The Good Student is Like Earth

In his Commendation and Division of Sacred Scripture (which I, for one, plan to spend more time upon!) St Thomas quotes psalm 103

“You water the hills from your upper rooms, the earth is sated with the fruit of your works.”

St Thomas then explains that he is going to examine four things in order

“the height of spiritual doctrine; the dignity of those who teach it; the condition of the listeners; and the order of communicating.”

I was particularly interested in the third thing, namely, “the condition of the listeners” which I take to be the same thing as “the condition of the students” or more bluntly “the way students should be.”

And guess with what he compares a student?

“Earth”

Students should be like earth!

Why?

Three reasons: Humility, Stability and Fruitfulness!

‘the earth is sated’. This is because the earth is lowest. Proverbs 25:3: ‘The heaven above, and the earth beneath.’ Again, it is stable and firm. Ecclesiastes 1:4: ‘One generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the earth stands for ever.’ Again, it is fruitful. Genesis 1:11: ‘Let the earth bring forth the green herb, and such as may seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind.’

As always St. Thomas is not just making this stuff up. He actually finds fantastic scriptural support even when making points with which I was already inclined to agree.

So he continues.

Similarly, they (ED. “students”) should be low as the earth in humility. Proverbs 11:2: ‘Where humility is, there , also is wisdom.’ Again, firm with the sense of rectitude; Ephesians 4:14: ‘That we may be now no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine.’ And fruitful, as the precepts of wisdom bear fruit in them, Luke 8:15: ‘Having heard the word, hold it fast and bear fruit in patience.’

And he winds the whole argument up thus (as if he could be any clearer!)

Therefore humility is required of them with respect to the learning that comes from listening, Sirach 6:34: ‘If you wilt incline your ear, you shalt receive instruction: and if you love to hear, you shalt be wise.’ Rectitude of the senses with respect to the judgment of what is heard; Job 12.11: ‘Doth not the ear discern words?’ But fruitfulness in discovery, by which from a few things heard, the good listener pronounces many things; Proverbs 9.9: ‘Give an occasion to a wise man, and wisdom shall be added to him.’

I think we are all able to easily see that a student needs to be humble. A person has got to listen and submit his mind to some extent to the words of another.

What I find illuminating is that the student must be firm or stable- which St Thomas also appears to be naming “Rectitude of the senses with respect to the judgment of what is heard.

St Paul’s exhortation teaches the point well

“That we may be now no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine.”

In other words I suppose an excess of humble disciple-ship might produce the kind of students that they used to call “ipse dixit” men. In other words, especially in the case of someone like Aristotle (Ipse), it is not a virtue to simply believe whatever is heard from a teacher even if one has a vague suspicion that the teacher might be speaking a little out of his sphere.

Would-be Aristotelians, like me I suppose, might suffer a little from a criticism in this regard. I admit it. My tendency is to immediately accept as true anything that Aristotle says even if that means suspending other things that appear to have been demonstrated pretty squarely.

For example, it does appear that there is something called light which in fact does appear to move. Yet Aristotle definitely excludes the movement of light by a pretty good argument. I think his argument is basically something like this: If light moved then, one standing on a high mountain at the crack of dawn should be able to see it move. But guess what? A person standing on a high mountain at the crack of dawn does not see it move. So therefore light does not move!

I think that is a great argument. Nonetheless one does have to admit that modern science has enabled us to detect movement at greater speeds than perhaps even the great Aristotle dreamt was possible-although it pains me to say this.

Not that he was wrong about what light is mind you. I mean so what if it moves. The real question is what is it!?!

At any rate, we shouldn’t be tossed to and fro like children by every passing doctrine- and so firmness, like the earth, is what a good student needs.

But don’t let anyone confuse this with granite or marble headed stubbornness!

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
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5 Responses to The Good Student is Like Earth

  1. an Educated Barbarian with well-formed Children says:

    Excellent post. Are we all not students depending on the day’s incidents? Also, as in the case of schooled students, are not the listeners inclined toward humility, stability and fruitfulness somewhat dependent on the confidence they hold in the teacher (i.e., Aristotle, Aquinas, Langley…) as well as a level of ripeness?

    • Mark Langley says:

      Well, I guess that is probably right. Maybe instead of pointing fingers at the student I need to look at what St. Thomas has to say about the teacher! But I was actually thinking more along the lines that you suggest …that we are all students.

  2. an Educated Barbarian with well-formed Children says:

    Excuse me…make that inclination(s).

  3. foolofhearts says:

    Do the three traits you described–humility, stability, and fruitfulness–coincide with the idea of learning through the Socratic Method?

    • Mark Langley says:

      Well I am going to say absolutely yes- although, if I understand the spirit of your question- the Socratic method doesn’t appear to be quite like sitting at the feet of a master and listening with docility, but rather thrives on an atmosphere of “equals” engaged in a spirited back and forth discussion. So from that point of view one doesn’t think first of the virtue of humility or earth like “lowliness.”

      On the other hand in a discussion one hopes that the participants will adopt, on their honor, a spirit of humility when it comes to admitting the discussion to take the direction that logic itself proposes- as opposed to doggedly sticking to one’s own point. You probably have seen a discussion or tow where certain participants stick with hard headed pride to their own point or difficulty even when the “majority” appear to have settled a particular point and are eager to continue or get on with it… So it seems to me that humility is required from each member of a discussion. But again…only as it is directed to allowing one to see the force of another’s argument.

      Some people don’t appear to participate well in discussions in so far as they allow themselves to accept whatever is on the table without giving any evidence of the “stability” of their own minds. Like a rudderless boat that gets turned in any direction that the wind blows- so they let themselves be moved with every comment to a greater or less extent.

      Maybe also some people will refuse to participate fruitfully with any additional insights that they may have – or even give evidence of having been moved by the progress of a discussion. Or perhaps they return to the discussion table the next day having given no evidence of having participated in the discussions that have taken place already…..

      I might be stretching the definition of these virtues a little far here.

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