St Augustine and Students

Augustine was a skilled teacher. Despite never having taught in a modern school his experience in the classroom and his reflections on teaching are extensive and give some pointers to the climate we could come to expect in an Augustinian class room and school.

We have no ready picture of Augustine’s teaching style or manner before his conversion in Milan in August 386.

However his experience was broad. As noted above, in the Roman world education was provided at three levels: literatus (elementary learning to read and write), gramaticus (a grammar school level where students learnt grammar) and rhetor (a tertiary level at which rhetoric which was the study of communication and law). Augustine’s experience of the different levels was intimate. He had himself experienced the elementary level in his home town of Tagaste without much joy then having to live in the nearby town of Madura for his time under the gramaticus as there was no such school in Tagaste. Finally he travelled to Carthage to complete the tertiary stage.


Gozzoli fresco: Augustine at school at Tagaste

On completing this he returns to Tagaste to set up school as a gramaticus. He teaches as rhetor in Carthage and Rome where he has to contend with the problems of a school administrator (unruly students in Carthage and students who do not pay their fees in Rome). However if we are seeking detailed reflections on school climate we will not find them in Augustine. At each level the “school” consisted of a teacher and his class much akin to a one teacher school one might find in rural settings today. The climate of many a school of today often involving hundreds of staff and thousands of students is a new reality. Or is it?

One of the most delightful glimpses we have of the climate or atmosphere in his classroom is in the records of the time he spend teaching his own son Adeodatus and the sons of his friends who had joined him at Cassaciacum near Milan following his conversion. He had abandoned his position as rhetor in the Emperor’s household and had no desire to follow his profession in the normal way any longer.

Interestingly Monica his mother is sometimes a participant and supports him in managing the group. Lively discussion, searching together with his students, awareness of differing stages of preparedness of his students in different topics, Sensitive to this, and filling in that which they might not yet be familiar without embarrassing them in front of the rest of the group are all part of his teaching.

These approaches are related to his fundamental understanding of what it is to teach and to learn. The role of the teacher or educator is to open the learner to question, arose curiosity, create the moment for learning. The classes most often consist of dialogue between the students and the teacher. All participate, discuss and argue. In this atmosphere and methodology we see Augustine implementing his fundamental belief about the nature of teaching and learning. Students with the assistance of the Interior Master ultimately teach themselves.

When those called teachers make use of words to explain the subjects they profess, even those that deal with virtue and wisdom, those known as pupils consider within themselves whether what has been said is true. Contemplating according to their own capacities, they ascertain whether what they have heard accords with the truth they find within. It is only then that they learn. And when the inner response is yes and they discover that what they have been told is the truth, they praise their teachers without realising that, more than their teachers, they are praising those who have been taught. However they make the mistake of calling the exterior persons teachers when they are not that at all. They could be forgiven for such a mistake since there is generally no interval of time between the moment of speaking and that of knowing, and because coming to learn from them follows quickly upon the suggestive force of the speakers’ words, they think that they have learned externally from the one who spoke those words. (The Teacher, 14, 46)


Gozzoli: Augustine at study in Carthage

The counter example is also useful in appreciating his understanding: the role of the teacher in blocking learning! There are people who learn quietly, teach distinctly unquietly, and though they have a patient teacher, they are savage with their learners. We all know, don’t we, how quietly and gently scripture itself teaches us. So someone comes along and reads God’s commandments, reads and understands them, understands them in tranquillity drinking from tranquil waters, feeding on green, clean pastures. Someone else comes along, hoping to hear something from him. He’s bad-tempered, he upsets the student finding fault with his stupidity, for example when he is too slow in understanding something, and by upsetting him he stops him understanding as much as he could have done if he had heard it calmly and quietly. (Sermon 47, 9)

Is Augustine advocating that a school or teachers be simply encouraging or nurturing? The answer to this is very clearly no. He calls for a differentiated approach. One response will not fit all and this demands a very significant effort on the part of the teacher that a permissive encouraging warn demeanour does not. Augustine’s approach requires hard work and intelligence by the teacher on three levels.

Firstly the teacher has to actually create that sense of trust by the students in the teacher. This is an ongoing challenge. In talking about his own experience of teaching he says: It is necessary to relax the tension and to eliminate the fear, creating a climate of kindness and understanding. It is sometimes necessary to break the ice with words and exhortations that cause their trust…But it is necessary to do this with fineness and tact, breathing trust and understanding…, not hurting or embarrassing the student. (Catechesis of Beginners, 13, 19)


Gozzoli fresco: Augustine teaches in Rome

Secondly it requires a real knowledge of the student’s own reality and reaching out to almost live within the other. He exhorts teachers to adapt ourselves to the various personalities within a class and to respond to them in a variety of ways, not simply one way: Let us then adapt ourselves to our students with a love which is at once the love of a brother, of a father and of a mother When once we are linked to them in heart, the old familiar things will seem new to us. So great is the influence of a sympathetic mind that, when our students are affected by us as we speak and we by them as they learn, we dwell in each other and thus both they, as it were, speak within us what they hear, while we after a fashion learn in them what we teach. (Catechesis of Beginners, 12, 17)

This knowledge is essential if the teacher is to be able to respond to the needs of specific students within a class or other setting. The same medicine is not to be applied to all, although to all the same love is due. Different people must necessarily affect the teacher in different ways the teacher’s talk should, as it were, wear an appearance expressive of the mind from which it issues; it should affect the hearer in different ways according as his frame of mind varies, just as his hearers too affect one another in various ways by their mere presence together. Not all are given the same medicine, though the same love is due to all … Some are to be loved gently; others with severity; with love which is an enemy to none, a mother to all. (Catechesis of Beginners, 15, 23)

Clearly Augustine is aware of the climate within the classroom as being influenced by how the students influence each other. More importantly he has a clear awareness of the differing impact of the same words and actions on different students, implying a need to manage in the classroom a whole series of micro climates involving the teacher’s relationship with each student.

Thirdly he calls for a presentation of subject matter in such a way that it arouses the student’s curiosity and builds on what the student already knows in a way that takes advantage of the student’s existing knowledge and experience. He realises intelligence and foresight need to be applied to the subject matter itself but most emphatically what is most required is an understanding of the student that comes of a commitment of care as well as knowledge. The teacher’s function is to develop a gradual approach for the student to the truth, especially for those who, while they may have a love of learning, have yet to develop a sharpness of mind. Without a careful and progressive plan, success cannot be achieved. (Soliloquies, l, 23)

Augustine is clearly not advocating that a school or teachers be simply encouraging or nurturing. That would be a very flawed picture of the Cassaciacum experience. Augustine’s approach requires hard work and intelligence by the teacher on three levels of a) the trust earned of students, b) a real relationship of love for the student that involves knowledge of and attention to each individual and c) a competent knowledge of the discipline and the readiness of each student in terms of that discipline.

Author: From a printed ten-page document by the late Fr Michael Morahan OSA STB BSc MEd Admin(NSW), entitled Climate in the Augustinian School.

Images (above): Three sections of the fresco in the Augustinian Church in San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli circa 1464-65.