Despite being one of only a handful of saints with the title “Great,” St. Albert seems to live in the shadow of his greatest pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas. Any description of the life of this doctor of the Church necessarily focuses on the fact that he was St. Thomas’s teacher—sometimes as though it was his greatest achievement. 

Yet perhaps this does give us the key to St. Albert’s greatness. A great teacher, like any loving parent, wants his students to surpass him. No true teacher would wish that his pupils remain under his tutelage; he wants to see them walk on their own two legs, then run—then fly!

This kind of greatness—this self-forgetfulness—in a teacher always provokes a deep-seated gratitude in the student.  Though Plato’s thought quickly outstripped that of his teacher, Socrates’s endurance as the teacher in Plato’s dialogues testifies to the lasting impact he had on Plato’s life. And though Aristotle exceeded his teacher Plato, he too must have retained a debt of gratitude for the one who led him out of the cave.

One can imagine St. Albert’s delight in seeing the brilliance of Thomas, and his own gratitude that he could be the conduit of learning for this unique mind. He must have felt rewarded for his efforts to revive Aristotle when he saw what these works did for Thomas, and what Thomas did with them. Because he was a truly great teacher, he must have been filled with wonder at all the things he learned from his student.

And fundamentally, that’s what makes a great teacher: a great learner. Great teachers aren’t seeking recognition; they’re seeking truth. They want to see their students approaching that truth alongside them (and even ahead of them).

Because St. Albert prioritized learning over recognition, I know he won’t mind if I draw a comparison with our own online classes. The Aquinas Institute’s courses are unique among distance-learning programs because of our commitment to real-time, face-to-face discussions of primary texts. The  reason the seminar discussion is so indispensable to our enterprise is that it makes professors and students into fellow-learners. The teacher is not attempting to pour his knowledge into the student’s mind, as is sometimes the case with lecture-based classes. Rather, both professor and student are learning from the common teacher, who is Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Aristotle—and through the discussion of these great texts, we all learn from each other. By reaching conclusions through our own inquiry and conversation, we gain an ownership of the truths we’ve discovered that surpasses any passive reception of lectures.  This radical pedagogy not only makes teachers learners, but the personal recognition of truth, in turn, makes learners teachers.

More about the life of St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church

You can have a taste of these classes on November 20th and December 9th. On November 20th, students will discuss Vladimir Soloviev’s “A Short Tale of the Antichrist,” led by Dr. John Mortensen. On December 9th, Dr. Susan Waldstein will lead students in a discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” Registration for both courses is free — we hope you will join us there, and bring a friend! (To register, and for further details, visit our Events page.)