Articles Index  
  Patron Saints
of Education
  USA Directory  
Etienne Gilson,
Director of Studies, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto

Given as a McCauley Lecture on April 14, 1953, at Saint Joseph College for Women, West Hartford, CT.

Two years ago, on April 30, 1951, the Catholic world was celebrating the third centenary of the birth of St. John Baptist de la Salle, and even outside the Church many men open to the significance of his work joined in the celebration. No homage could have been more general or better observed. It is not my intention to celebrate the sanctity of de la Salle, but I have reason to begin this lecture by mentioning his name. For, were I asked to cite what appears to me as one of the higher moments in his spiritual life, I would recall an episode which even his historians sometimes forget, unless they veil it in order not to hurt our modern feelings.

We are in 1681. At that date, de la Salle has already done a great deal to foster the work of popular education. In 1679 he had already rented a house next door to his own in Rheims, and he had provided the masters of his schools with what they needed to live, including the daily food supplied to them from his own kitchen. Yet, for reasons he could not clearly discern things were not working according to his desire, so he consulted another saintly priest, Father Barré, who had founded several poor schools in Rouen, and he asked him for advice about what he should do. Father Barré's answer was a simple one: "Do you really want to form your teachers to piety and to make them love their work on account of the good they can do? Take them into your own house and live in their company."

Seen from a distance and with modern eyes, this piece of advice does not appear particularly terrible. Since he was already supporting the masters in the house next door, why should this holy man have hesitated to welcome them into his own home? After all, he would have saved the rent of a house. Yet Father Barré was confronting de la Salle with the hardest decision he ever had to make during the course of his life. And do you know why? Because he was being asked to take teachers in his own home! He himself belonged, if not to high nobility, at least to the best society of his native city; schoolteachers, on the contrary, were simply nobody; no gentleman could be expected to live with such people in his own house without raising a sort of social scandal. De la Salle knew it well, first from his own personal feelings, for he was a man of his time, but also from the feelings of his family, which was sure to consider itself publicly insulted by such a decision. He made it, however, not without a severe internal struggle, and the result was a twofold one.

On the human side, his family considered him crazy and all his younger brothers and sisters were taken away from the schools he was conducting, as if he were incompetent to care for them. This was to remain in his memory as one of the deepest sorrows of his life. On the supernatural side, his sacrifice was rewarded a hundredfold, for it became the source of the prodigious development of popular education by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. How could I forget this episode? I am indebted to it for my first Christian education.

In recalling it, however, I fully realize that this is not a wholly democratic story. It is full of social class prejudice which we are supposed to have long overgrown. But have we, at least as completely as we like to imagine? Socially speaking, I hope I, can truly say yes. But I am not certain that many men have ever stopped to consider what kind of work it is to teach. I am not even certain that all teachers think of asking themselves the question. We teach because, at the time of our youth, for reasons that even then were not too clear to ourselves and that we have partly forgotten, we decided that we would be teachers. Others are teaching by religious obedience and chiefly as a way of serving the Church. Still others just found themselves engaged in the work of teaching, as much by chance as of their own will; and since they once began to teach, they continue to do it. When it is not saintly, all this is at least natural, sensible, and above any reproach, but it will certainly not do any harm for us to ask ourselves: What do we do when we teach?

This is by no means an easy question to answer, unless, of course, we content ourselves with a nominal definition of teaching activity in general. Incidentally, this is what common sense would do. To teach, any sensible man would say, is to give lessons at school or elsewhere, in or on any subject. It is to cause a person to do something― for instance, to read and write ―by instruction and training. But if you had desired to hear a sensible man, you would not have invited a philosopher. The true philosopher's business is precisely to ask questions which common sense considers settled, and, let us add, rightly so. Should it be resolved that all teaching will be suspended in schools until a world convention of teachers agrees about what it is to teach, pupils could joyfully envisage an exceedingly long vacation. The words of a philosopher can bring about no such visible effects; they are the words of a soul quietly talking to itself, but they can be heard by other souls, and invisible effects may attend the silent realization of their meaning.

Let us therefore start from common sense in order to go beyond it. To teach, the dictionary says, is by instruction to enable or to cause a person to do something. And indeed, all teachers know that they are causes. I would even suggest that, the simpler their teaching is, the better they know this. At the end of the year a professor of metaphysics may well wonder what he has caused his pupils to do that they could not already do on the very first day they entered his classroom. But there is no place for such doubt in the mind of the primary-school teacher. At the beginning of the school year he has been given a batch of boys and girls, none of whom could read a line, and, marvel of marvels, at the end of the same year they all can read. By both instruction and training, the teacher has caused them to read, and his reward is not in his salary, for quite a few other jobs would enable him to keep soul and body together, which is about all he does; his true reward is the joy he has taken, despite his hours of discouragement, in seeing his efforts progressively rewarded first by his best pupils, then by all the others. There was something they could not do, and now they all can do it, and he is the cause that they can. Here we are at once stumbling upon a truly metaphysical question. So long as we quietly enjoy teaching, no problem arises; but as soon as we begin to wonder why we enjoy it, we must ask the next question: Why is there pleasure in exercising this kind of causality?

Were we left to ourselves, we might have to wait a long time before finding an answer. We might even despair of ever finding one and quit bothering about the question. Such failures to find an answer can always be blamed on the question; we simply conclude: It does not make sense. But, precisely, this one does, and we can apply for an answer to those who asked it before us. If we believe in teaching, we should also feel willing to be taught.

The first remark to make on this point is that, properly speaking, to learn by being taught is not to invent. Improperly speaking, to invent is to teach oneself. Grown-up people are doing it constantly, and children begin to do so much earlier than we think. As soon as a human being knows something, he begins to enlarge the amount of his knowledge by a personal effort. But unless we use words in a loose way, we cannot say that this process of personal reflection, however fruitful it may be, constitutes a real teaching. When we are learning from a book, the problem becomes different; the book and its author are our teachers. There is teaching here because there is a teacher who is another than the pupil. This personal relation between two distinct human beings is essential to teaching; no man is to himself his own teacher in any department of human life, and we all know this even from common language. When a man says, "I am my own master," he merely means that he has no master. So also in the order of teaching: to be oneself one's own teacher does not mean not to learn, but it certainly means to have no teacher at all.

Now what is this precise relation which we find between teacher and pupil? I have just been using the word "master," and although there is some tendency to shun it in our day, or at least not to use it with the fullness of its implications, it still retains some of them. Besides, it is not used only in the language of schools. The master of the house or the master of a merchantman is supposed to have control over the house or the ship. In mediaeval universities a master was the holder of a degree giving authority to teach. Today, as in the thirteenth century, a master's control extends not only to his pupils but often to their masters. In all such cases, the notion of master implies that of authority. By its very nature it is not a democratic notion. Assuredly, we are doing our very best to make teaching as democratic as possible. Modern teachers are urged not to boss their pupils and, in point of fact, we sometimes meekly suggest to them that, did they accept to listen to us, we might perhaps teach them something. Yet, when all is said and done, the very act of teaching implies the admission of a certain inequality not indeed in nature, nor even in intellectual ability, but at least in knowledge. A man knows something, others do not know it, there is no way for the teachers to cause it to become known without putting it, willy-nilly, in the heads of his pupils. There can be no equality between a cause and its effect. To cause is to act upon; to be caused is to be acted upon, and no pedagogy will ever do anything about this.

In the case of teaching, however, this is not the whole story. When we light a wood fire, all that the wood has to do is to be burned. Wood is completely passive with respect to burning, but children are not so with respect to learning. When they enter a school, however young they may be, they have already exercised, practically at every waking moment of their lives, the extraordinary operation called cognition. Mysterious as it is, knowledge is a natural function of man. Children walk because they have legs, they breathe because they have lungs, they see because they have eyes, and they know because they have an intellect. Not only do they know, but they love knowing, just as they love breathing and walking. Let us rather say that they cannot help doing these things because no organ can help performing its natural operations.

