On Education, Formation, Citizenship and the Lost Purpose of Learning

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Joseph Clair
Reading Augustine
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Joseph Clair’s On Education, Formation, Citizenship, and the Lost Purpose of Learning takes stock of the crises of higher education and gestures toward a moral and social path forward by means of reclaiming an Augustinian frame, over against what he deems Platonic or Romantic alternatives (7). He draws predominantly from the bishop’s writings Confessions, The City of God, and the oft-ignored On Order. After an initial chapter that assesses the dilemma today, chapters follow addressing the need to order love, the discipline of reading closely, the cultivation of a certain sort of citizenship, and then a summative sketch of his approach as a “Christian adaptation of the Platonic view” (103).

“Liberal arts education today is entrenched in a kind of naturalist secularism that presumes freedom from and neutrality in regard to all spiritual, religious, and metaphysical beliefs, and a kind of materialism with regard to the purposes of human life that has no room for shared or public appeals to transcendence, sacredness, or religious value” (11). How can moral formation be pursued via liberal studies? Clair suggests that Augustine prompts us to order our loves internally, with regard to God, and with regard to our neighbor (chapter 2): “Internal shaping makes one more susceptible to external reality in its fullness—in itself, for its own sake—rather than as an object to be used for one’s private purposes” (39). Focused attention on texts and resources develop habits of patient observation, alert analysis, and critical engagement. Clair argues, then, that liberal studies prepare one to be neighborly (56; see also chapter 4).

“It is critical to ask anew,” Clair writes, “What view of the human person is required to sustain the liberal arts? What kinds of people ought the liberal arts produce?” (60) Though most schools might shirk such a query, he says that “the contemporary college reader is stuck between an essential self and the dizzying freedom of inventing oneself” (61). By contrast, Augustine calls for a moral vision of reading that is defined by attention: “Attention, for Augustine, is the mind’s desire. The capacity for sustained attention is a faculty that must be trained and exercised. The soul is prone, in Augustine’s view, to live a scattered, fragmented mental view” (65). Such attention shapes the self by providing the capacity for genuine critique and a form of intellectual asceticism: “By reading, Augustine becomes increasingly convinced that the self is not in there—somewhere in inner space—like an inner pearl waiting to be found, but rather it must be called forth and created by words in conversation with God” (71). Reading great texts, especially the biblical Psalms, “offered Augustine a therapy for disordered desire” (78).

Clair’s text draws attention to a few key Augustinian texts and does so with appropriate detail and clarity. In that sense, it serves as a good entryway to the Augustinian corpus on formation. On the other hand, it alludes to and makes judgments about contemporary higher education and even political theory without citing and engaging contemporary sources in any detail. It serves as something of an insurgency of intellectual retrieval, which provides both its energy as well as its limitations. Readers who are somewhat versed in major projects on the contemporary table—for example, the kinds of writings gathered now in The Rise of the Research University, edited by Louis Menand, Paul Reitter, and Chad Wellmon (University of Chicago Press, 2017)—will find that this text injects a new set of principles, resources, and moral commitments.

Others will ask if this is not simply a doubling down on the texts of the supposed Western canon, but perhaps the greatest mark of the book is to show that reading classic texts of the “Augustinian canon” does not invoke a satisfaction with any cultural status quo but actually provides a genuinely metaphysical, teleological, and thus truly generative source of intellectual critique (see esp. 95-96). Indeed, he goes further to query the possibilities of self-criticism apart from a moral and spiritual commitment that has metaphysical and transcendent roots and, thus, a genuinely humane teleology. In that regard, this book has a number of similarities to the ongoing witness regarding the calling of critical inquiry and the need for liberal studies in the dialogues of Robert George and Cornel West, though it ranges in a more focused way over the Platonic and especially Augustinian approaches than do those two in their discussion of the liberal arts. As a foray toward the calling of reading deeply as a facet of an intellectual asceticism and a serious option for those concerned about higher education, I commend Clair’s book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph Clair is Director of the William Penn Honors Program and Associate Dean for the Liberal Arts at George Fox University, USA. He is the author of Discerning the Good in the Letters and Sermons of Augustine (2016).


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