The Lost Purpose of Learning: An Interview with Joseph Clair
Dr. Joseph Clair serves as Director of the William Penn Honors Program and Associate Dean for the Liberal Arts at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. Students in the William Penn Honors Program fulfill the core requirements for their degree by reading over 100 of the best books ever written and engaging them in discussion seminars.
Kyler Schubkegel, a current student in the William Penn Honors Program, had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Clair about his recent book On Education, Formation, Citizenship and the Lost Purpose of Learning (Bloomsbury, 2018). That interview is excerpted below.
KS: Dr. Clair, what did you envision when you sat down to write this book?
JC: This book on Augustine and education is very much unlike my first book on Augustine, which was also reviewed on [Cana Academy’s blog by] Andrew Zwerneman, who’s a good friend. That book grew out of my interest in Augustine’s ethics as they were applied in his letters and sermons, and it was a scholarly work in the field of Augustinian studies, which touches on a few different realms of theology, philosophy, history. But this book is very different in the sense that, since graduate school, I was hired to found a Great Books Honors Program, and... I realized in doing that that I had a very helpful friend and mentor to help me think about the program and the project, and his name was St. Augustine. He happened to be dead since 430 AD, but I realized that in many ways Augustine is the first truly classical Christian educator. I mean, he was at the height of imperial liberal arts education as the professor of rhetoric at Milan before his conversion, and, you realize, what he does after his conversion in 386 is...he starts in: he writes something on music, one of the four arts in the quadrivium, and he has other things on dialectic and logic he was working on. Unfortunately, he never finished this project, but we see that the main thing he wants to do after his conversion is take his work and role as an educator and build it into a truly Christian liberal arts or Christian classical curriculum... I mean, he’s always masterfully thinking about how to educate people. And I think he is the strongest early Christian voice that first brought classical learning and tried to reconcile it with a Christian worldview.
KS: Do you see Augustine helping you in your own teaching process?
JC: Yes, very much. One of the things I point out in the book is that, for Augustine, a human soul is made up of this very interwoven triad of faculties: the intellect, the will, and the memory. Especially relevant for education are the intellect and the will, the will representing the seat of the affections, and the intellect being reason in the classical sense. And so, when I think about education, I think about how Augustine thought about education and how he educated others, and that is knowing that insofar as you’re training minds, you’re also training affections and training hearts. You’re not just trying to teach people to rationally understand what the good is but how to love the good, how to be drawn toward the good, how to move toward it. And that has to do with subtle habits of the mind and the heart. Augustine was also a master rhetor; I love reading his sermons. There are so many of them, and you can just feel the vibrancy of the way he communicated with his audience. One of my favorite sermons is where he’s play-acting an argument between two characters, and he’s pretending to be each of them. So you get the sense that he’s massively learned, intellectual, but he also fully knew his audience.
KS: And how did you come to know a saint from the fifth century so well?
JC: Yes, I’ve been stuck in the fifth century! Or no, hopefully by the second book I’ve brought a fifth-century saint into the twenty-first century; that was the goal. You have those moments in your Christian walk where you might feel dry or lost or out of touch with God, even though you know you’re a Christian and you’ve given your life to God in faith. I had one of those in college and on the recommendation of a friend I picked up Augustine’s Confessions. I was in a period of dryness and doubt; I was a philosophy major going through deep questioning. And in the Confessions, I had what I can only describe as a kind of second conversion, where I truly found a friend and mentor in the saint who was clearly someone who I could never outthink and who had already asked all the most challenging questions. And at the center of [Augustine’s] book was one simple moral and spiritual idea—and that is, God Himself is the highest good, the good that created the world and shares his goodness with the world. So all the little good things we love—from books and friends and cups of tea and cedar trees—are all goods that participate, mysteriously, in God’s goodness. And the challenge of the moral and spiritual life is learning how to love those goods properly, in the right order, and to allow for those goods to draw us back to God himself, who is the source of all good. That’s a very compressed version of his idea of the order of love. But that in some way totally changed my understanding of the spiritual life and of my journey as a Christian and has stuck with me and is something that I take to be core to my life of faith as a Christian. In fact, I was just looking at my copy of the Confessions that I bought in 2001 at Wheaton College that’s held together by Scotch Tape on the binding and I was thinking, “What a wild thing it is to have a conversation with someone who’s physically dead but so alive in the communion of saints and the cloud of witnesses and to feel like they’ve been such a blessing to you in your own journey as a Christian from so many hundreds—thousands—of years ago is actually a really wild thought. I mean, that really makes me think that we are in the cloud of witnesses!”
KS: Thank you very much, and as we close, I’m wondering if you have anything to add regarding how Augustine might be able to make his way into more of our lives today?
JC: Yeah, I know we had talked before—a lot of us live in the soundbite era, where we get bits and pieces of great thoughts and quotes coming at us through social media and otherwise. And I think Augustine was so eloquent that’s not a bad thing. I mean, he’s a master of the one-liner, like many of the great authors, so getting just a bit from him can actually mean a lot. But I think one thing that struck me most, and I talk about this in the book, is his theology of reading. And you know, there are other ancient authors who write a bit about the importance of reading for the moral life and becoming a good reader, but Augustine takes it to a new level, and, as I say in the book, he shows you how to read by depicting his own experiences as a reader in the Confessions. So in many ways, to follow Augustine’s spiritual and philosophical journey in the Confessions is to see him narrate that for you in terms of his encounters with books... I think what we can learn from that is the slow, hard art of reading difficult but important books—certainly Scripture but even pagan classics about pursuing wisdom. And I mean, there are so many great books and we live in the era in which these books are so accessible and cheap from Penguin Classics, or maybe even on a Kindle. But what does it mean to acquire the habits of patience and attention and listening to the words, the slow work of bringing the words off the page into your own mind and recreating meaning? Augustine…thinks that there’s a lot at stake in learning to become a good reader, learning self-knowledge, learning how to see yourself in the mirror of the text, learning how to hear from God or to hear the voice of wisdom... So maybe we should all buy a copy of the Confessions and slowly read it and then go discuss it with a group of friends, like they do at Cana Academy.
KS: Well, thank you very much, Dr. Clair, for your insights and your suggestions and I look forward to discussing the Confessions with you—again and again!
JC: Indeed! Likewise, Kyler. Thanks so much.
Kyler Schubkegel is a student in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. This is his first Open City post.
Image of On Education, Formation, Citizenship and the Lost Purpose of Learning courtesy of Amazon. Image of Dr. Clair courtesy of Dr. Clair. Header image of Pennington House (headquarters of the William Penn Honors Program) courtesy of Kyler Schubkegel.