Yet we all know that it takes them an effort to learn what they are taught in schools. The reason is that teaching in school confronts the child with a kind of knowing operation he is not yet used to performing. However simple we may try to make it, what we teach in schools always remains a typically adult learning. Left to himself, provided only he be out of early infancy, a child performs marvelous intellectual operations. The first time he says "dog," he has already seen things, perceived analogies between them, formed the abstract concept of a class, and attached a name to it. Any normal child achieves this feat without even being aware of it, and he repeats it endlessly without effort. On the contrary, as soon as we teach him to read, to write, or to count, we ask him to perform operations that are not natural to his intellect, because they are about symbols and no longer about things. The recognition of this fact accounts for the multiplication of images and pictures in modern school books; and we all know their danger as well as their usefulness. By putting pictures under the eyes of the child, we are inviting him to exercise natural cognition, which he loves to do, but, by the same token, we are postponing the time when he will have to make the very effort we must cause him to make if he is to be trained to think in an adult way. There is no natural relation between the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they are suppose to represent, nor between the words and the things they point out, nor yet between numbers and the possible concrete objects whose substitutes they are. Now these are precisely what we consider the simplest things to teach: reading, writing, and arithmetic; but they are indeed the least natural things to learn. This is the reason why learning them requires from the child such an effort, the very same kind of effort he will be asked to furnish throughout the whole course of his studies. If we think of it, most of what we are teaching consists of techniques, either scientific or linguistic, whose practical usefulness, supposing it exists, the young student cannot see. Since he cannot see it, the effort required for the mastering of such techniques is made doubly hard because, in his mind, it has no justification.

This is precisely the point at which the teacher not only has a part to perform but becomes a necessity. We should not imagine that school children know nothing more than what they are taught in schools. In fact, what we teach them is but an infinitesimal part of their knowledge, but it is precisely made up of what, without us, they would never learn. No wonder, then, that in the good old days teachers were so commonly called masters. Where an effort is required, to obtain it by persuasion is by far the best thing to do, when it can be done; otherwise, there is no other recourse than to authority, unless, of course, we renounce obtaining it.

 Now, to obtain from the pupil this effort upon himself, which he can see no reason to give, except the words we say, is the highest and noblest part in the work of the teacher. It also is by far the most difficult one; so much so that we are all trying to ease the difficulty. The present tendency to make everything as easy to learn as possible is perfectly justified so long as it is a question of teaching those elementary techniques which are part and parcel of the mental equipment of a civilized man. The three Rs need not be made more difficult than they naturally are, but beyond the level of elementary education, while there is still no reason to make things harder than they actually are, we should not wish to rid our pupils of the effort necessary to learn them. First of all, the thing cannot be done; where the pupil has no personal effort to make, he needs no help and consequently no teacher. Next, if the difficulties are inherent in the teaching matter at stake, they usually can be simplified up to a point, but we cannot eliminate them without eliminating the matter itself. Hence the sometimes bitter disappointment of so many grown men and women when they remember their school years. How is it, they sometimes say, that I have had three or four years of this and that, and yet I don't know it? The reason often is that, when a subject is made easy to the point of ceasing to be what it is, it is simply not being taught.

This first way of avoiding the difficulty is a question of programs, school books, and teaching methods. If mistakes are made there, the teachers are in no way responsible for them. But there is a mistake for which some teachers are responsible, and I myself have made it so often that I feel entitled to say something about it. I beg to symbolize it by the well-known aside which escapes us after a strenuous effort to explain a difficult point: "I hope I am making myself clear." Now of course we must try to make ourselves clear; this certainly is one of the most important results to achieve for any master interested in his work, but we should not consider it the most important one. There is no use in displaying evidence before eyes that make no effort to see it; when they do see it, the reason is not that we made it so clear that we understood it for our pupils; sooner or later they have to understand it by themselves, and their own effort to understand it is for them the only way there is to learn it. The most scientifically pedagogical methods are bound to fail if they go against the facts of nature. In this case, the fundamental fact of nature is that no man can understand anything for another one. No master can take his own knowledge out of his own mind and put it in the head of his pupils. The only thing he can do is to help them to put it themselves into their own minds. To the extent that he has achieved this result, a teacher can justly feel conscious of having attained the proper end of his professional activity.

