Book 5 of the Confessions contains wisdom for teachers and students. A core insight comes from Augustine’s intellectual transition away from Manichaeism. After listening to and reasoning with Faustus, a renowned Manichean teacher, Augustine realized that Faustus was all talk but no substance. Reflecting on the encounter, Augustine remembers the following realization:

I had come to understand that just as wholesome and rubbishy food may both be served equally well in sophisticated dishes or in others of rustic quality, so too can wisdom and foolishness be proffered in language elegant or plain. (Conf. 5.6.10)

Ideally, wisdom and elegance come together, but they can come apart. Wise truths can often be stated plainly or appear rather ugly. Foolish falsehoods can be spoken with dexterity and elegance.

As a teacher tasked with introducing some very old texts to some very new (and skeptical) college freshmen, I’m constantly thinking about this dynamic. How do I present texts in ways that would excite students and make it more palatable? Should I pair Augustine’s Confessions with Kendrick Lamar’s more confessional albums to be more “relevant”? Should I relate Augustine’s struggle with hazing and peer pressure to the experience of rushing for sororities or fraternities? Is the potential risk of introducing falsehoods worth it?

I answer ‘yes’ to the questions above. However, there’s another side to this. Students can learn from a text through shock – by encountering something completely alien to their lived experience. Consider Attar’s Conference of the Birds, an allegory for the religious pilgrim’s journey towards union with God. The journey involves actively crushing the self, abandoning the treasures and even loved ones of this world, and loving God with a maniacal devotion. Foreign and even unattractive as this may be to students (and to me), this alternate way of life poses an important question: why think that a life devoted only to cultivating and promoting oneself, seeking the treasures of this world, and living dispassionately comes any closer to how we should live? Here, perhaps the shocking and unpalatable appearance of Attar’s wisdom is exactly what is needed for us to draw nearer to it.

I’ll close with this. When it comes to teaching and learning, it requires at least two to tango. A teacher’s ability to speak truths with elegance is only as effective as a student’s willingness to accept them. When a class does not go well, it can be easy for the teacher to blame the students for not caring or reading carefully enough. It can be just as easy for students to blame their teaching for being unclear, boring, or too demanding. On the flip side teachers and students can also blame themselves for not preparing well enough. What’s missing in all of this is that both sides must step up.

Here Augustine provides wisdom for both students and teachers alike. As Augustine writes near the end of book 5 of the Confessions:

I was taking no trouble to learn from what Ambrose was saying, but interested only in listening to how he said it, for that futile concern had remained with me, despairing as I did that any way to you could be open to humankind. Nonetheless as his words, which I enjoyed, penetrated my mind, the substance, which I overlooked, seeped in with them, for I could not separate the two. As I opened my heart to appreciate how skillfully he spoke, the recognition that he was speaking the truth crept in at the same time, though only by slow degrees. (5.14.24)

May the teachers among us emulate St. Ambrose’s elegance and the students among us emulate St. Augustine’s open heart to equal measure.