Life lessons from Georgetown’s own lifelong learner

November 14, 2012

Every so often, and more frequently now that I’m a senior, I find myself in a bit of an academic rut. Whenever it happens, I tend to take a step back and do something pseudo-intellectual—read a book, talk to an alarmingly philosophical roommate, or write my Sports Sermon (just kidding). A great deal of the time, though, I simply head to my inbox and click on a folder with over 100 emails in it, all with some attached document that can tell me something about just about everything. No need for Reddit to aggregate information for me, I have Fr. James V. Schall’s emails for that.

Granted a great deal of those emails are from his weekly correspondence over my two semesters of class with him. Even so, they include class-wide attachments with his insight on every philosopher a Georgetown student encounters over four years, from Aristotle to Nietzsche. But some email exchanges are just between the two of us, mostly after I’ve read a work of his and asked him about it. To every question, Fr. Schall somehow manages to scrounge up the perfect response piece, often one he had written years earlier.

These bits of wisdom from Fr. Schall aren’t just relegated to my inbox. In total, he has published over 30 books and hundreds of articles on a range of topics. Although his expertise is political philosophy, he’s written about sports, music, and most prominently, education. I believe his book on books, Another Sort of Learning, should be required reading for every Georgetown student. Find a copy and read the lengthy subtitle—I promise you’ll be immediately hooked.

My relationship with Fr. Schall began in the spring of my sophomore year and changed everything about how I look at academia. His classroom model was different from anything else I had thus far experienced at Georgetown; Fr. Schall was always sure to distance himself from the reading at hand, emphasizing that the author, not himself, was the teacher and that the professor’s role was simply to facilitate dialogue and provide commentary. The crucial element of his class was to immerse oneself in the reading and draw conclusions. Grades were pushed to the side, just the way he wanted it.

With Schall, it was all of the little things that lit a fire in me for the subject. He saw himself as a lifelong student, often reminding us that he learned something new every time he reread the works we discussed. His passion for the material was apparent, as was the importance he placed on the classroom experience. He knew the names of the nearly 100 students in our introductory Elements of Political Theory class by the end of the first month. For him, an absence wasn’t a slight against him, but a disservice to the student for missing out on an opportunity to learn.

Still, there was one personally troubling part of Fr. Schall’s ideology, namely his view on internships. “This is what you are told that employers look for, but that is the problem. College is not for getting a job, however necessary it is to make a living,” he once told me of interning. For a typical Georgetown student wired to do a million things at once and focus on the next step, such a recommendation is quite radical.

I started this semester registered for Fr. Schall’s Political Theory and Natural Law, but ultimately had to switch out. The ironic part was the reasoning for my move: a scheduling conflict with my internship. I just assumed I could finish my Georgetown experience with one final dose of Fr. Schall the following semester, which is why it hit me so hard when he told me of his impending retirement.

In a selfish way, another semester with Fr. Schall would have capped off my Georgetown experience perfectly. The topic doesn’t matter, as he taught me that I could gain an appreciation for any reading as long as I give it due time and consideration. On a larger scale, though, Georgetown loses a living legend at the end of this semester, one who has influenced thousands of Hoyas over 30 years.

But aggregate student numbers don’t adequately evaluate Fr. Schall’s impact. Once students take a class with Schall, they often become hooked, and follow his progression of classes throughout their Georgetown careers—“Schall lifers,” they’re called.

I never quite reached that level. Still, for me it wasn’t so much Fr. Schall’s lesson plans or syllabi, but rather his approach that changed my life. The lessons I learned from Fr. Schall about fostering a lifelong passion for learning will stay with me forever.

Outside of the class space he occupied in White Gravenor 201 three times per week, Fr. Schall’s departure is going to leave a glaring void on the Hilltop. Future Hoyas will not get that same classroom experience from just any professor — a tragedy in its own right. But Fr. Schall’s retirement should rightfully be a celebration of a life full of scholarly thinking and teaching. For the legendary teacher, it is a deserved break from the classroom, one that’s far overdue. But for the 84 year old self-proclaimed student, the learning won’t ever stop.

Kevin Joseph
Kevin Joseph is a Contributor Editor and former Sports Editor for the The Georgetown Voice.

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