Tuesday, January 21, 2020

St Augustine (354 – 430) – Bad-boy turned good… a tale of teaching and lust...

Augustine was a towering figure in Christian thought throughout the Dark Ages, as he helped transform the world of absolute forms and the world of representation into earthy and heavenly realms, Platonism into Christian theology. He was born in North Africa, then via Rome and a conversion to Christianity in Milan, went back to North Africa as a Bishop. Writing towards the end of the Roman Empire, on the cusp of the move from paganism to Christianity, he wrote Confessions a wonderfully reflective and human autobiography where he reveals his own failings, as well as many works of philosophical and theological weight. 


Confessions, Augustine’s psychological autobiography, brings to life his distaste for the education he received. He loathed Greek, the language of teaching, which led to him disliking even the works of Homer and was bored by rote learning, artificial exercises and brutal punishment. It is this self-awareness and the fact that he himself was a classic bad-boy turned good, who redeemed himself later in life, showing that people can change through education, that makes him such a fascinating learning theorist. The book is a lesson in itself, where he teaches by example, explains his own conversion. It’s rather saucy and frank about his relationship with an unmarried woman with whom he has a child, his lust, even stealing. We see in this book an entertaining and readable book, someone who is interested in sex, who teaches by telling his own story. What makes St Augustine so interesting is that this is a man whose theological beliefs were shaped by Platonism, a wold of absolute good, and educational beliefs tempered by his negative experiences as a pupil.

De catechizandis rudibus

In The Teacher and De catechizandis rudibus Augustine shows a detailed interest in teaching methods. As one must be guided by a natural love of God, one must as a teacher give of yourself as a guide and mentor, encourage curiosity, motivate and not rely on punishment. Teachers should plan their work, learn as they teach, look for ways to stimulate learners and show patience. There is a real sense of teaching as a process that is enhanced by understanding learners. 
More than this he recognises that teachers themselves may be the problem, obsessed by their own work, too critical of slow learners or sometimes let personal concerns influence their work. As one of the first philosophers of language he warned us that the mind moves faster than the teacher’s words and the teacher may be communicating in the wrong way, so he recommends that learners interrupt to clarify issues. He talks about the ‘restrained style’ in teaching, in simple, direct language, then the ‘mixed style’ where one elaborates using more motivational language, then the ‘grand style’ for changing hearts and attitudes. First understand your learners as there are those who have a good grounded education, those who are trained in rhetoric who think they know but do not and then the uneducated. He recommends different approaches for all three.
He bring the Christian ethos of love and humility to the act of teaching, seeing pupils as people who must be treated with respect and encouraged towards finding their own inner truths. Remember that he is writing this in the 5th century, showing a rare humility, in an age of religious absolutism. 


Augustine may have been a Platonist but he is not in terms of education. Within the confines of scriptural certainty, he is remarkably sensitive to the needs of the learner and the subtlety of good teaching methods. His two influences, his early bad experience at school and his conversion to Christianity, combine to form a rounded analysis of learning that reflects the humanity of the man. He remained a towering figure in theological thought for centuries, softened by the realism of his early years and as a practising teacher.


Augustine, St. 1952. The First Catechetical Instruction (400), trans. Joseph P. Christopher. Westminster, MD: Newman Press.
Augustine, St. 1968. The Teacher (389), trans. Robert P. Russell. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
Augustine, St. 1997a. On Christian Teaching (426), trans. R. P. H. Green. New York: Oxford University Press.
Augustine, St. 1997b. The Confessions (400), trans. Maria Boulding. New York: Vintage Books.
Brown, P. 1969. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chadwick, H. 1996. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rist, J. M. 1999. Augustine. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Stock, B. 1996. Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Rorty, A.O. (Ed) (1998)  Philosophers on Education: Historical perspectives. London and New York, Routledge.
Howie, G (ed and trans) 1969. St Augustine: On Education, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

No comments: