5/7/18

On Remaining Humble in Modern Academia

By: Jonathan Harris

After reading Richard Weaver’s monumental work Ideas Have Consequences last semester I was struck with one characterization of the “ideal man” that has since been shaping the way I look at my own academic future. For a young seminary student like myself pursuing “Christ-likeness” was a given, but my eyes were never fully open to what that meant in relation to my academic career and my identity in connection with it. Let me explain.

Weaver roughly traces the concept of the ideal man from the time of Plato up through the modern age by focusing on three different characters: the philosopher/theologian, the gentleman, and the specialist. Simply stated, the philosopher/theologian ought to be the ideal man, not because he is the smartest, but because he is the wisest. He is the wisest because he understands the connections which exist between fields of study and in knowing such connections has a more direct understanding of the immaterial eternal world of ideals and principles. The gentleman who replaced the philosopher/theologian retained the noble moral code of the previous station without the other-worldly glow. In short, he was the man of tradition defending the world passed on to him, but without a transcendent standard to be self-conscious of. While it was the case that the vast majority of gentleman drew their precepts from religion, it was not a requirement to be religious in order to attain to the status. The gentleman gave way to the specialist as modernity waxed. This is the world we currently live in. If you’ve ever seen someone dressed up in a lab coat trying to sell you the newest invention or medicine you are witnessing the elevation of the specialist. The specialist understands his limited narrow field of study and that is about all he is expected to comprehend. Those in society elevate the specialist because he is the “best” in his field. Not all of this is wrong in every way, but there is a fundamental deceptive element to it, and it relates directly to Christ-likeness, academia, and humility.

You see, the specialist is in danger of catching a disease all men are prone to, but not all men are exposed to, at least not to the same degree. Call it a bad case of having a “big head.” The Apostle Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 8:1. “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” Of course knowledge itself is not the problem, otherwise the Apostle’s reference to the “gift of knowledge” (12:8), or his multiple positive uses of the same term (i.e. 11:3) in the same epistle would make little sense. It is best to understand the warning as one of motivation and not education. It is the soil in which the seeds of knowledge are planted that prove to make the field inhospitable to the ideal of love. Academics is incapable of corrupting a heart, but a heart is capable of corrupting academics, and the heart of the classical philosopher/theologian has a much different purpose than the heart of the modern specialist.

The specialist approaches his field with an eye toward efficiency and success as chief virtues, and prestige and security as chief rewards. His is a world of competition against an ever shrinking group of participants the higher he climbs and the narrower his field becomes. To state it in a  vulgar way, the ivory tower has become the world where the nerds are finally able to gain the illusion of out-competing the jocks. I say “illusion”, because the nerds have simply found a field in which the jocks and most others simply do not compete for reasons usually having to do with pursuing other more traditional life goals.

Now, it is not wrong to pursue higher education. If it were, I would be the biggest hypocrite in the world. It is the way education is pursued, viewed, and used. The philosopher/theologian pursues education the way a loving man pursues his wife. He is not studying her to manipulate her. He does not view her like a stepping stone toward greater personal success. He does not use her strengths to boost his career. He pursues her because he loves her. He wants to know her because he cares about her. Romance is relational, and so is wisdom. The philosopher/theologian has a soul captivated with the mysteries of the divine and dives into the deep end knowing he will never explore the depths of the sea of learning as long as he lives. No academic program can contain it. It is a pursuit which never ends. The result of such a pursuit is a humble well-rounded man of wisdom. He knows he has merely scratched the surface. He knows his place is that of the passive observer attempting to comprehend principles set in place by someone far greater than him. He does not manipulate the world around him but uses the wisdom he obtains to faithfully occupy whatever station he possesses. If the philosopher/theologian has any responsibility it can be summarized with one word: duty.

