Education as a socio-cultural entity is constantly developing. Such changes are most prominently seen in the various debates and alterations that occur to the syllabuses and teaching approaches. However, have you ever wondered how and why education developed to where it is today? We’ve decided to dedicate this post to a prominent late ancient theologian who had some significant influence on the course of education development in the West, St Augustine of Hippo.
St Augustine: A Concise Biography
St Augustine (lat. Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis) was born in 354 in Numidia, a Roman province, in North Africa. Scholars generally agree that St Augustine was influenced by his family whilst growing up in terms of his religious beliefs. His mother was a Christian, whilst his father was a pagan and only converted to Christianity on his deathbed. Such a marriage was a fairly common occurrence given that contemporary society had plenty of non-Christian religious cults and social traditions; evidence for which could be found in some of St Augustine’s sermons.
At the ripe age of 17 years old hedonistic and freedom loving St Augustine went to study rhetoric in Carthage, the centre of learning in Numidia. After a brief teaching career in Carthage and his own hometown of Tagaste, St Augustine travelled to Rome in 383 to continue with his studies. Soon he became associated with the royal court in the neighbouring Milan and became an official professor of rhetoric there. However, his political career there was unsuccessful and following the death of his only son, St Augustine found himself in a position of a bishop in a town of Hippo. He remained in this position for the rest of his life.
St Augustine on Education
Given that St Augustine lived in a geographical area that was highly influenced by differing socio-cultural ideas it is unsurprising that he tried to educate local peoples on the official Christian teachings. As a result, a lot of topics that St Augustine discussed are rooted in Christian-based arguments. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t scare us off and cause us to disregard them as outdated as the views expressed by St Augustine remain a significant influence on the way teachers and students interact.
Before we dive into what methods St Augustine recommended for both teachers and students to use, we need to look at how St Augustine saw knowledge. Although according to St Augustine some knowledge (such as knowledge of God’s existence) was present in humans since birth, he viewed the process of acquiring knowledge about the physical world in several stages. Stage one was to gather new information; stage two was to examine the information given; and stage three was to derive conclusions from the analysis of the information. As a result, St Augustine differentiates between knowledge and belief as the former is a process and the latter is not. Such reasoning is not in any way a product of a genius reasoning process. In his understanding of knowledge St Augustine bases his view on an idea that belonged to a Greek philosopher, Plato, who’d argued that humans have innate knowledge about the ideal world that is beyond our physical reality. Consequently, by borrowing some ideas about knowledge from ancient Greek philosophers St Augustine emphasises in his approach to gathering knowledge the idea that it is a process which by no means is a finite entity; thus allowing for some doubts and mistakes to be made on the way.
Just as St Augustine emphasised an idea that learning is a process, he viewed teachers as mentors to the students in this process. Although a significant tension arises from his view that teachers are meant to help students acquire knowledge and that some knowledge is innate, his arguments are still present in today’s approach to education. St Augustine argued that teaching should occur within a context of a community and discussions; an idea that he had probably borrowed from Classical philosophers, like Aristotle and Plato, who’d often employed this type of teaching. Equally, such an approach could’ve arisen because of the lack of literacy within the contemporary society and therefore discussion was the only means of passing information to other people. Apart from the process occurring through discussion, St Augustine also recommended teachers to differentiate between the styles of teaching. The ‘restrained style’ was reserved for discussing subject-specific ideas and questions that may arise from such discussions, whilst ‘the mixed style’ was meant to be used when the teacher had to spark an interest in the subject. The final style, called ‘grand’, was to be used to inspire students and to encourage them to explore the topic on their own. All of these styles were meant to inspire students to understand God, rather than to learn how to, for example, solve math problems. Consequently, whilst being influenced by the culture around him St Augustine managed to develop Classical views on the role of the teacher in their interactions with students by bringing in a Christian worldview.
Finally, let’s address the views St Augustine expressed about students and their education as without the latter group teaching process becomes meaningless. For Augustine there were three types of students: those who were uneducated, those who were educated but by teachers who did not encourage critical thinking and those who were educated in the liberal arts. With the two first groups St Augustine recommended to question their knowledge and to patiently and clearly encourage the students to develop their own ideas about the information they received. When teaching the last group of students, St Augustine recommended to not focus on the information that the students already knew but instead to challenge them into exploring new material. Once again, even here, St Augustine is probably borrowing from the ancient Greek scholars as similar approaches were discussed by another Greek thinker, Aristotle.
To explore this topic further…
- If you’re interested in St Augustine and his core teachings, the introduction of St Augustine’s Confessions that is edited by Penguin Books is an excellent place to start. The introduction gives a reader a concise overview of his ideas and how they developed as well as some biographical details. This edition will also be super helpful to those students that are studying philosophy or theology.
- If you’re interested in the history of North Africa in the Ancient period we strongly recommend Susan Raven’s book, Rome in Africa. It gives you sufficient breadth to grasp the socio-economic as well as the political relationship the Romans had with the region.
- If you’re interested in Western philosophy and its history, an amazing book to start you off with is Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. It’s is also extremely useful for those readers who are either studying philosophy or theology at A-level level at school or at undergraduate level.