The Confessions of Saint Augustine – Background
Remember that this is an autobiography that Augustine is writing, and he really begins at the start. Sometimes we can look back upon previous ages with a certain feeling that they are not as smart as we have become today. Yet is seems the Augustine shows us that our modern understanding of child development was present even in his time. I refer especially to his reflections on his infancy. He articulates how it is that the infant interacts with the world. Perhaps most, we understand from his observations what parents seem almost instinctively to know. That even though, as Augustine admits, we do not know or remember those times when we were infants, these experiences have profound impact upon us. It is why parents of infants and toddlers seek to create great experiences for their children even though their children will likely remember little, if anything, of the experience.
And while the descriptions of the schooling of the young boy Augustine might cause us some pause (most teachers no longer hit students) the principle of parents understanding the importance of education for the future and the expectation this knowledge will provide for their successful lives as adults is still present.
One important observation to understand is that Augustine had a high respect for the thought of the philosopher Plato. As this applies here, consider the important understanding that the things Augustine learned, either as an infant or a boy, contain the suggestion that such knowledge was already present, even though Augustine did not know this. This is an important consideration because philosophical thought underlies what Augustine will write about. (For an academic presentation of the thought of Plato, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
There are still questions today about the best way to educate students. For much of the twentieth century it concerned the tension between knowing essential facts and ascribing meaning to the facts we learn. It is still the case today.
Augustine embodies the struggle even though he was in school centuries ago. There have always been times where students are not engaged in school or are not interested in every subject. This was true for Augustine.
The problem, of course, today, is to decide which facts are essential and whose meaning we are discussing. In many ways this is a false distinction between essential facts and meaning. It is the case that we will remember for a longer period of time those facts that fit into our meaning of the world. And our meaning of the world is shaped by the facts to which we are exposed.
Questions to Ponder
When you think of what your life was like as an infant, how would you write about those times in your life? In what was does something you do not remember influence you today?
We might not condone the use of physical discipline in schools, but how did your parents react to what they may have heard from the teachers about your behavior, especially when it was not so good?
What is the connection you have between what we learn in school and what we learn about God?
Augustine speaks of his early memories of faith and of God. What are your earliest memories of faith? What role did faith play in your life in your family growing up?