The Restless Self and the Wayward University
Joseph Clair’s On Education: Formation, Citizenship, and the Lost Purpose of Learning
Kevin Gary

The English philosopher Roger Scruton contends that a university ought to be a place where a student, within its walls, is given a vision of the purpose of life, and with this a conception of intrinsic value. The world outside, beset by utilitarian ways of seeing, is incapable of providing this. In this age of commerce, Scruton fears, “We are in danger of making every purpose a material one—in other words, as Newman saw it, in danger of allowing the means to swallow the ends” (Scruton, 2015, 26). Joseph Clair, in his book On Education, Formation, Citizenship and the Lost Purpose of Learning, fears the whale of commerce might swallow up the liberal arts altogether.

The university, Clair laments, has lost its way—driven more by economic than moral or spiritual purposes. He views contemporary liberal education as having sold its birthright for a mess of pottage. Its greatest champions, touting liberal education as the best preparation for an ever-changing world of work, unwittingly cede ground to economic

justifications as the supreme arbiter of what is most worthwhile to study. To repair this situation Clair turns to the life and thought of Augustine, illuminating how Augustine’s existential journey from materialist careerism to a passionate faith in Christ provides a model and an instructive guide for how to restore the liberal arts and imbue the modern university with a moral and spiritual center that it presently lacks. Clair’s book is part of a larger series that aims to make clear Augustine’s significance to contemporary thought. By this standard, On Education is a compelling read. It brings fresh air to Augustine’s remarkable life. In just 120 pages, with Augustine as his guide, Clair diagnoses the disarray that afflicts the modern university, making a case for liberal education grounded in moral and spiritual purposes. Towards this end, he examines how a proper education rightly orders human love and desire, presents an apologetic for a kind of reading that edifies the soul, examines how we should conduct ourselves as vigilant citizens amidst a sea of interests competing for our affections, and offers a preliminary sketch of a way forward in light of Augustine’s vision.

A central focus in Clair’s account is learning how to read for transformation. His argument echoes what Søren Kierkegaard describes (fourteen centuries after Augustine) as primitive reading. More than fodder for critical thinking, texts in this tradition are regarded as sources of profound wisdom. The primitive reader has the capacity to read such texts for moral and spiritual transformation. The supreme example of this kind of reading is on display in book VIII of The Confessions. Moved by a child singing, “take up and read,” Augustine is prompted to pick up the Apostle Paul’s epistles; he reads the first passage he opens, and his life is transformed at that very moment. Augustine renounces the carnal pursuits that had consumed him and embraces faith in Christ.

In essence, the central pedagogical question Clair examines is what prompted Augustine’s epiphany, and how do we educate our students for this kind of transformation? Why, at this moment, did the of words of Scripture move Augustine’s heart, where previously he found Scripture to be simplistic and childish, especially when compared to the elegant prose of Cicero? Augustine’s liberal learning, rather than preparation for this kind of reading, was an inoculation against it. Rather than spurs for moral improvement or occasions for contemplation, Augustine was trained to value texts insofar as they entertained and/or sharpened his oratorical prowess. Through this process, he became a skillful rhetorician, yet this myopic focus on career advancement and status left him, as he so powerfully illuminated, spiritually aimless and restless.

It was not until Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius that he glimpsed an alternate way of being. Rather than status and materialistic pursuits, Augustine discovered in Cicero’s exhortation the wonder of philosophy. This was, for Augustine, an experience of authentic contemplation. By comparison, Augustine’s studies and career up to this point seemed utterly shallow. Newly awakened by Plato (via Cicero), Augustine pursued this new path with zeal. Yet while he achieved a glimpse of God’s grandeur, he found himself incapable of sustaining this contemplative posture. The ascent heavenward was too much for his defective will. “From the Platonists, Augustine says, he [glimpsed] the moral-spiritual goal of divine contemplation, but not the way there” (22).

Clair tells us that rather than despair, Augustine recognized the humility that contemplation and study required. Herein Augustine arrived at a distinct insight: more than we obtain or grasp the truth, the truth is given to us; we receive it. This humble orientation and receptivity stand in sharp contrast to utilitarian and instrumental approaches that dominated Augustine’s learning. Clair also contrasts it with reading for self-examination (the Socratic model) and reading for self-creation (the Romantic model). For Augustine, reading was an act of self-reception wherein one receives and finds oneself through reading the right kind of texts.

