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Knowledge and Praise
Peter Kerry Powers

I begin with a simple question for the class of 2018, though it is really a question for all of us: Why higher education? Why are you now in the place where you find yourselves, whether in the great urban universities of New York or Chicago, at my home institution of Messiah College, or perhaps Valparaiso University in Indiana, or in the shadow of mountains at Bennington in Vermont, where my son is attending this fall? Until very recently, a very small percentage of Americans chose to or even had the opportunity to attend a college. Only two or three generations ago, the large majority of Americans went to work after high school, or started families, or joined the military. To these generations, the question “Why go to college?” was real and urgent, and people who did so were considered unusual, if not strange. Now, going to college is for many, though certainly not all, nearly as common as owning a cellphone, as natural to our culture as breathing, such that collectively we hardly stop to ask after its purposes in any serious way. At least not until recently. But going to college is not, after all, breathing, and so it can be worth stopping to ask yourselves why now, of all the possibilities you could imagine and conceive, you find yourselves on a college or university campus.

Your specific answers are many. Some of you have moved excitedly into the dorms and are awaiting classes because you want to get a better job, some because your parents made you, some because you are ambitious to learn, some because you had nothing better to do, some because your girlfriend or boyfriend came before you, some because you want to change the world. Most because of some combination and calculus of these various possibilities.

I assume, however, that all of you would say that you are here to get an education. To what end do we pursue this apparently never-ending enterprise? Consider the graduating class of 2015. By May of this year they will have spent at least seventeen years in formal schooling, counting kindergarten. Many will go to graduate school for two, three, or four years, or even more, which means that many can count on spending more than a quarter of their lives in formal schooling.  Counting all my years of graduate school, I spent twenty-five years under the formal designation of “student,” a bit less than half my life to this point. Add to this the truism that we should be life-long learners and we can conclude that education is never-­ending. Life is education. To be a human is to be a student.

Moreover, we pursue this lifelong enterprise in a tremendous variety of ways. There are many important ways you are similar to one another, but there are also important differences of gender and culture, of nationality, and a host of other particularities. Not least, you are different in your educational biographies. Many of you attended large public high schools; others, private Christian schools. Many of you were home schooled; others have been educated in other cultures. Few of you will receive your entire college education from the college you now attend. Some of you are traditional transfer students from other institutions. Others have received college credit from dual-enrollment programs, or have taken summer courses at community colleges. Many of you will study abroad. Some of you are beginning your semester at a traditional four-year college while simultaneously enrolling in an online course at a for-profit university. All of these institutions agree that education is essential, but all speak of education with different languages and achieve it in very different ways. Collectively they underscore rather than answer my question: What is an education for? What is your education for?

Like you, I have had a multitude of different educational experiences. I attended a Christian college, and attended both a flagship state university and a private research university for my graduate education. I finished my primary and secondary schooling in the public schools of Oklahoma. My education began, however, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where my father started a hospital and my mother ran a school for indigenous children in the Wahgi Valley. I completed part of my early schooling via correspondence courses, our very low-tech version of distance learning. Partially home schooled and living on a mission station that had electricity only two hours a day, I had a Lincolnesque beginning in learning to read by candlelight and by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp set on our kitchen table.

My formal education began in a two-room schoolhouse located in the village of Banz, about four miles from our mission station in Kudjip. Every morning, a half-dozen missionary kids loaded into the back of a flatbed truck for the half-hour trek along a rutted dirt road leading to school. Arriving at school, in rainy season and in dry, we stood in ranks by grade, singing “God Save the Queen” as the Australian flag fluttered up the flag pole. Our school divided six grades into two rooms, and initially we had only one teacher, Mr. Garth, who shuttled frantically to and fro between the rooms delivering our lessons as best he could. After a year of this we, and I think especially Mr. Garth, were excited to welcome a second teacher, Mr. R_____, who came to teach the lower grades.

At that time, like most colonial schools, the rooms were divided by gender, with boys seated to the teacher’s right and girls seated to the left. To teach vocabulary, Mr. R_____ would walk from one side of the room to the other, having all the boys stand or all the girls stand and spell words aloud together. Mr. R_____ taught these words in sets of antonyms so that we would
better perceive their meaning. Good, bad; black, white; open, closed; and so forth, sometimes pointing to different objects or pictures in the room to reinforce our lessons. One week we were taught the words “ugly” and “beautiful,” and “stupid” and “intelligent.” As was his common practice, Mr. R_____ asked all the girls to stand. Then Mr. R_____ had all the girls point at themselves, and required them to spell aloud together the word “ugly.” He then had them point together toward him at the front of the room and spell together the word “beautiful.” Mr. R_____ then crossed the room and had all the boys, point together at him and spell out the word “intelligent.”  Then, on cue, we pointed at ourselves and, chanting in unison, we spelled the word “stupid.”

Mr. R_____ didn’t last long at our school, and for the most part I have forgotten every other thing about him.

