A life in learning: Father James Schall

By the

October 6, 2011

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.

Schall teaches exclusively from the Western canon, classic texts that have been a cornerstone of Jesuit education from its beginnings. Some see these texts as providing a critical perspective on the legacy of human thought.

Professor Patrick Deneen, a government professor who also teaches Elements of Political Theory, speculated that Schall’s traditional perspective attracts students to his popular class.

“A paramount reason why students flock to Father Schall is because he reveals to them the profound depth of their ignorance,” he said. “But more than that, he allows them to experience that magnificent feeling that is the beginning of philosophy—the hunger for knowledge.”

Having come to Georgetown as a Ph. D student in 1956, Schall refers to himself as “ancient history.” But as he explained—paraphrasing Aristotle, a main character in his classes—“history is cyclical.” Its lessons should be heeded.

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.


Similar to the texts he teaches, Schall conducts class in a classical manner.

“He does it the old-fashioned way:  by making them read serious books, take the books seriously, and take themselves seriously as people who have a responsibility to read those books as well and thoughtfully as they can,” Provost James O’Donnell wrote in an email.

As a professor in the government department, Schall is most well-known for his Elements of Political Theory course, though he said his course on Plato is his favorite to teach. His teaching methods are decidedly traditional.

In lieu of a Powerpoint display, Schall organizes his thoughts with a pencil on a small pad. He does not allow students to use laptops in his class, citing an unofficial study he conducted in which a few of his students admitted he would not want to know what students actually used their computers for in class.

Schall’s syllabus is one page and provides no schedule for readings. His students are expected to attend class— one of the two main factors for evaluation in the course—and to keep up with the reading assignments he announces.

Though this might frustrate a schedule-oriented student, those in his classes seem to understand—and more importantly, appreciate—why he does what he does.

“He’s opposed to the modern curricula,” said Geoff Lyons (COL ’12), an Elements of Political Theory student. “He follows a more Christian theological tradition. He doesn’t like to ‘scientize’ philosophy, which is the direction he believes it’s going.”


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 tells a story about a conversation he had with a friend in an Irish pub. His friend asked if he heard anything in the pub. Schall said he didn’t, and the friend responded, “Exactly.”

Irish pubs, he explained, are great places to learn since they are usually so quiet. “People are there to talk,” he said. “No one is there just to get drunk. It’s more quiet; no one is yelling like they do at bars in New York.”

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.”

Without these physical and metaphorical walls, students will be “educated by some other system, always somewhere else,” Schall said, referring to everything students do that is not directly related to their studies. Schall fears that Georgetown has failed to maintain its sense of purpose, becoming what he calls a “resumé university.”

“Resumé universities have students who focus on their internships, their extracurricular activities, their sports. What’s behind them is the notion that education is more than just knowing, but that detracts from the purpose of a university,” he said. “You can’t be a student if you’re doing 30 hours a week of something else.”

Schall maintains that students should remain actively involved in their educations whenever not in class.

“Of course you can do nothing if you want, but you have the time to be free to be thinking about things,” he said.

This type of contemplation makes education worthwhile and gives a university a purpose. Schall teaches students to know themselves, recommends not getting internships, and suggests that students drink in a pub instead of studying excessively. It is easy to see why students continue to take his classes.

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.


Though he agrees that his opinions about education are rare at Georgetown, he chalks it up to location—not some overarching trend. “You don’t think of Washington as a place to study philosophy,” he said, claiming that all Georgetown students want to be lawyers. “Because it is in Washington, Georgetown has departments that leech off the government department.”

Georgetown studies are heavy on science and statistics. Although he is himself a professor in the government department, it is clear that Schall relates more closely to philosophy.

Deneen agrees that Schall’s method of teaching is unique at Georgetown. “Much of the activity of the Georgetown University is increasingly focused on ‘current events,’ so part of what Fr. Schall is advising is avoid the present-ist tendencies of our own institution,” he wrote. “Such a stance requires independence and courage, some of the virtues that Fr. Schall aims to foster among his students.”

To Deneen, too strong a focus on the present can be detrimental to education.

“In learning ever more about ‘current events,’ we become ever-more ignorant about who we truly are,” he wrote.

His classes, his presence, and his ideas about scholarship are important elements of Georgetown tradition and identity, and will continue to keep Hoyas grounded, especially as Georgetown starts to follow the trend of becoming more globalized.

As a professor, Schall looks simply to give his students a “wake up experience,” which he explains is a moment when “the student is looking down, probably confused, and then looks up and says ‘Yeah, I want to know more about that,’” he said.

Those who have worked with Schall for years have witnessed first-hand the impact of his teaching philosophy and dedication to his students.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking to a student for a while and been impressed with something they were saying and just gotten this little whiff of suspicion, and I say:  ‘Did you ever have a class with Fr. Schall?’ And they light up and say, ‘Yes, wow, the greatest,’” O’Donnell wrote. “He’s one of the few stellar people that any institution hopes it can boast of that have that kind of consistent, far-reaching, deep impact on students.”

Read More

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments