Teaching or Indoctrination? "Aquinas and His Understanding of Teaching and Learning" by Jānis Ozoliņš

This article by Ozolins gets into some of the metaphysics, epistemology, and anthropology behind a Thomistic view of both teaching and learning. Why would this be important? Well, depending on what philosophies make up one's foundational worldview, one will necessarily draw different conclusions about the nature of what "learning" or "truth" are. One practical application that I think can be witnessed today is on college campuses. Is what is being done in most humanities departments across the country authentic teaching and learning? Is there a distinction between authentic learning versus indoctrination, truth versus propaganda, rational discourse versus ideological possession? If so, what would that distinction be? With the wrong foundation, one can come to the conclusion that truth is socially constructed and therefore malleable. Ozolins takes this claim head on and presents a very different view of what it means to teach and to learn.


Ozolins begins his article by pointing out that there are many contradictory and competing models of education. The one central truth between them might be, simply, that education is about giving the students the ability to learn what is truly beneficial for them. He says that, often today, people confuse practical application with the theory or philosophy of teaching. The two are different from one another. A theoretical understanding of teaching, as distinct from practical classroom activities, might consider whether to work through a "transmission" or "facilitation" model of teaching, or to consider whether knowledge is innate, only needing to be remembered, or truly discovered through experience. 1 This paper is going to get into the nature of teaching and learning in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas as one in which teaching and learning are a secondary process by which people are illuminated by God himself, and if done correctly, drawn toward God in authentic wisdom. 

A Personal Connection Between Teacher and Student

For Aquinas, as well as Aristotle, the height and end of the pursuit of truth is that of the highest causes and ends of things, i.e. that of Metaphysics or Theology. 2 "That is, even if one does not begin from the position of someone who believes in God, in Aquinas' view, someone who seeks wisdom aims at the truth and there can be no further end than its attainment." 3 Thus, the role of the teacher is of utmost importance. To teach is not just to convey facts, but it is to live by what one teaches, it is to set an example with one's life. 4 Another requirement of a good teacher is to have a love, enthusiasm, and mastery of one’s subject area. This enthusiasm will not only draw the student in but the mastery of one’s subject matter will provide a confidence for the student in the subject matter being taught. It is not enough though for this process to be one sided. Even if the teacher fully deploys their duties and enthusiastically offers knowledge to the student, if the student fails to learn it cannot be considered a successful endeavor. Thus it is necessary that there be a relationship between teacher and student in which the teacher can connect to the student on a personal level, and show their care for them as a person. 5

The Necessary Causes Which Allow Learning to Happen

An interesting aspect in the teacher-student relationship is the way in which knowledge is conveyed. Aquinas rejects the mechanistic and reductive view of learning in which knowledge is totally transferred from the teacher to the student in a materialistic sense. Rather for Aquinas this process is much more complicated. There are factors involved in learning which include the teacher, God, the intelligibility of reality, the faculties of knowing in the student, and the student’s desire, or not, to receive. Not only must the teacher effectively convey their knowledge, but the student must choose to have a receptive attitude towards that information. Often, this receptive attitude can only be present by the grace of God. Likewise Aquinas also holds that God has made the world intelligible, such that the student can use his or her own facilities to uncover truth latent in the nature of things, thus the act of learning is one which requires several necessary causes. 6

To get more specific in terms of causality, Aquinas holds that the first and principal cause of all knowledge can only be God himself. This is because knowledge is dependent on being both the being of the knower and the being of the thing known. Thus, the act of teaching and learning is always dependent on God sustaining power which holds all things in being. Human beings are instrumental or secondary causes when it comes to learning. We play a role in the unfolding and uncovering of the truth which God has placed in things. 7 “Underlying Aquinas’ understanding of how teaching brings about learning is a conviction that the world is discovered, that realities previously unknown are brought to light. Finite beings do not create in the absolute sense, but they do co-operate in the unfolding of the universe and in that sense, they bring what was formerly only potentially known into actuality.” 8

Next, the author gets into the nature of teaching. In general, there are two distinct categories of learning, the teaching of oneself by discovery and the teaching by another. The actual process is the same though. Knowledge begins with the most general and self-evident principles one has about reality. It then proceeds to apply these general principles in understanding of more specific things. In having uncovered new conclusions, one is able to continue to move into the realm of new discovery regarding the nature of things. This process is aided by instruments and signs but cannot be reduced to those signs or instruments. Rather, those signs must be understood in terms of the nature and principles behind them, if learning is to occur. The Aristotelian view of learning is that learning is the process of uncovering and unfolding aspects which are already present and latent in the nature of what one knows. 9

How Learning is an Uncovering of What is Already Present

To dig more into the first principles from which all knowledge is extracted, Aquinas says that these are the sine qua non from which teaching and learning must begin. Thus, teaching is not simply like the pouring of water into a vessel, it is more like the planting of a seed from which knowledge may grow. Some examples of these first principles would be those of the Aristotelian logical works, the Principle of Non Contradiction, that the whole is greater than the part, and that evil is to be avoided and the good is to be done. From these first and evident principles which encompass reality in their universal predication, knowledge then proceeds through experience and deduction to uncover more of the details implicit in those first principles. Thus, for Aquinas, truth is not created but is the process of uncovering that which is already present, but hidden. For Aquinas, all humans share the same objective reality and the same kind of nature, thus teaching and learning is a participation in a universal process of humanity.  10 “Aquinas says that we immediately know such things as the principle of non-contradiction, that the whole is greater than the parts, and that we should seek good and avoid evil. This, however, does not commit Aquinas to constructivism and he explicitly rejects any relativist form of constructivism. He rejects it on the grounds that if the mind were to construct its own knowledge from sensory data this would imply that the mind already possessed that knowledge in actuality, since it would otherwise not be able to recognize the perception as being a perception of something. That is, in order to know that one sees a rose, one already has to know what a rose is.” 11

To get more specific, Aquinas holds that the intellect has both an active and passive component. The ability to conceptualize, as well as the presence of universal first principles within us, allows us to take sense data and incorporate it into an abstract and conceptual understanding of the nature of things. This is the role of the active intellect ,which is always abstracting the nature of things from our sensory data, passing it into our passive intellect for understanding. The role of the teacher is to aid in the speed of this process within the student, bringing their mind into contact with the same realities of the teacher’s mind. 12 “Knowledge, by analogous reasoning, pre-exists in the learner, not as pure passive potency, but as active completed potency, that is, the seeds of knowledge already exist within us, which is to say, the capacity to learn and some basic understanding pre-exist in the active learner. If this was not the case, a person could not acquire knowledge independently. Just as the physician can aid the process of healing, so too can the teacher aid the process of learning.” 13

One might ask why, then, is not all learning the same if we share a human nature and an objective reality together? The answer is, of course, that while those things are objective, the penetration in understanding will be different from person to person, and in some, erroneous knowledge may arise. Also, while the most general first principles are the beginning of understanding the world, it is also true that there are many more relative first principles related to different fields, or aspects of reality which are not self-evident, and must be discovered in the reverse process. One must begin with individual facts and observations, and from there to begin to deduce larger unifying realities to them, finally extracting the most universal principles possible for that given field of study. 

[[An analogy here may be helpful. Imagine approaching a forest from a distance. With our sense knowledge we understand the forest in the most universal way possible, it is green, large, and ominous. Then having approached closer, our senses get more specific, picking out the individual trees with their unique branches, etc. Our rational knowledge then kicks in, coming to understand the nature of these trees. Our knowledge is completed when we can walk away with a universal rational principle that applies to all trees. Then this first principle is incorporated into our body of first principles and when we approach the next forest we will begin with a knowledge that is more advanced.]]

Incorporating these lesser principles back into one’s larger worldview accounts for the individuality that is often experienced in the differences between people and their view of things. It also, though, allows us to benefit from the discoveries of the past, pushing the general body of human knowledge forward farther. 14

In Summary

In conclusion… “Central to Aquinas’ conception of teaching and learning is his recognition that the source of all knowledge and understanding is ultimately God. It is God who teaches in the primary sense, since it is through God we have our being. The senses play a crucial role in Aquinas’ account of teaching, since it is through signs, not in themselves, but as understood in this instance as standing for underlying principles and for knowledge already gained, that teachers are able to convey to their pupils new knowledge and understanding. Before this is possible, however, learners need to be ready to learn and be prepared to actively engage in discovering new connections among things. They need to be prepared in two senses. First, they have to be in a state of readiness to learn and be at the right stage of psychological development. Second, they need to be readied by their teachers by means of, among other things, appropriate teaching settings, teaching materials, and learning cues. As learners—and as teachers—we are striving to know the truth, and this is a constant search for an ultimate understanding of how things connect together. It is not enough in the Thomist understanding of teaching and learning to have gained skills if these are not accompanied by some deepened understanding of how the skills acquired lead us closer to truth and so ultimately to God.” 15

Though Ozolins does not fully get into the answers that I posed in the opening paragraph, it is not a far jump to understand what they would be. The difference between truth and propaganda would be that the idea of truth has implicit in it that the world is made and sustained by God, and thus has an objective nature to it, even if that nature is something that is uncovered over time and not all at once. Propaganda on the other hand, is based on the notion that the substratum of reality is always in flux and therefore there is no objectivity to truth, it all depends on what I can get you to think, or vice versa. Learning then is about uncovering what is already present in things with the help of another. The teacher and student pursue the objectivity of reality. Indoctrination is method by which propaganda is pushed forward, convincing someone not through the unity of their mind with reality, but through a type of brainwashing, preventing the individual's mind from leaving the propaganda and considering reality on their own. Lastly, rational discourse is the logical process by which man strives through much effort and dialectic to begin to uncover those latent truths which lay hidden in things. Ideological possession is the manifestation of the brainwashing of a person in which all that can be done is to repeat and apply the propaganda they have been taught to every possible situation they encounter. 


1 - Jānis Tālivaldis Ozoliņš, “Aquinas and His Understanding of Teaching and Learning,” in Aquinas, Education and the East, ed. T. B. Mooney and M. Nowacki, Sophia Studies in Cross-cultural Philosophy of Traditions and Cultures 4 (Dordrecht 2013): 9–25: http://www.springer.com/cda/content/document/cda_downloaddocument/9789400752603-c1.pdf?SGWID=0-0-45-1379811-p174547885. Pg 9.

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