Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Voice on Schall.

This week's issue of the Georgetown Voice features a glowing profile of Father James V. Schall, S.J., who was also recently seen on film in a post on this very blog. Voice writer Aodhan Beirne begins his profile with a consideration of Father Schall's distinctive pedagogy:
In the moments before his Elements of Political Theory class, Father James Schall, S.J., stood in the hall, chatting with early-comers about the weather, the readings, and other courses. Schall not only knew all of his current students by name, but also recalled almost all of his recent students. He made introductions among the students standing in front of him, and a large, comfortable conversation started.

This conversation seemed to carry over into class. The period involved little group discussion, but was rather a series of conversations between Schall and individual students.

To Schall, this conversational teaching style fosters students’ intellectual engagement.

"College students learn most from talking to each other. You have to have ways for students to converse," he said. "That’s why education is fostered by a good campus."

When class began, Schall asked if he had failed to call on anyone during the course so far. "I don’t want anyone to feel left out," he said. With 100 students crowded into a large White-Gravenor classroom, it would seem easy to be left out during a 50 minute class period.

However, Schall’s custom of pacing the aisles — addressing questions and comments to students at random — makes it difficult to shirk participation. Despite his sniper-like questioning style, his students appeared calm, seemingly unfazed by the possibility of being called on at his whim.

Although his quiet voice could easily be drowned out by coughing, his students remained attentive and prepared to be called on. The conversations ranged from Plato, to the etymology of names of the months, to Shakespeare.
Later on, Beirne quotes Schall on the nature and purpose of liberal education and the role of the professor:
Schall is wary of the loaded schedules most Georgetown students take on, weighted with extracurricular activities and internships, in addition to their academics.

"All universities should build walls, not to keep people in, but to keep the world out," he said. A confined campus is conducive to traditional learning, based on discussion and contemplation. His ideal education is a comprehensive experience that includes conversation, studying, and socializing.

"The point of a liberal education is not preparing you for business," he said. "It’s giving you the freedom to learn about the ultimate questions."

. . .

Schall’s view of the role of a professor is simple, but profound.

"A professor is a person to whom people come because he has studied his way and can say, 'Okay you will do this,' or 'We can read this together.' Students are being guided to read things, but in a sense, they are being prodded to believe that this thing is more important than this thing," he explained.

There is a certain level of trust students must have in their professors, he said but he quoted a friend who warned, "The worst thing that can happen to a student is to give his soul to an unworthy professor."

. . .

He will continue to teach — and teach in the manner he see most purposeful — in spite of the trends most other Georgetown professors are following, because to him it is always about the students.

"I do not think students ever change that much, thank God," he said. "All 20-year-olds are 20-year-olds. I do not believe in progress in this sense. We cannot bypass free will and basic good sense. Basically education is not about Georgetown, it’s about truth and honor."

Schall relates this to his life as a Jesuit. "As a priest, you have to do the same thing, get them to see the kind of life they should live and why. But they have to see it. You cannot force them," he said.
To read the rest, click here. Though the Voice does a fine job of summing up Schall's vital contribution to the Hilltop, there was one paragraph in Beirne's profile that made me cringe:
Schall is the last of the old guard: one of the few remaining Jesuits who still shape Georgetown students’ intellectual, spiritual and personal education in the mold of classic Catholic tradition. As the University becomes more secular, global, and pre-professional, some students yearn for the traditional education that seemingly only Schall can still provide.
Why do I cringe at this? It's partly a question of language: references to "the last of the old guard" and "the few remaining Jesuits" give the impression that members of the Society of Jesus are on the verge of disappearing from the Hilltop. I will readily admit that diminishment is a reality: the number of Jesuits at Georgetown and other Jesuit-sponsored universities has dropped sharply in recent decades, and we no longer have the level of influence that we once took for granted in institutions founded by the Society of Jesus. That being said, it is important to emphasize that the Jesuits are still committed to having a presence and a voice on campus: there are young Jesuit faculty members on the Hilltop who are in a position to "shape Georgetown students’ intellectual, spiritual and personal education in the mold of classic Catholic tradition" for decades to come. They may not do things exactly as Schall does, but that's to expected: we're all unique. In short, the Jesuits are still right where you need them. AMDG.


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