Taking Advantage of Your Studies
Saint John Bosco is one of the patrons of Catholic education. Born in Italy of good, simple, God-fearing parents, he was gifted with extraordinary intelligence, physical strength, and charm. Early in his life he was ordained a priest and dedicated much of his life to the true Catholic formation of boys. He founded boarding schools and eventually an order of priests under the patronage of Saint Francis de Sales. What follows are some guidelines for students given by the Saint during a number of “Good Nights,” brief fatherly remarks he was in the habit of addressing to his boys before they went to bed.
My dear sons, I want to suggest a few means for you to triumph in your studies, so I will teach them to you one by one each night.
1. The first means for studying well is to have fear of God. Initium sapientiae timor Domini — fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Do you want to become truly wise and make great achievements in class? Fear the Lord. Avoid offending Him, because in malevolam animam non intrabit sapientiam nec habitabit in corpore subdito peccatis — wisdom will not enter the malevolent soul, nor will it inhabit the body given over to sin. The wisdom of man springs from the Wisdom of God. What pleasure can one experience in studies when his heart is agitated by his passions? How does one intend to overcome the difficulties he stumbles through in his studies without God’s help? Omnis sapientia a Domino Deo est — All wisdom belongs to God. Just one mortal sin offends God so much that all the angels and men together cannot make amends. Will God help those who insult Him so gravely? Truly wise men never offend God. Consider, for example, Saint Thomas or Saint Francis de Sales. Daily experience teaches us that the ones who succeed in studies are those who distance themselves from sin. True, there are some impious people who shine in their genius and knowledge, but perhaps they merited these gifts from the Lord beforehand as a reward for their conduct and good works, yet abused them later. On the other hand, the majority of these people do not possess true wisdom. Their minds are full of errors that they spread to others. This is not wisdom. If the Lord has permitted some impious fellow to prosper in knowledge, although he be His enemy, this will merit him a greater curse and chastisement for his having abused it.
2. The second means for studying advantageously consists in not losing even a second of time. Time, my most dear sons, is a treasure. Fili, conserva tempus — Son, use time well. In the time that you should devote to studies, give yourself entirely. Never look for pretexts to escape from class. It is painful to see students who contrive pretexts of sickness or forcefully wrest permissions from superiors to avoid fulfilling these duties. During study time or class time, do not read books that have nothing to do with the material being covered.
Suppress daydreams. Do you see that student who seems engrossed in his book? Do you think he is studying? Right, right…! His mind is thousands and thousands of leagues away…. Look at him, smiling; he looks like he is in the middle of recreation, jumping about. He is thinking about his victory over a friend. Another one thinks about the candy and the drink he has tucked away in a box. Yet another one over there harbors the thought, for example, of buying a certain book, of joking around, of some buffoonery, of going for a stroll. I don’t even mention those who are thinking about offending God; I hope there are none of that type in the Oratory. Let’s study, then, and not lose time.
3. The third means for success in studies consists in getting used to not going on in any subject, be it one grammar rule to another or one argument to another, without knowing the previous material well. Consequently, memorize what you are studying. Cicero said, very correctly, Tantum scimus quantum memoria retinemus–We know as much as we retain in our memory. Study daily in such wise that the lesson or the section of the classical author that the teacher pointed out is well engraved in your mind; I say every day because if you are not careful to learn it today, you will have to double your efforts tomorrow to catch up. Whoever is not diligent for a week will have to make up for his deficiency in five lessons, taking into account that his daily duties are already more than sufficient to take up the whole day. Due to this lack of diligence, not few have serious gaps in their knowledge; there are many things they have not understood well, and in the last months of the course they kill themselves studying, perhaps with the fear of being suspended. He who has always been diligent, however, possesses the treasure of his thoughts with certainty, and on the examination day he is not bothered or worried.
4. The fourth means for studying advantageously consists of eating in an orderly and timely fashion. Gluttony has claimed more victims than the sword. Do you want advice? Don’t live to eat; eat to live. Take little at breakfast and snack. Don’t eat until you are full. If you have a tasty morsel saved in your drawer, don’t be lured by gluttony to eat all of it at once; save some for the next few days, and it will do you no harm. Don’t think I say this out of personal interest. Not at all, for experience teaches that if you eat one less roll for breakfast, at lunch you will eat three more. Whoever goes to class stuffed with food soon feels his head overloaded, indisposed, and wearied. He vainly fights tiredness and loses time miserably, because he understands little or nothing and cannot fix his attention. The more he tries to pay attention, the worse it gets. Then he gets a headache. He is unable to do anything for several days. Sometimes the only thing he will get is serious indigestion. Be careful, then, with gluttony!
5. The fifth means for getting ahead in studies is to keep company with studious young men. Use study circles and groups. This is the best way to progress. During the breaks, stay near the assistants and your better-instructed companions; ask about geography, about the classics, about grammar or some point of history. Speak among yourselves often about things related to your duties — the lessons, compositions, and translations. How much fruit you will gain! On trips speak about similar things and don’t frequent the company of superficial or unreflective peers, who will help you lose knowledge rather than acquire it. Frivolous and useless conversations are worthless, merely distracting the mind and cooling the heart. The wise man says: “Consorting with the wise will make you wise.”
