October 1, 2010

Humility & Education

Category: Education,Miscellaneous :: Permalink

In September, I lectured for the Bucer Institute on “Genesis and the Future,” focusing on what Genesis teaches us about eschatology and our hope for the future.  But I also got to speak at the Institute’s convocation banquet, and there I talked about humility and education.

Much of what I said was probably obvious.  Humility includes recognizing that we all have a lot to learn and that God puts us in certain environments — such as the Bucer Institute — to learn from others.  That learning may start with being silent.  As Anselm says in his “Duties of Clergy,” “Now what ought we to learn before everything else, but to be silent, that we may be able to speak?”  And so we must humble ourselves to learn from our teachers and to recognize that they are, in some way, superior to us.  Likewise, we must also humble ourselves to learn from our fellow students, not just to learn but to learn together.

In fact, sometimes shyness can be a form of thinking too much of ourselves (though I am not saying that this shyness is necessarily the sin of pride): “I don’t want to ask a question and have people think I’m stupid.”  Or: “I don’t want to raise my hand and interact with the prof as if I think my opinions are worth his time.”  On the contrary, I said: Humble yourself and ask in order to learn.

But I also wanted to speak about something perhaps less obvious, namely,  humility before the subject, putting the subject ahead of yourself.  If your goal at a particular school is simply to use it as a stepping-stone to advance yourself, if your focus is on your marks or on impressing teachers or on impressing future employers or whatever, you will not learn the way you could if you were really interested in the subject.  I’ve often said that I would rather teach someone who is interested than someone who is simply intelligent.

And what’s the mark of that sort of humility, that sort of fascination with the subject that puts it ahead of yourself?  Perhaps one mark is that you sometimes bore people by talking about the subject.  Which brings me to G. K. Chesterton and to the following quotation, which was, in fact, a major impetus behind my entire talk:

Neither in public nor in private life … is it all true that the man who talks a great deal is necessarily an offensive person.  It is an entire mistake, for instance, to imagine that the man who monopolises conversation is a conceited fellow.  The man who monopolises conversation is almost always modest.  The man who talks too much   generally has a great deal of humility.  Nay, even the man who talks other people down, who argues them down, who shouts them down, does not in the least necessarily think himself better than they are.

It may seem a contradiction, yet the truth and reason of it are really very obvious.  The man who talks too much, talks too much because he is interested in his subject.  He is not interested in himself: if he were he would behave better.  If he were really an egoist he would think of what effect his ego was producing: and a very mild degree of mental perception would enable him to realise that the chief effect his ego was producing was a unanimous human aspiration to hurl him out of the window.

A man who fills a drawing-room for two or three hours (say) with a monologue on bulbs, is the very reverse of a selfish man.  He is an unselfish hero, courting the scorn and contumely of men in the great cause of bulbs, objects which are hardly likely to offer him in return any active assistance or even any animated friendship.  He is a Martyr, like Stephen or Joan of Arc: and we know that the blood of the martyrs is the seed (or bulb) of the Church.

No; the really selfish men are the silent men, those wicked and sinister fellows.  They care more for their own manners (a base individualistic asset) than for conversation, which is social, which is impersonal, which is divine.  The loud talker is humble.  The very phrase you use about him proves this.  If a man is rude, and bawls and blunders, the snub given to him would be “You forget yourself.”  It is the very ecstasy of altruism — an impersonal apotheosis.  You say to the cad, “You forget yourself.”  What better, what higher, could you say to the saint than that “You forget yourself”? — Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907132-133.

If you never bore someone with any subject, then you have a problem: either nothing in the world fascinates you (how sad!) or the thing that matters most to you is how you appear to others.  But if things do grip you, you’re going to end up boring your wife or a friend or someone at church by talking too much about them from time to time.

On the other hand, as I went on to add, if you don’t forget yourself and the subject you love in order to love others — which in this case means to shut up about your subject and talk about what interests them — you also will not excel in your learning, because truly learning anything means learning how to use it to serve others.  The goal is not just to be so full of your subject that you forget yourself and spill out onto others from time to time, important as that is.  The goal is, with your love of the subject subordinate to the love of others, to be the servant of all.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:40 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Humility & Education”

  1. Gordon Says:

    On the other hand, it isn’t just what others may think of him that shuts a man up, but courtesy for their feelings.

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