The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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The Problem with Education

In  Sighing for Eden, William Willimon tells this story:

Recently, a young man told me about an incident that happened to him while he was riding his bike down a mountain road. He heard a car approaching him from behind. He looked up just in time to see the car veered toward him, forcing him off the road into a ditch. The car slowed down, but did not stop. He was surprised he said about what happened.

“ It was surprising and disturbing that people would do something like that,”  I said.

“No, that wasn’t what surprised me,” he continued.  “I was surprised that the minute I hit the ground, I frantically search for rock, or a pipe or anything. If that car had stopped, I would’ve taken that rock and bashed the brains out of the guy who tried to do that to me.”

I assured him as his quite his anger was quite understandable.  “But I’m a college graduate.,” he said.  (p. 118)

The young man learned a valuable lesson:  Education alone does not solve moral problems.

How many times have you heard a conversation that assumed education was the only thing needed to make individuals nobler, kinder, or to  demonstrate better moral judgment?

In my lifetime, culture has seen education as the cure-all for moral problems from promiscuity to prejudice.   Once a person knows better, says the conventional wisdom, they will act better.

We are convinced that better educated individuals will be better people.  Very subtly we believe that knowledge is salvation.

Yet theology, philossophy, and social research disagree.

In Strength for the Journey, Peter Gomes quotes quotes Sheldon Krimsley’s questions:

“Are more educated people likely to lie less? To express more humanitarian values? To be more beneficent beneficent to others? To show more empathy? To make more complex moral decisions?”

Then Gomes answers:

I don’t think so.  Smart people are not necessarily good people for knowledge may be power, but it is not virtue, and smart people often do wicked things.  (p. 59)

When Gandhi was in this country during the mid 20th century, a  member of the American clergy asked him, “What is it that you are most afraid of in the world today?”  He replied, “The hard-heartedness of the educated.” Not famine, nuclear holocaust, or a population explosion.  Rather, the hard-heartedness of the educated.

Ghandi’s words are validated by research.  Randy Richardson, a communications professor at Berry College quoted a statistic that college educated people are 40% less empathetic than the general public  I don’t have access to the study he quotes, but I trust Dr. Richardson’s research.

Add to these observations the Apostle Paul’s comments to the church at Corinth: “Knowledge puffs up.” (I Corinthians 8:1)  The word he used for “puffs” is “to inflate,” as in the expression “an inflated ego.”  Knowledge can inflate your ego, but it does not guarantee a nobler character.

In the words of Gandhi, I hear echoes of Paul.

I  write this article as a person who comes from a family with a real investment in education. In the broader family there more degrees than people.   I spent 24 years of my life in full-time education.  I was 48 before I lived 50% of my life out of school.  I believe in education.  I believe education opens doors, increases options, and provides a path toward a better live.

But education is not salvation.   By itself education does not make us more tolerant, kind, or forgiving.  Moral change comes from love, not education.  As a Christian I believe the source of that love us Jesus.   If we read past Paul’s “puffs up” comment, the apostle adds,  “Love builds up.”  Knowledge puffs up, but the love of God in Christ builds up.

Here are a few more quotes about the inadequacy of education, by itself, to produce moral individuals:

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential Christian of his time,  bore a deep distrust of the intellect and declared that the pursuit of knowledge, unless sanctified by a holy mission, was a pagan act and therefore vile.      William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire, p. 9.

Knowledge without charity could bite with the deadliness of the serpents venom.   Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time, p. 50

Learning may reduce the prejudices of ignorance, set our bones, build our cities. In itself, it will never make us ethical men [sic]  Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time, p. 160.

 Who can be good if not made so by loving.  Augustine


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