January 28, 2013
Aquinas on Teaching
As Rick notes, today is the great Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (it's also the date of Henry VIII's death in 1547, but let's set that aside). Some words about Aquinas on teaching from one of Aquinas's Dominican brothers, Brian Davies, OP of Fordham:
Does Aquinas have advice for teachers? As a matter of fact, he does. And it is rather sensible. For, so he says on more than one occasion, teachers should proceed with an eye on the intellectual standing of their students. “Knowledge”, he suggests in his Summa contra Gentes, “is acquired in two ways, both by discovery without teaching, and by teaching. Consequently teachers begin to teach in the same way as discoverers begin to discover, namely by offering to the disciples' consideration principles known by them, since all learning results from pre-existing knowledge”. In other words, Aquinas thinks that teachers ought to start from where their students are. He also thinks that they ought to express themselves clearly. In the Summa theologiae he alludes to the view that “it is the duty of all teachers to make themselves easily understood”. And this sentiment is very much echoed in the way in which Aquinas himself communicates. He is a model of lucidity, especially in the Summa theologiae which actually begins with some reflections on the business of teaching those in their early stages of study. The subject matter of the Summa theologiae is the entire scope of Christian teaching, and in a foreword to the work Aquinas expresses himself unhappy with much that he knows to be available on this. “Newcomers to this teaching” he says, “are greatly hindered by various writings on the subject, partly because of the swarm of pointless questions, articles, and arguments”. They are also, says Aquinas, hindered by the fact that available texts all too often pursue the interests of their authors rather than “a sound educational method”, which Aquinas takes to involve being “concise and clear, so far as the matter allows”.
It is not, of course, easy to be concise and clear. And it is hard to get to the truth of things. So Aquinas also has another piece of advice to offer those who go in for teaching. For in his view they need to cultivate a high degree of humility. In particular, so he says, they should remember that all that they have is given to them by God, including their learning and their skills at conveying it. According to Aquinas, and as he puts it in the Summa contra Gentes: “God by His intelligence is the cause not only of all things that subsist in nature, but also of all intellectual knowledge”. At one level Aquinas suggests that this conclusion ought to leave teachers feeling proud, for it implies that they share in God's work of bringing it about that learning occurs. Or, as he says in a lecture delivered in 1256: “The minds of teachers ... are watered by the things that are above in the wisdom of God, and by their ministry the light of divine wisdom flows down into the minds of students”. At another level, however, Aquinas reckons that teachers should realize that their role as divine instruments ought to remind them of their need of divine assistance. Aquinas himself always prayed before writing, just as he prayed when he ran into any kind of difficulty. In the lecture of 1256 he notes that teachers of theology might feel that they are just not up to their task. But, he adds, “no one is adequate for this ministry by himself or from his own resources” and one may “hope that God may make one adequate”. And, so I might add, if one considers this remark in the context of Aquinas’s writings as a whole, it should not be viewed only as a word to theologians. It is a comment he would have offered to all teachers.
"Aquinas and the Academic Life," 83 New Blackfriars 336, 342-43 (2002).
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