Friday, December 07, 2012

Father Schall's farewell to the Hilltop.

As previously noted on this blog, today is the date of Father James Schall's last lecture at Georgetown. To mark the retirement of this Georgetown legend, The Hoya has presented an online tribute to Father Schall including reminiscences from colleagues, friends, and former students, a collection of some of the many columns that he has written over the years for the newspaper, and an interview in which Father Schall discusses his time at Georgetown, his next steps, and his views on education. Here is a bit of what Father Schall has to say in his farewell interview with The Hoya:
THE HOYA: What led you to make this your last semester of teaching?

SCHALL: Not any one thing, of course. In a broad sense, the day comes for everyone when he must decide. Just when is the best time is prudential, a judgment. I have had a number of annoying health problems in recent years. I do not want to begin a semester that I cannot anticipate finishing. It seems fair to the [government] department to give them time to find a replacement. Jesuit superiors give good advice here. But it is not rocket science. What Socrates, Cicero and Scripture say on old age, as my students know, I take to be basically true. You make a decision and live with it. Many of my colleagues, just older than I, were required by law to retire at 70. But now we are the almost only country in the world that does not discriminate against age. I will be 85 in January. Thus, I have been able to teach 15 extra years, as it were. So it seems fitting to retire at this time.

THE HOYA: Do you have plans after you depart from campus in March?

SCHALL: Aside from the famous aphorism "The best laid plans of mice and men . . ." I will reside in the Jesuit house in Los Gatos, California, on the Bay-side slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is the large center into which I first entered the Order in 1948. I spent my first years from the time I was 20 to 24 there. It serves now as an infirmary, a residence and the offices of the Provincial of the West Coast Jesuit Province. A priest as priest does not "retire," even if he is officially retired. I have a number of writing projects that I hope to continue once I am settled in. I have family in California and old friends. It is not forbidden for stray former students to visit the place should they find themselves in the vicinity.

. . .

THE HOYA: What are some of your fondest memories of Georgetown?

SCHALL: Amusingly, one of my fond memories was on the plane from California on which I flew to take up teaching here. I was on United or some airline that had one of those company magazines. The magazine that was in the seat that I was in had an article about the 10 most "drinking" universities in the country. Lo and behold, Georgetown made this "exclusive" list of 10! That must have been in late 1977. I confess that I have not seen any current list, but I was always amused by that article. I have not myself observed much of this drinking here, but I know that it can be more of a problem than it should be. We all should know, as it were, how to drink.

As I often mention, the beauty of the Healy building, in the morning sun, in snow, in fog, in spring flowers against its base or seen from 35th Street just before Visitation or from the Key Bridge is not easily to be forgotten. I think the campus is defined by the Healy building, and that is fixed in my memory.

But I suppose my fondest memories are those in a large class after I have finally succeeded in identifying each student by name and face, to see a student suddenly catch the drift of what Aristotle or Aquinas or Nietzsche or Plato was talking about.

. . .

Sometimes I think the imagery of what a university is, the "ivory towers," is not reflected on enough. The phrase is mostly said in derision, something similar to Plato’s description in Book Six of The Republic about why the philosopher has a bad name in the city. Modern pressure to make college a training ground for certain crafts or professions, as well as the demands of departments for more time for the specialization, has left little time for reading and serious reflection. A student who spends 20 to 50 hours a week working, on a ball team, volunteering or goofing off simply misses what his time means here.

The university should be designed to protect us from the pressing world at least for a few years during which we are free to read and write and think. Even heavy class loads will interfere. Once a student leaves the front gates, he will be inundated with the world and the pressing problems of going forth to his life. The specter of the online university is no longer just over the horizon, the place where we only need a machine and an online connection. The essence of education is simple: a teacher, a student, a room and a book. I often cite Yves Simon’s remark that nothing can protect a young student from giving his soul to an unworthy professor. We have to seek the meaning of what is. This is the adventure that finally defines us.

THE HOYA: If you had one piece of advice to give to a freshman, what would it be?

SCHALL: That is easy. Students have often heard Schall’s basic advice: "Don’t major in current events." Or as my older aphorism has it: "To be up to date is to be out of date."
To read more of the interview, click here. Though I appreciate the inevitability of such things, I still feel a certain sadness at Father Schall's farewell to the classroom and his return to California. I'm sad that I won't see him next time I visit Georgetown, though the fact that he is moving to Los Gatos also makes me realize again that I'm overdue for a return visit to the Bay Area. I feel a greater sadness in the realization that the youngest Hoyas will not have the opportunity to learn from one of the Hilltop's very greatest teachers; most will probably never know what they're missing, and that's a real shame. More hopefully, I wish Jim Schall the very best as he returns home to the West Coast. AMDG.


At 12/11/2012 3:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The cartoon is misleading; in my day all of Father Shall's students were "Mr." or "Miss" so and so.

It lent our discussions of Plato et al yet more gravitas.


At 12/11/2012 3:41 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

I don't think it's necessarily misleading. I take it that "Conrad" is the student's surname, and I can remember instances in class when Schall would drop the "Mr." in just this way, though it was admittedly relatively rare for him to do so. I don't think he ever did this with a female student - they always remained "Miss So-and-So, even if the men could occasionally be "So-and-so" rather than "Mr. So-and-so."

I should add that, in my own teaching, I always followed Schall's example of addressing students as "Mr" or "Miss" with surname. I wonder if any of my students ever had other professors who did the same.

At 12/11/2012 9:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are most likely right; in one language area Conrad is a relatively common Christian name, but practically unknown as a surname while the reverse may well be the case in other language areas.


At 12/11/2012 11:19 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Fair enough. Conrad is not a very common family name (I think of Joseph Conrad, but that was a pseudonym), and in North America its not very common as a given name either. Unless the cartoonist had a real individual in mind, the choice of name seems peculiar.


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