Abstract as it may sound, this general conclusion can help to clear up certain pedagogical controversies. For instance, if what precedes is true, there is no fundamental difference between the classical method, which proceeds by professorial expositions and lectures, and the so-called Socratic method, which proceeds by questions and answers, that is, by mode of dialogue. However you may choose to teach them, your pupils have the same kind of intellect that you have, they use the same principles of natural reason that you yourself are using; the only difference is that, in your own mind, a certain number of consequences are related to these principles and follow from them according to a certain order which you know but which your pupils do not know. What you achieve in teaching is precisely the communication of this order. Whether you do this by continuous exposition or by questions and answers does not make any difference. If you are lecturing, you know the order beforehand; if you are asking questions, these must needs be leading questions and their order is precisely your own lead. The teacher is equally active in both cases and he is so in the same way; and the learner is equally passive in both cases, in the sense that his mind has to follow the order already present in the mind of the teacher. But there again the learner's passivity comes to an end, for indeed, for him to reproduce this order is to produce it. Having to answer the objection of those who precisely denied that a master could put into the heads of pupils something that was not already there, Thomas observed that "if questions be put in orderly fashion, they proceed from universal self-evident principles to what is particular. Now by such a process knowledge is produced in the soul of the learner." So the master really causes knowledge to be in the mind of the pupil; but, Thomas goes on to say, when the learner answers the truth, "this is not because he had knowledge previously, but because he then acquires knowledge for the first time." 1 And indeed, there is no other choice. The proper effect of the act of teaching is to cause a personal discovery in the mind of the pupil.

Thomas Aquinas has several times considered this remarkable problem, and apart from minor variations in the expression of his thought, he has always answered it in the same way. One of the favorite examples he uses in such cases is a comparison between the art of teaching and the art of healing. In both cases, a certain acquired learning is at the origin of the process. The physician knows what he has to do in order to heal the patient, just as the teacher knows what he has to say in order to instruct the pupil, but the physician can no more give to the patient his own health than the teacher can give his own learning to the pupil; last, not the least, the physician can do little more than to cause nature to recover health in the body of the patient, just as the teacher does nothing more than to cause the intellect to acquire knowledge in the soul of the pupil. Only― and I hope you will remember this in view of the conclusion of this lecture ―the relation of master to pupil is a still more intimate one than that of physician to patient, because it does not obtain between a mind and a body, but between two minds. What is the term of the teacher's action, Thomas has just told us, is that the pupil acquires knowledge for the first time; and this is true, but it has its counterpart on the side of the teacher. In order to cause his pupil to invent learning, he himself must invent again what he is teaching, or, rather, he must go again, before his pupils, through the whole process, now familiar to him, of the invention of each and every truth. The teacher, Thomas says, begins to teach in the same way as the inventor begins to invent.2 In other words, unless he be actually thinking aloud and engaging his own intellectual activity in his lecture, the teacher does not really teach. Incidentally, this is one reason why it is doubtful that any mechanical device will ever replace the actual presence of the real teacher. Only a living intellect, patiently preceding us on the way to truth, can effectively teach us how to think.

Although I am mostly using modern words, what I am now telling you is a very old truth, or, rather, a standing one. It can easily be found in one of the disputed questions of Thomas Aquinas On Truth:3 "When they say that a teacher transfuses his learning to his pupil, this does not mean that the learning that is in the master is to be found afterward, numerically the same, in the pupil; it means that a learning similar to that of the master is caused in the pupil by the fact of his being taught." In other words, there is no transfusion of learning in the sense that there are transfusions of blood. We can give our own blood to others; we cannot give them our own learning.

