What today’s college students can learn from St. Augustine

Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

As a new school year begins, a new cycle of competitive exams, resume-building activities and school applications also begins. These are the capstones to childhood as an endless career fair. Starting in kindergarten, we run to get into the rat race. Perhaps this year it would be instructive to spend some time reflecting on the sins of St. Augustine’s youth.

The lesson may have some value for the educational meritocracy we live in today, particularly considering last year’s “Varsity Blues” scandal that saw parents paying bribes to get their students into elite schools. St. Augustine offers a lesson from the meritocracy of the late Roman empire. He offers students, teachers and parents a call to conversion that can help reorder how we think about education and the purpose of career success.

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There is a standard picture of Augustine as a young man: He liked to party, ran with a bad crowd and was filled with lust. To get a more realistic image of what Augustine was like, one might think of the kind of students who go to elite universities these days. St. Augustine was cultivated from a young age by his ambitious parents who saw in their child a way to climb the socioeconomic ladder of Roman life. Like the overstressed children of our time, he was driven to excel at school with an eye to advancing his career, and he felt shame when he did not live up to these expectations. He was the consummate career-driven child.

St. Augustine was cultivated from a young age by his ambitious parents who saw in their child a way to climb the socioeconomic ladder of Roman life. Like the overstressed children of our time, he was driven to excel.

We portray Augustine as wild, but he was more busy than wild. His parents spent a lot of money to ensure he had the right education. Ambition, more so than sexual promiscuity, was the vice he inherited from his parents. Those who pushed him through school “thought only of fulfilling the insatiable appetite for a poverty tricked out as wealth and a fame that is but infamy,” as he wrote in the Confessions. In a world in which what mattered most was who you knew, Augustine worked tirelessly to know the right people and earn their praise even if, he continued, “by fraudulent means, because [he] was dominated by a vain urge to excel.” Augustine, like Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and so many others, was willing to succeed by fraud if necessary. And it worked: By a combination of endless toil and good connections, Augustine’s career was taking off.

Consider the young business majors at an elite school. Often trained since their early days to focus on practical and material success, they find themselves being recruited by major firms not when they graduate college, but starting in their sophomore if not their freshman year. The message is clear: Education is the steppingstone that well-off people take in order to be well-off people. And if you really succeed, like Augustine, you might make it into the 1 percent.

This rat-race mentality of the meritocracy lends itself to fraud. If the goal is not to develop as a good person but as a successful person, then why not offer a bribe here and there? Even if most kids in the meritocracy do put in the work—they take expensive SAT prep courses, enroll in AP classes and participate in the right kind of clubs—they are still being sold a false bill of goods. Just as Augustine’s success depended on the money and contacts that few North African kids had in his time, so too the success of many at Georgetown, Harvard or UC Berkeley depends on the test prep that other kids cannot afford. In the process, they are burdened by high rates of anxiety and burnout—just like Augustine was.

What Augustine came to learn is that education is not measured by success but by its service of the good.

Augustine came to see his pursuit of money and fame as a kind of blindness. What he was blind to was that education is not meant to line our pockets or get us access to the gated communities of elite schools and then elite neighborhoods. Augustine pursued success in law and rhetoric with little care for how these career paths were used. He knew that he would “earn a higher reputation according to how unscrupulous my performance was.” If education is only about success, then the means of earning success can only be measured by, well, how successful they are.

What Augustine came to learn is that education is not measured by success but by its service of the good. Looking back on his frantic pursuit of academic and career success, he prayed, “Let every useful thing I learned as a boy be devoted now to your service.” The measure of our life is not whether we get into Columbia or Stanford, but the service we offer. Augustine had “believed that living a good life consisted in winning,” but he came to believe that the good life consisted in responding to God by tending to the needs of others. He came to believe that education was about learning to be wise—not because it gets you a job but because it is good to be wise. He came to believe that we can know we are wise when we do the truth by speaking truth. We offer platitudes about things like this in our colleges and universities, but too often they are greeting-card messages tacked onto our professional accreditations.

What God offered Augustine and offers our young people is the gift of delighting in learning, along with the freedom to be childlike and the responsibility to share our gifts with others.

The first thing Augustine did after his conversion was to abandon his sterling career at the center of the Roman Empire and join some friends in trying to get a real education. He sought this real education with others who wanted no longer to be successful but to be good, who wanted not just technical training but a training in the truth. This meant trying to grow closer to God, a process that he saw as the true education. What he found was that getting closer to God entails giving oneself to others, because existence is not a meritocracy but a gift from God. This is why he left Rome to return to a provincial city in North Africa. It was there at the outskirts that he could put his education at work for others.

When he left Rome, Augustine was freed from the terrible weight of career anxiety that burdens so many of our children. When he let go of the meritocratic career path, he felt like a child receiving a gift. “My mind was free at last from the gnawing need to seek advancements and riches…. Childlike, I chattered away to you, my glory, my wealth, my salvation, and my Lord and God.”

We have stolen childhood from a generation by insisting they start their summer internships when they are 15. What God offered Augustine and offers our young people is the gift of delighting in learning, along with the freedom to be childlike and the responsibility to share our gifts with others.

Unfortunately, too few schools, including Catholic prep schools and colleges, are willing to teach what Augustine learned. We need to get back to the lessons of the Confessions: Education is about the childlike freedom of growing in wisdom; meritocracies tend to be false places where too many are left behind by those with the privileges needed to get ahead; our advancement in life is about the service we offer to God through others. When we learn these lessons, we may have restored the kind of childlike freedom Augustine found when he stopped chasing a career and started living for truth. At the beginning of a new school year and in the wake of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, the time to learn these lessons is now.

Todd Witherell
3 days 18 hours ago

La Florida (the Land of Flowers)

In Florida the Land of Flowers
The girls do love the beach

I’ve been there after hours
Before being taught to teach

Dr. Thomas he once told me
In ‘88 (or maybe ‘87)

St. Augusteen is in Florida
But St. Augustine - he’s in Heaven!

- Todd Witherell

Lloyd William
3 days 16 hours ago

I get your point. However, I take exception to a copy of points. Ambition per de is not a vice. Ambition can and should be healthy when accompanied by a strong sense of values to include service to the community. One may have the ambition to become a physician but if it is only done to be able to draw a better than average income to accumulate wealth, it becomes a vice. But if the ambitious person seeking a medical degree want first and foremost to use his or her “success” to serve others, it is no vice.
Trying to be “successful”, unless for purely selfish reasons should not be condemned

Denise Mccarthy
2 days 23 hours ago

Wow! Terence, very good. As a parent of a high-school senior almost twenty years ago, I got so caught up with the competition to get into “good” colleges. Parents are so much part of this. I have come to realize that I was wrong and I have apologized to my daughter. Parents can play a huge role here by having their children incorporate the reasons behind getting a good education throughout their lives. I wish I had focused more on “doing good” than on getting into the best college. By the way, my daughter did attend Villanova for a couple of years, but returned home and finished up at George Mason University while working for a local restaurant group. She earned her BS in biology, and, a couple of years later, returned to George Mason and earned a degree in nursing. My point here is that an eighteen-year old young adults do not know where life is going to take them, and what their interests will be five years down the road. I loved that Malia Obama took an off year before attending college. By taking the off year students can move away from the high school pressure to get into certain colleges and to get to know the world outside of their own world, and, make a good decision for themselves as to what school to attend. Sorry, not brief.

Jake Gallerano
2 days 1 hour ago

This is pretty good. Though repeatedly depicted, the chorus' refrain is missing; parents mold their children, for better or worse; it's the parents who want for wisdom, and it is wisdom that we should aspire to without any expectation of achieving it -wisdom can never be attained, and perhaps ironically, any conscious attempt to do so leads us on the proverbial fool's errand - since wisdom comes when she will, and all we can do is attempt to be open to her advances by measuring our reactions to life's stimuli, in all it's vagaries, and respond as thoughtfully as we can. An examined life in short, a recognition of a sorrowful obliviousness that haunts us in our dull, and sometimes bitter reflection on missing the things that we realize too late, really mattered.

John Walton
22 hours 57 min ago

If Augustine was so smart and ambitious, why didn't he bother to learn Greek?

J Jones
17 hours 35 min ago

Dissertation topic! Book topic! Terence, I want to read more!

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