6. The sixth means is an orderly recreation. Use the entire recreation period, because playing will bring new strength for studying better during class time. Do not turn your recreation time into study time, because when you have to study later during the appointed time periods, your mind will be tired and you will gain little. Also avoid playing exaggeratedly and excessively. There are some who run to and fro during recreation with such excitement that instead of entertaining themselves they kill themselves. They collide with their companions and throw them to the ground, breaking noses, kicking one another, punching another to kill time. After the recreation they are perspiring and panting profusely and, exhausted, they go to study, but… their head is still confused, and they need rest. They’ve given themselves over to the game so much that they are thinking about it during class. I am not even speaking of those who shout so much that they have a headache all day long.
I also point out those young men who walk about in cliques, speaking about outings, parties, snacks, festivities, and vacations with such enthusiasm that during class they can think of nothing else. For those who have bad conversations during recreation, I will say only that without fear of God it is impossible for them to truly progress.
Consequently, even in your recreation, be orderly. I am not saying you should not play — jump, have fun, but not excessively. When I am free from visits, I also have recreation. I play with you, I jest, I laugh, but I don’t break my head playing games. Therefore, the sixth means for studying with profit is in having a well-ordered recreation.
7. The seventh means for studying profitably is this: attack and overcome all difficulties you encounter in your subjects of study. When you find difficulties, don’t panic. What did you come to the Oratory for? To study. Hence, it is only natural that you are going to learn what you don’t already know. And to learn what you don’t know means you must force your mind, with greater or lesser effort depending on each one’s greater or lesser wit. Therefore, take courage! It is necessary never to leave a job half-done. Those who evade a difficulty that comes along do not act well if they say, “I don’t understand this!” and then go on to something else. It is worthwhile to wait until the difficulty has been conquered and overcome. To obtain this, first have recourse to Jesus and Mary, and you will see how the difficulties will disappear. Never forget, dearest sons, that this is the best way to overcome all difficulties in studies, because God is the only Giver and Father of knowledge. He communicates it to whom and as He wishes. Every day you say to the Most Holy Virgin in the Litany: Sedes Sapientiae, ora pro nobis (Seat of Wisdom, pray for us). She is the Seat of Wisdom. Go also to your teachers and assistants; they will quicken and help you with all the explanations you need. And I say more: Make the effort and be not only resolute in overcoming difficulties, but be happy when you find them, because these sharpen the wit and offer sweet satisfaction when you are able to conquer them. What contentment one experiences when he understands what seems difficult! [Amen to this,] and take into account that whatsoever one learns painstakingly will never obscure the mind again.
We should not become discouraged in encountering difficulties. Saint Jerome gives an example of perseverance with his studies of Sacred Scripture. Having been commissioned to translate the Bible from Hebrew to Latin, he retreated to a cave. After spending much time with similar studies, he was unable to resolve numerous difficulties. So he decided to put the task aside. One fine day, having left the cave, he saw a rock with a small hole in it. He stopped to consider how the little hole had been formed, and he concluded that the incessant falling of water, drop by drop, in the same spot over a long period of time had formed the hole. “Who knows,” he said, “if this is not a sign from heaven for me not to become discouraged and to continue my work? If a drop of water, with time, could drill a hole in this rock, cannot I also, with constancy, finish my job?” So he continued, taking lessons from a learned master and finished his magnificent task, to the incalculable advantage of all Christendom: Gutta cavat lapidem–the drop of rain carveth the stone.
8. The eighth means to study beneficially consists of dedicating yourself exclusively to studying the subjects of your course. Pluribus intentus minor est ad singula sensus, one does not acquire knowledge leafing through many books. When Saint Thomas was asked how he had become so learned, he answered, “Reading just one book at a time.”
It is necessary to mark well in your mind that studies outside of your assigned subjects must be postponed. If one is studying Latin and at the same time wants to learn English or French, which language will he dominate at the end of the course? The Latin language has such dimensions that it is more than enough to give work to even the very brightest throughout the course.
There are young men who read a lot and are unable to do anything but tangle their brains. There are many who read unassigned poetry, tales, stories, or classical prose — excellent in themselves, if you will, but which distance them from their duties, preventing them from acquiring true knowledge.
“But,” you will ask, “what if I have free time after I have finished my work and studied my lesson?” Go over it again. Go back to certain rules you have forgotten…. In sum, don’t waste your time reading stories.
As I give you these counsels, I do not set aside the importance and advantages of orderly and judicious reading; but it is necessary that you have present, while reading, the following norms:
First: Do not read other books until you have finished your schoolwork, and
Second: Do not read any book without having requested advice from your teacher or other persons capable of giving it, so that you avoid the risk of reading useless books, poorly written or reprehensible, that corrupt the mind and heart, insinuating perverse maxims.
9. Continuing the list of means to study with headway, always have recourse to the protection of Mary Most Holy. Mary is the Seat of Wisdom. Thus, before studying your lesson, before beginning the author’s explanation, before doing your composition, don’t ever forget to pray an Ave Maria to the Virgin, adding the ejaculation Sedes Sapientiae, ora pro nobis.
Realize, also, that actiones nostras–our action–is prayer directed to the Holy Ghost.
Note: This article was published in Crusade Magazine (July-August 1998, pp. 18-21) and translated by Ted Huereña from the Spanish Biografia y Escritos de San Juan Bosco by Fr. Rodolfo Fierro, S.D.B. (Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Madrid, 1955), pp. 553-559.