Receptive reading, Clair argues, is a balm against the self’s penchant for distraction and fragmentation. The act of reading (especially Scripture) unifies the self. We are made up of words, and we find ourselves through words. Good texts hold up an edifying mirror that illuminates the soul work that needs to be done and the actions taken toward that end. The self, afflicted with sin, is an “opaque...knotty tangle of desires” (79). “The way to find this wisdom is by inserting oneself--and the memory of one’s life--into the grand narrative of God’s story given in Scripture: by reading oneself into Scripture” (79). Grammar and secular texts are but a preparation for this higher kind of reading.

Good citizenship, Clair argues, is nurtured by such receptive reading, as it cultivates vigilance and “awareness of all the subtle forms of lust for mastery at the level of the individual’s soul and society.” Becoming good citizens, Clair argues, “has to do with becoming good readers: those who inhabit great books and whose identities and loves are formed through the imaginative reception of inherited visions of the good life and good society” (98).

An essential prerequisite for receptive reading, Clair continues, is a proper ordering of the soul, moving in three directions. The first is reigning in our desires for pleasure and trivial distractions, cultivating a capacity for deep attention. Through this process, we acquire the intellectual and moral virtues study requires. The second direction is “ordering our love for God….” This is required lest intellectual endeavors become vain pursuits. The third aim involves directing “outward ordering of affection for other human beings” (104). Without such careful ordering, notes Clair, “disordered desire and the perils of self-love haunt liberal education at every stage…” (49). Christian liberal learning must guard against the dangers that constantly beset liberal education: trivial curiosity, prideful domination, and status-mongering.

Informed by Augustine, Clair offers three major recommendations for colleges and universities today: securing patrons, instituting a great books curriculum that nourishes the soul, and installing teachers who are able to inspire moral and spiritual growth, as well as intellectual. More important than scholarly production, teachers of great books should be adept at guiding students to read them for moral and spiritual edification. Rather than simply dispensing knowledge, such teachers should be skillful at making plain “the richness of texts for the human tasks of living, loving and finding meaning.” (115).

In response to the question of which books should be studied, Clair offers the following Augustinian-informed criteria: “The question of what kind of love is being formed and shaped and produced in the reader is the question and basis for judgment of any text. This is the form of literary criticism that Augustine invents in The City of God” (91). This strikes me as a valuable lens—one that is largely absent from today’s general education conversations.

The overarching question (which Clair answers in the affirmative) is this: can Augustine’s receptive reading (with our loves properly ordered) be restored today? Can students be taught to read texts (not just Scripture but Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Simone Weil, or W.E.B. Dubois) for personal transformation? While I am deeply sympathetic with Clair’s Augustinian vision, I wonder if it goes far enough. The kind of reading Augustine modeled was situated within a quasi-monastic context—nurtured by a robust communal life centered on the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is this formative context which primed and sustained Augustine’s receptive reading.

By contrast, the average undergraduate (outside the classroom) receives a very different kind of formation—one that tends to work against reading altogether, let alone contemplative or transformative reading. The academy itself often at odds with this kind of reading-conditioning students to read texts pragmatically (and often quickly), deconstructively, or with a posture of detachment. The forces against receptive reading operate both within the academy and beyond. While Clairs plan offers some headway in addressing the obstacles present within the classroom (through edifying texts and inspired teaching), it does not speak to navigating the larger culture that forms (or malforms) the desires of students.

The directive that teachers should select texts based upon what kind of love a text promotes is a starting point for a rightly ordering liberal education. Such texts, with inspired teaching, might occasion epiphanies of love rightly ordered. However, without the right kind of community formation and habituation, the transformation Clair hopes for will be short-lived. Perhaps some students will find their way into communities of virtue, but this should not be left to chance.


Kevin Gary is professor of education at Valparaiso University.


Work Cited

Scruton, R. (2015). The End of the University. First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life, (252), 25–30.

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