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Another Sort of Learning: Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire
an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated
Advice About How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain
Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry
Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found
by James V. Schall
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988
300 pp., $12.95
reviewed by John Thompson
Long subtitles are apparently “in,” and so is the reconsideration of the declining role of the humanities in our society, à la Bennett, Bloom, Alder, Hirsch, et al. Fr. Schall is a bona fide enthusiast for the humanitites, but he’s no mere antiquarian. He is listening not only to the great minds of the past., but also to the questions raised by contemporary students in his political philosophy classes at Georgetown University. The result is a readable, challenging, and (necessarily) idiosyncratic book. Fr. Schall’s book stands out all the more for his willingness to flaunt contemporary taboos like belief in a deity who is more than merely a philosophical necessity.
His thesis is simple: “I believe that we are in a world today where most of this seeking must take place outside the normal educational process and outside the myriads of media images with which we are constantly confronted.” Another Sort of Learning helps to frame the questions that a moderately inquisitive person should be asking about the world, human nauture, and God. This is no “Cliff’s Notes” on philosophy; rather, it is an often tantalizing and useful guide to some of the great minds, (both Christian and non-Christian), with whom Fr. Schall vigorously interacts throughout his book.
This book, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. The first, “So You’re Still Perplexed even in College?” is essentially an apology for launching into a quest for the meaning of “what is.” The second, “Books You will Never Be Assigned,” focuses on seven contemporary titles that provide a convenient sounding board, ranging from Ralph McInerney on St. Thomas Aquinas to Jeffrey Russell on Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. The third part, “Have You Thought About It This Way?” deals with what he calls “higher order concerns”: those things that we “must read and know just because they are true”—and on the impact that a serious pursuit of these things should have, among other things, on one’s political, intellectual, and spiritual life.
Even though it is almost passé for so-called “conservative thinkers” to issue educational manifestoes and agendas calling us back from contemporary chaos to the great minds of the Western tradition, this three-hundred-page book makes a worthwhile contribution. It is much more likely to be read and used because Fr. Schall’s style is relatively light, definitely personal, and even whimsical at points. Its appeal comes not so much from what he introduces, but from the way in which he introduces the subjects and the great thinkers.
As an unabashedly personal statement, Another Sort of Learning will certainly not satisfy everyone. It will in fact invite the sneers of those who are looking for an utterly serious, systematic, high-brow treatise. For many a concerned Christian, however, it will be an enjoyable, sometimes pungent treatment of spritual and intellectual issues. It’s a friendly introduction to classics like Aristotle, Aquinas, Dr. Johnson, Belloc, as well as to contemporaries Muggeridge, Russell Kirk, and (even) Mad Magazine.
John Thompson is a librarian and professor at Waynesburg University, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania