St. Augustine and General Education
By Richard Powers
St. Augustine and General Education
With someone like Saint Augustine you never know what you are going to get, even when you think you are going to get nothing but his doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. After all, that is the title, De Trinitate. But this saint did love digressions. He was known to break into song during his sermons, setting new words to popular tunes. So I really didn’t expect (but I wasn’t completely surprised) that Augustine would start talking about general education in the middle of De Trinitate. But he did. At least that’s what I got out of it.
A key element in Augustine’s theory of the Trinity is that the mind cannot love what it does not know. We don’t have to go into why that was so important to him, but if you are interested, go to Book X, Chapter 1, and read back and forth and you will get the idea.
Anyway, back to Augustine’s notion that you can’t love what you don’t know. What does that have to do with general education?
Well, a usual situation in a general education class is that the teacher is trying to get the students excited about something they know nothing and care little about. That is to say, we are trying to get them to love something they don’t know. And Augustine says that is impossible.
Since Augustine is a scholar, and knows that his readers are likely to be scholars – make that, are sure to be scholars (who else is going to be reading a book on the Trinity) – he knows his readers will be scratching their tonsured heads: “What do you mean we can’t love what we don’t know. Isn’t learning all about trying to know the unknown? For instance, if I can’t love what I don’t know, why am I reading this book about the Trinity. Shouldn’t Augustine say that the avid learner (what we want our students to be) is a person who loves the unknown?
Not at all, says Augustine, and here is where his ideas seem relevant to general education.
What he seems to be talking about here is motivation. Augustine writes, "We must carefully examine what sort of love it is that the studious have, that is people who do not yet know but still desire to know some branch of learning.” Isn’t that what our freshmen are, or at least should be?
So how do we motivate students to want to learn something they know nothing about. To a certain extent, he says, our interest in studying a subject is “kindled” by the affection and respect we have for our teacher. And yet “unless we had at least some slight notion of any subject impressed on our consciousness, it would be quite impossible for us to be kindled with enthusiasm for studying it.”
So the trick is to let students see the purpose of learning something, and to see how learning it will be to their benefit and, even more importantly, to the benefit of everyone if everyone would learn it.
Augustine uses the example of a foreign language, one of the foundations of general education at CSI and everywhere else. He asks us to imagine what we hear a word we do not understand in another language. We want to know what it means. If fact, we want to learn its language. He writes, ‘the object of our inquiry is what it is that he loves in that which he is studious to know. Clearly he does not know it yet, and so we are wondering why he loves it, since we know for certain that things cannot be loved unless they are known. So what does he love then?”
His answer: “It must be that he knows and sees by insight in the very sense of things how beautiful the discipline is that contains he knowledge of all signs.” [Augustine is talking about foreign languages, but his idea is obviously applicable to any of the disciplines that make up general education.] The goal then is to show students how beautiful the discipline is, and, continuing his example, the foreign language student must have come to realize “how useful the skill is by which a human society communicates perceptions between its members, since otherwise an assembly of human beings would be worse for its members than any kind of solitude, if they could not exchange their thoughts by speaking to one another. This then is the lovely and useful for which the soul discerns and knows and loves” when students develop a desire to learn a language, or, indeed, anything else. The students see “what a great and good thing it would be to understand and speak all the languages of all peoples, and so to hear nobody as a foreigner, and to be heard by no one as such either.”
Augustine seems to be saying that beginning students develop a desire to learn a subject because they see how that subject puts them in touch with the rest of the human race in a significant way, that is, by being able to see the rest of humanity not as strangers but as members of the same community, and to understand how that community can function at the highest level. We might also recall that Derek Bok and the American Association of Colleges and Universities stress that civic education, meaning service and leadership, have to be part of general education, and for Augustine that seems to be built into his approach to all subjects.
That means for Augustine that students must not only be made to see the purpose of the subject as part of their individual growth, but that the purpose must be more than personal; it must be good for everyone in the sense that if everyone mastered the subject life would be better for all, not just the student who is mastering the subject.
But Augustine has more to say on how to motivate students to want to know the unknown. “The more therefore the thing is known without being fully known,” he writes, “the more does the intelligence desire to know what remains.” That is to say, the general education course should give students a glimpse of the overall purpose of a discipline, and then give them important problems to solve for themselves in terms of the discipline. We should be motivating students to learn for themselves by giving them a taste of what they can do when they master the subject, and why it would be good for them and everyone else to be able to solve important problems using tools provided by the discipline.
But having kindled this initial interest, one must not kill it by putting its mastery out of reach. “You put more passion into your study of a discipline,” Augustine observes, “if you do not despair of being able to master it. But if you have no hope at all of acquiring a thing, you are lukewarm in your love for it or you do not love it at all, even though you are quite aware how beautiful it is.” Anything that discourages students in the early stages of learning persuades them that they can never learn the subject; hence they “will not love it at all.”
Augustine offers a final observation that underlines the importance of general education in producing students who are capable of continuous life-long learning with an open, critical, and inquisitive approach to their experiences. “No studious man, no curious man whatever loves the unknown even when he exhibits a ravenous appetite for knowing what he is ignorant of. Either he already has a general kind of knowledge [can we substitute “general education” for “general knowledge” here?] of what he loves and longs to know it in some particular or in all particulars, which are still unknown to him and have perhaps been recommended to his attention.” And where will a love of learning be “recommended” to students if not in the general education curriculum? “If you look at the matter carefully I think I have truly made out the case for saying that in fact . . . nothing is loved if it is unknown.” And so Augustine reminds us that the purpose of general education, at CSI or anywhere else, is to create “a ravenous appetite for knowing what [they are] . . . ignorant of” by getting students to love learning even if they have never imagined it as something worth learning.
These are some ideas from 420 AD that can help us help students who know nothing about a subject to love learning about it even though (and this is something we see all the time in our classes) it is impossible for anyone to love something he knows nothing about.