Augustine, the 21st Century Student
Today is the Feast of St. Augustine, patron saint of (among many other things) theologians. So I thought it would be worth briefly reflecting on the life of this great figure. In particular, I invite you to look at Augustine’s own description of his life and thought as presented in his great spiritual autobiography, the Confessions.
Up until the actual account of his conversion experience in Book Eight (whoops! Spoiler alert!), we get a picture of Augustine’s life, education, career, and psychology, especially in regard to his existential questioning and his struggle with morality, specifically sexual morality. Augustine was born into an upper-middle class family and was raised by parents who did not share the same values throughout most of their lives. They even disagreed on what important values to impart to their son.
What they didn’t disagree about was their desire to see their son be well-educated and get a good job. Even when their son joined what we would now call, at best, an alternative self-help movement and at worst , a cult, Augustine’s parents showed concern for his professional success and his social propriety.
In his own mind, Augustine was always a thoughtful student. There were subjects he loved and excelled at (rhetoric) and ones he could do without (Greek). He raised important questions about the meaning and purpose of life and the nature of God and the universe and his place in it. However, when those questions actually threatened to impinge on his normal way of life morally, he was quick to retreat to the intellectually safe position that, “these questions are hard – who can possibly have an answer to them?” And so his morally sketchy way of life could be preserved.
Teaching at Assumption College, a college founded by the Augustinians of the Assumption, I have had the opportunity to see young, pre-conversion Augustine many times sitting in front of me in the classroom. Many of our students come from similar backgrounds: financially not wealthy, but not exactly struggling either, raised by one or two parents who care much, much more about their child’s professional success than his or her formation as an excellent human being. These parents know that these children do not always make the best decisions about important things, but they cross their fingers and/or say a prayer and hope for the best.
The students for their part are generally curious enough to raise at least some basic interest in the so-called “big questions” about life, the universe, and everything. But when confronted with the challenges posed by these questions to their decision-making on the weekend, many of them choose to think less hard.
The difference between the best of Assumption’s students and the rest are in those with whom the comparison to young Augustine is most apt. Education in the liberal arts should encourage us to grow beyond our families of origin. It should prepare us to be productive members of society. But first and foremost, it should give us the environment in which we can grow into excellence as human beings. When confronted by the challenges raised by the big questions, does one grow and adopt a more mature way of living? Or does one decide that intellectual pursuit of the most important questions is an interesting way to get through class time, but not really important to one’s day-to-day life? I submit that those who can’t take these conversations beyond the classroom will also not take them beyond the doors of the college. The result will be well-trained professionals who can continue to make the machinery of the world continue to grind forward, while the heart and soul of humanity continues to erode.
St. Augustine, pray for us.