Thoughts on Wisdom and Knowledge on the Cusp of a New Academic Year

Here at Gettysburg seminary, presession for new students is tomorrow, and Wednesday the academic year officially begins. In many other places, school already is underway and the summer is officially over. Having spent the vast majority of my life following the rhythm of an academic rather than a calendar year, September always brings lots of excitement and enthusiasm, as well as some butterflies–a good thing, I think. I never want to have been at this so long that I become blase at the thought of meeting new students and engaging with them both in the classroom and beyond. It is an incredible gift to have this as my vocation and I never take it for granted.

So, this weekend, I have been thinking a lot about the “this” in that previous sentence: what am I doing, exactly–particularly when I teach? Here at the seminary, of course, we talk about “formation,” and recognize that we are about much, much more than conveying information. Instead, we are concerned about the whole person: her growing into her sense of vocation; his deepening his understanding of God, self and the world–all for the sake of witnessing to God’s passionate love for and presence with creation. But at the same time, there is much that we do here that I think also is relevant for secular education.
Two things I’d like to share that I have found helpful on this topic: one is brand-new, the other much older. 

 Here is the recent one, an article in The New York Times about “the mental virtues”: The Mental Virtues.  In this piece, the author, David Brooks, cites a 2007 book, Intellectual Virtues by Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, which describes what they call “cerebral virtues.” These are: love of learning; courage [both to hold unpopular views and also to take academic risks]; firmness [a moderate position between rigidity and timidity]; humility; autonomy; and generosity. I don’t disagree with any of these, and I think they are particularly important for theological education, where religious zeal sometimes can lead to arrogance, intolerance and an inability to listen to anything that challenges one’s own sacred views. 

But here was my favorite quote from the whole piece: “Montaigne once wrote that ‘We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.'” That, to me, is really, really important, because it’s a reminder that an academic course of study isn’t primarily about mastering knowledge. I mean, of course, knowledge is important, and for all of us–new students and experienced ones–there is always much to learn. I’m grateful for that, and hope to always have the disposition of a learner. But, the larger question always should be, “To what end?” 

Ultimately, if we view knowledge as a gift from God–and certainly, given the fact that millions and millions of people around the world don’t have the opportunity even for primary school education, let alone higher education, those of us who do have those opportunities should recognize that gift–then, like all gifts, it is meant to be used in the service of the neighbor and for the glory of God. Obviously, this is particularly true at a religious institution, but I think all education is meant to build up–not just oneself, but one’s community–and indeed, the whole world. Education isn’t meant to be collected and hoarded–shown off as one’s private possession, but “given away” lavishly in service to the world. That’s the “wisdom” piece, I think: the ability to process and integrate what one has learned with a larger understanding of one’s vocation in the world, and one’s place in the vast interrelated web that is the human [and non-human] community. As the brilliant, beautiful poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It takes wisdom to answer that question.

Related to that–and in conclusion, let me close with the older piece: It is titled “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” by Simon Weil, and it comes from her book, Waiting for God. It is a moving exploration of the connections between study and prayer, and a reminder of why study always has been understood as a spiritual discipline. She begins the essay with this statement: “The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” And the gist of her overarching argument is that when we study–regardless of the subject or of our facility in it–we learn the discipline of paying attention–of patience and waiting. And it is in this overarching disposition of openness, which requires humility, a giving up of control, and putting oneself in the hands of God, where we see the last, best fruits of study–and this is true for all students, of all capacities. Giving attention to one’s studies trains us to give attention to God–and to our neighbor. She writes, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing,” but this indeed what is most required.  Indeed–giving attention to God also, I would say, is a rare and difficult thing–it is hard to be still, to be open, and give God fully one’s time and one’s presence.  

She concludes the essay with these words, “Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worth while to sell all of our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it.” I couldn’t agree more.

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