Friday, February 10, 2017


Last week at Kramerbooks, I noticed on the shelves Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, by James Schall, S.J., and bought it. The Jesuits, I thought, have put some thought into the conditions of teaching and learning, and here is one who has something to say about them. Having read the book through, I don't regret the purchase, though I suspect that Schall has written better books.

Many of the essays in Docilitas were delivered as lectures, and therein lies some of the weakness of the book. Lectures, to be taken in by ear, must be more repetitive and diffuse than essays written to be read. One notices some of that in the various chapters.They are also delivered to a particular audience, gathered in one place at one time. Some of the lectures were delivered in New England, some in the Midwest, others on the West Coast, and all over a range of a dozen years or so. In print, they run to not quite 200 pages, and the reader thinks, Yes, you said that a few pages ago.

Lectures may also come to be transcribed more or less accurately. I don't know how these came to be written down, whether from stenographers' transcripts or from Schall's own copies, but omitted words and confusing formulations occasionally suggest the former. In any case, it is a distraction when one reads a sentence a couple of times, and finally concludes that a pronoun has been omitted. This happens now and then, and if I re-read the book, I will mark such places.

There are other signs of carelessness. A passage from Johnson is ascribed to Boswell. The date of an utterance of Johnson's becomes the date of The Life of Johnson. "The Sound of Silence" is a song by the Beatles. There are typographical errors in English and Latin. (One might say in Spanish, too, for the last page of the book gives the author's city of residence as "Los Gator", California.)

Schall writes well, though. To take a trivial example, I have been in the habit of cringing when a homilist introduces a quotation from Peanuts, but Schall usually makes his quotations from Peanuts apposite and effective. (Perhaps the ability to quote Peanuts effectively is distinctly Jesuit, for I remember from forty years ago an essay in America that proposed the following challenge for those aspiring to practice hermeneutics: explain a Peanuts strip to a German.) He is as deft with quotations from Aristotle, St. Augustine, or Goethe as he is with those from Charles Schultz.

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