And yet, see what an extraordinary thing teaching is! St. Thomas Aquinas died in 1274― that is, nearly seven hundred years ago― and on the very moment he died, his own learning died together with him. From the new life he was then beginning to live, he could no longer communicate with us by means of words. But today, men unknown to him ask themselves the question: What is it to teach? And remembering that he himself spent his whole life teaching or being taught, these men turn to him for an answer. All that is left of him in this world is paper covered with ink and sentences written in a dead language that is not even our own. We read his words, however, and suddenly what was alive in his mind seven centuries ago begins a new life in our own understanding. How is this possible? Simply because, while reading the dead signs symbolizing his thought, our own minds have themselves formed the same notions that were in the mind of Thomas Aquinas at the time when he wrote those lines. In saying the same notions, I naturally mean to say not the very same notions which once lived in his mind but, rather, similar ones. His learning has become the cause of our learning, and still this learning is truly our own, not his. In short, Thomas Aquinas has been our teacher, and we have been his pupils, because he has caused us to produce in our own minds a learning similar to his own learning.

Here is precisely the point where the eminent dignity of teaching appears in full. Without attempting a philosophical definition of man, this at least can be said, that he is the only known species of speaking animal, and the reason why he has an articulate speech is that he has an articulate thought. The thinking power of man, which we call his intellect, is what makes him different from all the other kinds of living beings. If to teach is what we said it is, it implies the meeting of two human intellects― that is, of two human beings taken precisely in that which makes them to be men, namely, their understandings. Every other kind of job has its usefulness; consequently, it has its own dignity; but this particular one does not consist in producing material goods, in exchanging them, or in selling professional advice, or in taking care of the Bodies of our fellow men. In point of fact, it is like nothing else. The relationship that obtains between the master and his pupils is that of an intellect which has already actualized its own potentialities, with another intellect whose potentialities are still to be actualized by the teaching of the master.

From this point of view, the reason for this ancient appellation should become clear. Whether or not we give him the title, the teacher is indeed a master because, owing to his intellectual maturity and his own learning, he alone is the prime cause of the whole teaching process. But the nobility of his work arises as much from its end as from its cause. What his intellect is acting upon is another human intellect, endowed with the same natural light as his own, just as noble and irreducibly personal as his own intellect is, and which, if his pedagogy is sound, he can cause to think, but for which he cannot think. It is true that in comparison with the understanding of the master, that of the pupil is in a state of receptivity or, to use the technical term familiar to philosophers, of potentiality. But, if I may be permitted to borrow once more from Thomas Aquinas one of his more felicitous expressions, I shall say that the understanding of the pupil is in a state of "active potentiality" 4. Without this active receptivity, Thomas Aquinas goes on to say, man could never learn anything by himself, which he certainly can do. In short, man does not have two distinct intellectual powers, the one by which to learn by himself, the other by which to learn from his teacher. The intellect by which the pupil can learn from his teacher is the very same intellect by which he can learn by himself. For indeed he has no other one. This is the true reason why the ultimate end of our pedagogy should be to teach children to learn by themselves, because, in fact, there is nothing else we can teach.

How impractical all this probably sounds! And yet how practical it is! However heavily we load our programs, and however widely we may diversify them in order to answer the future needs of all our pupils, many of them will feel later on that they have been taught many things they did not need to know, whereas what they did need to know has never been taught to them in school. There is a safe way for us to protect ourselves against this otherwise inevitable reproach, and it is to teach our pupils to learn by themselves instead of trying to impart to them an always larger amount of learning.

Should we consider it possible to do this still more than we are already doing it, no pupil would ever regret having spent so many years in school and no master would ever wonder if he has not been wrong in his choice of a career. For we now know the answer to one of the first questions we asked at the beginning of this lecture: Why do good teachers love to teach? Why do they take pleasure in exercising this particular type of causality? The answer is that since to be is to act, all beings like to exercise causality for the same reason that they like to be. Now causality is the very act by which a being gives something of itself to another being, and this is the reason why effects naturally resemble their causes. The good teacher then loves to teach because he loves to impart to his pupils the very best thing there is in him, namely, intellectual life, knowledge, truth. The generosity inherent in the very act of being finds here its highest manifestation, and the purest kind of pleasure should naturally attend its exercise. The highest reward of teaching is, the joy of making other minds similar, not indeed to ourselves, but to the truth which is in us.

