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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Knowledge and Humility

There are three common reactions to kids who quote Shakespeare and Cicero. Some are impressed (your kids must be so smart!) some are intimidated (you must be a supermom!) and some are indignant (you raise trick ponies!). The answer to all of these is, not coincidentally, also the ultimate aim of learning the Shakespeare and the Cicero: humility.

Proverbs 11:2 is one of many variations on this Biblical theme: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.”

Wisdom and knowledge are among those paradoxical achievements, like maturity and leadership ability, where cognizance of one’s deficiencies is the primary mark of attainment.  Therefore, when we memorize and synthesize information, it is in the pursuit of the humility that characterizes true wisdom.

The adage, “a little knowledge is dangerous,” contains a warning like that in Proverbs: if a few trivial facts have you running to show off your big brain, any truly knowledgeable person will soon ask a question that reveals the depth of your research, and pride will indeed precede disgrace.

American education paired with self-esteem parenting leads to just this balloon of ego. An example I often come back to is the American assessment of foreign language abilities. It is entirely commonplace to hear American students, with a few years of language class completed and a sum vocabulary of colors, numbers, and food names under their belts, announce confidently that they “speak French.” Conversely, Eastern Europeans, who are often essentially fluent in three to six languages, will insist (fluently) that they “don’t speak English very well.”

A phenomenon happens when you begin to amass knowledge and to discuss it with a caring mentor: you develop a sense of your place in the world and in history. And the effect of this perspective is both to humble and inspire. Memorizing history impresses on you that most great things happened before you and without you. You are a tiny cog. But learning about a Joan of Arc or an Eli Whitney also teaches a child to aspire to heroism. You learn the lessons that led to great falls and great victories and you choose which to emulate.

May we always repent when a little Cicero goes to our heads. But also, may we always know how to clarify our aims. Much modern learning is aimed at utility. Classical, Christian learning has in its sights the development of wisdom, and the wise are first the humble.