I should hasten to say that I loved Mr. Garth, an excellent if too-harried teacher, as so many are. He was the first to perceive in me some level of intelligence and the first explicitly to
encourage me to take learning seriously. I will also say, however, that I have never forgotten how to spell the words “ugly” or “intelligent” or “beautiful” or “stupid.” We had received, after a fashion, an education.

Of course, I don’t think that what we received from Mr. R_____ even constituted an education in the deepest and most important senses of that word. In his lack of respect for the humanity of his students, he was in many respects the antithesis of Mr. Garth, the antithesis of what teachers are and what they should attempt to do.  Nevertheless, as I have reflected on him in the decades since, it has seemed to me that my old teacher had embodied the dark extreme of a common assumption about education, one so deeply ingrained that we unthinkingly assume its virtues: that ­knowledge primarily concerns a quest for power.

So far as we know, the aphorism, “knowledge is power,” was articulated first in modern Western history by the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon, but the idea itself is much older. It is also common in pop culture, stretching from the old School House Rock jingles to the Star Wars movies. A Google search conjures images of Superman and other superheroes that adorn posters designed for elementary schools, the phrase “Knowledge is Power” splashed in bold captions beneath bulging muscles. These superheroes sometimes carry books as they fly through the air, flexing their muscles as they go, as if reading builds slow-twitch fibers.

The idea that knowledge is about self-empowerment is very much a part of the enterprise of higher education. It is found in the notion that we primarily get an education to get a job, pursue a profession, and be financially successful. Knowledge means a job, which means money, which means power. This is the rhetoric of our politics. Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama have argued for strengthening education, believing that knowledge is the engine of our economy, and that a strong economy is at the root of national power. Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, our political leaders have all essentially agreed with the sentiment that education will ensure that American children will continue to lead the world, that the United States, through education, will remain a global power. 

The connection between knowledge and power is also found in scholarly traditions that seem far removed from business or the American political scene. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, in Enlightenment idealizations of Reason, and in the many diverse traditions of the liberal arts and sciences, the pursuit of truth through philosophy or science is thought to empower us to free ourselves from mists of ignorance and falsehood. A good thing, an ideal to embrace.

Nevertheless, the desire to understand the world has very often been driven by the desire to control it. In Toni Morrison’s great novel Beloved, the main character Sethe discovers, to her consternation and finally to her horror, that the slave master sees her and her children as specimens to be studied; the quest to know about others was continuous with the effort to enslave them. Plato believed that philosophers should discover and understand the truth. He also believed that philosophers should be kings.

A cartoon that I hung on my office door captures this general sentiment about the purposes of knowledge. A father, in the posture of elder sage imparting wisdom, tells his son matter-of-factly: “Knowledge is power…. The power to make other people feel stupid.”  A lesson, I think, that my old teacher in New Guinea had learned well. I hung this cartoon on my door to remind myself of the temptations of false knowledge. The temptation of false knowledge—whether you are pursuing your education to become a CEO or to understand the mind-bending complexities of theoretical physics—is to imagine others as lesser than yourself. The Greek philosopher Aristotle is said to have once asserted, “Educated men are as much superior to uneducated men as the living are to the dead.”  One does not get much more superior in one’s own mind than that.

To recognize this temptation is not to reject the fact that education is empowering; nor is it to suggest, if you are attending college in part because you want a better job or because you want to “improve” yourself, that you’ve come for the wrong reasons. If it is possible for us to seek knowledge in order to enrich ourselves at the expense of others, it hardly follows that poverty and dependency are ideals. It is still a good thing, as the adage goes, to teach a man to fish. Nor, frankly, should the fact that false knowledge can be falsely used be seen as an excuse to wallow in ignorance. Sloth of the mind is no more of a virtue than that of the body.

And so, my claim here is not against knowledge rightly understood. My claim is that the desire for a better job or a more secure life, or the desire for a more sophisticated understanding of the world, all these represent only partial virtues. They are good things that can become bad things, true things that become false things, if they are not grounded in a larger and more generous vision. In this view, an understanding of knowledge that is primarily about self-empowerment and self-aggrandizement falls short of a properly Christian view of education and its purposes.

That view of education assumes that learning empowers us, first and foremost, to love. The goal of our education, both in this place and in the schoolhouse of our lives, is to deepen, broaden, and strengthen our capacity to love both God and our neighbors, and as a consequence of that love, to offer praise to God who is in, through, and above all things, who is the Author of all Knowledge.

At first blush, direct linking of the pursuit of knowledge and the capacity for love is counterintuitive for many Christians; indeed, some view learning and love as if they are antithetical. American Christians especially have been notoriously anti-intellectual because, as we know, knowledge puffs up but love builds up.

Contrary to the notion that the noxious flowering of knowledge is pride, I believe that all genuine knowledge begins in humility. A story: At the age of eighteen I was on the verge of setting off for Wheaton College. Having grown up in a strongly sectarian household, I was the first child in my entire extended ­family to attend a college other than one sponsored by our denomination; this fact was the subject of family discussions and perhaps a few family prayer meetings. In our view, Wheaton was a “so-called Christian College,” one my family felt sure was bursting with liberal ideas, or at least ideas that were not our ideas. At a party in my honor shortly before leaving home, I was sitting in a chair receiving gifts and congratulations when an older cousin came up and knelt down next to me. Taking my hand in hers and eyeing me carefully, she said, “Now, Peter, I want you to go up there and give those people the Truth.”