To cause, Thomas Aquinas says, is to produce something which resembles its cause, and this is a universal law of nature; but if we think of it, this is a law of nature only because it is first the divine law. Before being a cause, the teacher himself is an effect of God; as such, he resembles his cause, and all his actions and operations, when properly directed, have for their own end to make him more and more similar to the sovereign cause whose effect he is. This is true not only of man but of each and every thing that is, moves, acts, and operates. In Thomas' own words: "the last end of all things is to become like God." 6 This is what a stone does when it falls, what an animal does when it lives, and what a man does when he thinks. Only, because thought is the highest and most noble known form of activity in nature, man is the highest and noblest among the known images of God. If to teach is to cause others to think, it is to help them in becoming not only like unto their masters but unto the Master of their masters, God.

In concluding, and since I myself am an old teacher, I had better remind myself that I have not spoken about the eminent dignity of teachers but about the eminent dignity of teaching. A true teacher is what, as I hope, we all are, at least up to a point, but the ideal notion of what teaching truly is should not be considered a description of what we are; it is the yardstick that measures what we ought to be. Just as few men measure up to the eminent dignity of man, few teachers are fully equal to the eminent dignity of teaching. This is so true that when one of them is, the Church, in her truly divine wisdom, proclaims to the whole world that he is a saint: St. John Baptist de la Salle, for his infinite love of the little ones and a whole life devoted to turning them into better images of God; St. Albert the Great, on account of his unquenchable thirst for scholarship, which consists in knowing all that is knowable to man just as God knows all that is knowable to God; and Thomas Aquinas, who preceded them both on the altars for the very remarkable reason that he had dedicated his whole life to the pursuing of truth for the pure love of truth.

Now, since he himself was a professor, Thomas Aquinias once asked himself if he had not better spend his life speculating about truth, which is contemplation, rather than teaching it to others, which is action. In doing this, he was asking himself a rather embarrassing question. Not that he ever took any pride in being a professor. As he liked to say: To be a master is not an honor, it is a task. But like all good masters, despite some occasional grumbling, Thomas loved to teach. On the other hand, he had read in the Gospel the well-known story of Martha and Mary, and since Mary had chosen the better part, how could he doubt that contemplation was better than action? Of course he did not doubt it, but he had spent his whole life teaching the truth; he still wanted to do so and he could not persuade himself that his life would have been a better one if he had kept to himself his own accumulated learning instead of sharing it with so many disciples. So he found this remarkable way out of the difficulty: to act is not as noble as to contemplate, and it is true that to teach is to act, but to act in view of imparting to others the fruit of contemplation is more noble than contemplation alone.6

Majus est contemplata aliis tradere quam solum contemplari: it is a greater thing to distribute to others what one has contemplated than only to contemplate. What life, then, could be more noble than that of a teacher, if it achieves in its perfection the unity of action and of contemplation? Yes, some will say, but Thomas Aquinas was a teacher, and his answer was very clever; only the teaching of the Gospel remains what it is, and when all is said and done, Mary has still chosen the better part. Who would deny this? Certainly not Thomas Aquinas, for he was not trying to be clever; as usual, he was simply trying to say the truth. And the truth is that if there has been a teaching of the Gospel, there also must have been a teacher. Not this time St. John Baptist de la Salle, nor St. Albert the Great, nor St. Thomas Aquinas, but He better than whom no man can ever pretend to do: the teacher and the divine model of all teachers, namely, Christ.


  1. Summa Theologiae, I, 84, 3, ad 3m; trans. A. C. Pegis, Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas (N. Y.: Random House, 1948), p. 385.
  2. Summa Contra Gentiles, II, 75.
  3. De Veritate, XI, 1, ad 6m.
  4. Op. cit., XI, 1, Resp.
  5. Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 20; ed. cit., p. 439.
  6. Summa Theologiae, II-II, 186, 6, Resp.