Saturday, April 30, 2011

Aquinas (1225-1274AD):  The Teacher.

"It seems that only God can teach and be called a teacher." - On The Teacher, Disputed Questions on Truth.

This paper is a discussion on learning.  For those who dream of going to alien worlds far away, it might be worthwhile considering the alien universe of the past.  My goal has been to understand the roots of Christian theology.  Yes, it connects to the Bible, but what we have received today was largely formed in a different intellectual climate than what we have today.  This is one that is heavily dependent on classical philosophy, yet it is impossible to appreciate this climate without reading extensively the writers of the time(s) directly.  If there is some institution that really immerses and appreciates this, I would love to know.

The argument Aquinas is describing regarding teaching is that one person can only make signs and motions towards another through the imperfect vehicle of language or graphical illustration.  What is learned by the student, however, represents a reconfiguration of the mind - an imparting of a form onto the mind.  While a man can influence the forms that develop in another's mind, the process of the development of the mental form is something that cannot be compelled.  It is internal to the student.  This observation is something that is just as true in the classical world view as with the modern viewpoint where the mind stores images through biochemical processes.  From my personal viewpoint, we see that people develop their mental images much differently if we compare one person to another.  Then there is the complaint that fundamentalists are taught, but then develop entirely different forms in their imagination than what was intended.  Indeed that is so.  It is a virtue because we correct the erroneous form that was taught as we are learning!  More generally, everyone receives the form that is taught and adjusts it per their experiences and intellectual capacity.

Aquinas lists a large number of arguments both for and against the view that God alone can teach.  One point that caught my attention in passing is this:

"Moreover, Augustine says in On The Teacher, 'God alone has a chair in the heavens and on it he teaches truth; a man is so related to that chair as the farmer to the tree, which he does not make but cultivates.'  Therefore, no man can be called a teacher of science, but rather disposes for science." - Aquinas.

A lot of science teachers would be challenged by the above.  It so happened that I was starting another work of Augustine (354-430AD) at the same time, On Free Choice of the Will.  The notions of the teacher have other consequences regarding good and evil.  Here is an excerpt from Augustine's improved Socratic dialog method:

"Well then, if all understanding is good, and no one who does not understand learns, then everyone who learns is doing good.  For everyone who learns, understands; and everyone who understands is doing good.  So someone who wants to know the cause of our learning something really wants to know the cause of our doing good.  So let's have no more of your wanting to hunt down this mysterious evil teacher.  If he is evil, he is no teacher; and if he is a teacher, he is not evil." - On The Free Will, Augustine.

Elsewhere I read that this work (or maybe On The Teacher) was one of Augustine's earlier works and a topic of a later work entitled Retractions.  The comments of Aquinas on the subject include many references to Aristotle.  I had deliberately set aside Aquinas for a time due to the fact that so much of his work was predicated on notions that were developed in Aristotle (384-322BC).  Having banged my head into Aristotle's works for a time, this is quite helpful as I try to understand Aquinas.  What is also clear is that the subject involves streams of thought that cover 1,500 years, are scattered among many works and authors, yet have a direct bearing on our views of human evil and God's nature.  I have also decided that to truly understand theology in the manner that I have sought to do it is beyond human power ... it is God alone who can impart such understanding!


Rummuser said...

Without commenting on the rights or wrongs of it, learning for a long time after language came about was of one stream. It was subsequent to the divergence into secular and spiritual teachings that mankind's problems have started. It would now appear that a convergence is showing signs of appearing and our children or more likely, our grand children will find teachers who will teach one stream.This is a perfectly acceptable postulate for both the scientist and the spiritualist. I would not like to say anything about the third element, the religionist.

Looney said...

Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas all start out enumerating competing views before proceeding on. The modern school system strikes me as being in a bad situation since "secular" would imply giving fair treatment to various views, yet in practice it represents only one ideological outlook. A religious school that only teaches rituals and rules would certainly be in a different category also.

As for where things are going, I am not sure. The publishing and teaching industry have a great incentive to advertise modern, mediocre works as if they are superior to the classics. If government control of the schools breaks down, then things will change substantially.