This impressed me terribly. My cousin’s admonition fit pretty well with my own sense that at eighteen I knew just about everything I needed to know. College would be a formality. In those days, when I looked at Pete Powers in the mirror, I pretty much liked what I saw. It was as if I looked in a mirror and saw the universe.

But narcissism is the opposite of knowledge, not its culmination. The ability to learn, like the ability to love, depends first on a conviction that we are not sufficient, that we are not complete, and that we don’t yet know what or as we really ought to know. A proper understanding of both ourselves and the world around us requires that we lay ourselves open, vulnerable to change as we encounter the world of God’s making and God’s care that is far greater than the furthest reach of our imagination. This means that the pursuit of knowledge, whether in college or in life, is rightly understood as a spiritual discipline. If we let it, the pursuit of ­knowledge nurtures the virtue of humility, allowing us to see ourselves more truly and others more generously.

Mark Schwehn, a Professor of Humanities and formerly provost at Valparaiso University, says the following about learning and humility:

Humility… does not mean uncritical acceptance: it means, in practical terms, the presumption of wisdom and authority in [others]. Students and faculty… are far too often ready to believe that Kant was just… murky or that Aristotle was pointlessly repetitive, or that Tolstoy was… needlessly verbose. Such quick, easy, and dismissive appraisals preclude the possibility of learning from these writers… Some degree of humility is a precondition for learning. (Exiles from Eden, 49)

Contrary to our received cultural images of vain and violent intellectuals from Faust to Hawthorne’s Rappaccini to Hannibal Lecter, such humility is a virtue that the life of the mind does not diminish, but nourishes.

Learning, rightly understood, is like entering a great mansion with many rooms. In each room we enter there are many doors. We choose doors to open by whatever light and desire is given to us. Sometimes we choose by happenstance and sometimes because we have nothing better to do, or perhaps because it was a door our father or mother opened, or perhaps because your Facebook friends liked a digital page, or perhaps because one door is first at hand and others a little further off. Each door opens to a room with many other doors. And so we choose and open doors to rooms with yet more doors. And choose and open. And choose and open. And on and on.

We grow in the knowledge of many things. And for all knowledge we can be thankful. But the fundamental lesson of my parable is this: we grow primarily in our awareness of how many doors we did not open, how many doors we will never open, and how many things we will never understand. This is the great irony of the life of the mind: knowing as we ought to know leads us into an ever-deeper awareness that we know so very little. 

statueThis suggests that the pursuit of knowledge, rightly understood, is a journey not into power and control, but into ever deepening awareness of mystery. Therefore, its ultimate destination is God. The sculptor C. Malcolm Powers captures this attitude in his bronze entitled “Intellectual Praise.” A scholar stands in a posture of praise, with arms lifted toward a heavenly vision. His or her arms, and even part of the torso, are rendered as books that the scholar is raising up to God in rapture. The scholar’s bookish arms echo the appearance of an angel’s wings, as if the scholar’s knowledge has become part and parcel of who the scholar is and part of what compels and lifts her toward a heavenly vision. One book lies at the scholar’s feet, perhaps an acknowledgement that we cannot possess all knowledge, or, as I prefer to think of it, as an image of the scholar casting the crown of her knowledge toward the feet of Christ on the last day.  However, the scholar’s gaze is not directed toward that missing book or even, in the classic rendering of scholarly activity, toward the books she has in hand, absorbed and away from the world around her; the scholar’s vision is trained on God, brought to and loving God through knowledge, and offering that knowledge back to God as the true author of the knowledge we have gained.

In Dante’s Paradiso, as Dante comes to the conclusion of his pilgrimage through hell and purgatory and into heaven, he describes his divine vision of the glory of Christ on his throne, saying:

And so my mind was totally entranced

In gazing deeply, motionless, intent;

The more it saw the more it burned to see.

(Canto XXXIII)

This passage suggests that humility is not only the precondition of knowledge; it is also the substance and end of knowledge that leads to praise. The more he saw—of Christ, of the world made through Christ, the world sustained in Christ, the world of men and women made in the image of Christ and loved by Christ in all their abounding variety—the more he saw, the more he burned to see.

As you begin or continue your studies of literature and art, of history and music, of theology and biology and physics and sociology and psychology, of business and nursing and all the rest, as you open one or two or three of the infinity of doors that lie before you, it is my prayer that the more you see, the more you will burn to see.  If that is the education that you pursue, I believe that you will find yourselves compelled to join together with the Apostle Paul, singing the great hymn from scripture (Romans 11:33):

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his
counselor?
Who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Peter Kerry Powers is the Dean of the School of Humanities of Messiah College. This essay is based on remarks presented to the Messiah College Convocation of August 2010.

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