to realize, Socrates tells us, "that in every soul there is an instrument that is more important to preserve than ten thousand eyes, since only with it can the truth be seen" (524e). This "instrument," of course, is our mind, the purpose of which (hence the preservation of which), requires us to learn to discipline ourselves so that we can see what is when is stands before our eyes, be they two or ten thousand.

We speak of "rites of passage." Birth, baptism, first communion, first day of school, then graduation from high school, college, marriage, children, middle age, old age, and death, these are the principal ones. We are conceived and born into this world with no input on our part. We simply appear above the horizon of reality. We sooner or later begin to wonder why we are rather than are not, why we are not our brothers or sisters. We realize that we are not the cause of our own existence, yet we are, rather than are not.

We now have finished college. We remember applying to Yale, Iowa, Tennessee, and Chicago. We were accepted by the school that sent us the best letter. We wanted to do good; we knew that, in most places, good definitely needed to be done.

Along the way we discovered, to our astonishment, even to our delight, that we were fallible, even sinful at times. We were taken aback that many of our classmates were evidently more intelligent, more well-connected, more disciplined, more generous, or sometimes more dissolute, than we are.

We ceased being adolescents. We are now young men and women, citizens, ready to "rule and be ruled," as Aristotle put it. Are we "potential philosophers?" Do we know our souls and the world we live in? Do we know the final destiny of our kind, and thus of our very selves?

Such are the things that will be important to us. It is well to begin to think of them as we end our college careers. If we did not, we will not avoid them, only some coherent thought about what they might mean, even to us, in the troubled world now before us.

Related Ignatius Insight Essays and Articles:

Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"The Transcendent Dimensions of Study and Teaching": The Pope on the Purpose of Education | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Molochs of Modernity | Dr. Jose Yulo
Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Ivory Comedy Clubs: The Tragedy of Modern Education | Dr. Jose Yulo
On Learning and Education | An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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 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

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, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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