Another Sort of Teaching

by | Apr 22, 2019 | Catholic Writing, Education, In the News

Schall photo from:

“And when you see Schall on campus, please greet him. You’ll know it’s Schall because he’s a cleric and only has one eye. See you Wednesday.”

These were unusual words with which to end the first day of class, but then again, there wasn’t much about Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. that could be considered usual. Since Fr. Schall’s death this past Wednesday, I’ve been reminiscing about the courses I was blessed to take with him as an undergraduate at Georgetown University. Below are some of my favorite Schall-isms.

“To have read a great book only once is to have never read it at all.”

Fr. Schall taught Elements of Political Theory, the introductory political philosophy class, every semester for 35 years. And yet he reread every page of every book every single time he assigned it. His copies of Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas looked like they had been paged through a hundred times. They may well have been. For Fr. Schall, a great idea was one that demanded to be visited and revisited, and to make a claim on how we live our lives.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Could you please repeat yourself?”

When you heard this, you knew you’d given the wrong answer, but Fr. Schall was subtly giving you a chance to correct yourself. Even though enrollment in his courses soared as high as 100 students, he taught exclusively using the Socratic method. He kept a small notepad in the pocket of his clerical shirt, and if your name was on the front page of the notepad that day, you knew you’d be getting asked a lot of questions. For the students who had done the reading, this was exhilarating. For the students who hadn’t done the reading, it was likely also exhilarating, albeit for a very different reason.

“Miss/Mister X, I just wanted to thank you for taking my class. It’s been a real pleasure and I hope we’ll stay in touch.”

Fr. Schall never took attendance and taught before the rise of digitally-assembled photo pages of class rosters. Yet through a combination of natural talent and diligent attention, he still memorized every student’s name. While we were writing our final exams at the end of the semester, he wove his way through the rows of desks to shake our hands and thank us for taking his class. This action was no mere formality for him, but rather exuded genuine gratitude for the relationships begun and deepened in the classroom.

“As far as I can tell, Thomas Aquinas is the only person who’s ever been canonized just for being smart.”

Holiness and brains aren’t the same thing, but Fr. Schall had both. Sure, he published more books and articles than most people are likely to read in their lifetimes. (My personal favorite has been and will likely always remain Another Sort of Learning, an assembly of essays about big questions, the proper goal of education, and copious booklists of additional reading.) However, despite these herculean academic accomplishments, Fr. Schall was unfailingly more interested in the person before him than in discussing his own achievements.

“It’s practically illegal to be fat these days, but three of my favorite people were fat: Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and Samuel Johnson.”

It wasn’t always clear whether Fr. Schall was being serious, joking, or making an off-handed remark to himself. I now suspect it was often some combination of all of the above. Nonetheless, the rapid-fire wit, charm, and decency of Jim Schall are all qualities I, and perhaps others, could use a bit more of.

“pray for me, jvssj”

Countless students, friends, family, brother Jesuits, strangers, and well-wishers read this sign-off to his emails. For a campus legend, intellectual giant, devoted priest, and renowned author to ask humbly and directly for prayers took me aback the first time I received an email from him. Having pondered this closing line since his death on April 17th, though, I think this is a final, perhaps most important, lesson Fr. Schall teaches us. Ideas matter, we help each other learn, and the great books are called “great” for a reason. But at the end of the day, all of this teaching and learning should bring us together back to the One who is Truth.

Pray for us, jvssj.


Danny Gustafson, SJ   /   All posts by Danny