The beauty of the philosopher/theologian is that any person is capable of being one. Academic accolades are not required, just a love for truth. Understanding one’s role as an inheritor of a tradition, culture, and religion are prerequisites however. The specialist often has a hard time seeing beyond his own nose because he has set out to make a way for himself solely based upon his alleged ability in one or two narrow areas. Take that away from him and he’s done for. This is why so often professors at academic institutions can exude an ere of arrogance. It must be understood by everyone they surround themselves with that they are important because of their expertise. Thus they are in danger of becoming insecure one trick ponies. Truth is not their pursuit. Domination in their field is. Not so for the philosopher/theologian who primarily sees himself as part of a faith, a heritage, and a family. Take his academic status from him and his pride is not hurt. He probably has a trade he knows a thing or two about. He may have even inherited it from his father. He knows his family and faith will continue well after he’s gone. His faith, hope, and love are rooted in heavenly institutions.

So what does this all have to do with Jesus? It’s quite simple really. He was the ideal man. But He was also the ideal philosopher/theologian. He worked for thirty years as a carpenter before he pursued his ministry calling. He bypassed the prestigious centers of education and instead “increased in wisdom and stature” through conversing with older religious leaders in a Socratic sort of way. He found his strength through His connection with God and upheld the tradition of His faith and people perfectly. His wisdom knew no limitation making Him the most profound speaker on every subject he chose to address. Finally, he fulfilled his heavenly and highest duty while being knowingly humiliated. His actions flowed from His character. He was the Savior of the world, as his name suggests, even before his ultimate duty was fulfilled. His identity was and still is secure in the eyes of heaven whether or not any recognition is afforded him on earth. 

As a young man with a strong connection to the academy, my goal and struggle is to keep the person of Jesus in mind as I pursue the next steps in my education and career. Part of this process is avoiding Weaver’s “specialist,” while embracing his, “philosopher/theologian.” My identity is not found in “what I do.” My function in a narrow field is not my source of worth. My goal is not the approval of men in the same field.

One of Richard Weaver’s interesting observations about the South is that it is in this region that modernity has been resisted for the longest period of time in the Western world. The echoes of the pre-modern world of the philosopher/theologian and certainly the gentleman still exist in pockets here. One such pocket is represented by the Abbeville Institute. I have had the privilege of attending one of the organization’s summer schools and one of their summits and have formed relationships with many of the faculty. I recently wrote Dr. Clyde Wilson who I met at an Abbeville event to gain his advise on remaining humble in graduate school. It is with our exchange that I close this contemplation.

Dr. Wilson,

After visiting the university you recommended me to over the weekend with my wife I am pleased to inform you that Dr. Smith offered me a position as a Graduate Assistant. I do believe I will accept his offer. Thank you once again for writing the kind recommendation.

The main reason I'm writing you is to ask a question about humility. You see, my wife and I were discussing how down to earth Dr. Roberts and Smith were when we had lunch with them. Dr. Roberts is a dean and Dr. Smith the head of an entire department at the largest Christian university in the world. Yet, there we were dipping French fries in ketchup at Five Guys and talking about the most common things one could imagine. They were approachable and accessible. I commented that they would be just as happy at a Nascar track as they are sitting in their ivory towers- perhaps happier.

Then it occurred to me that the professors at Abbeville are without a doubt the most humble group of academics, and perhaps men, I've ever met in my entire academic experience. To use yourself as an example- I've been slowly making my way through "Defending Dixie," and I've been simply amazed at your insight and use of the English language, yet you were humble enough to ask me about myself and listen to what I had to say---a 28 year old with an undergraduate degree---while eating Banana pudding at Marice's.

A few years ago I had the displeasure of meeting without a doubt the most arrogant group of men I have ever witnessed in my entire life. They inhabited the graduate history department at the University of Albany. I will spare you the story of the their condescension toward me, but it was quite potent. The seminary I attend is a great deal better, but still I find that many of the professors love to hear the sound of themselves talk, and are not capable of admitting they may not know something when it is clear they don't.

How is it that you remain as humble as you do after having the academic profession that you've had? How is it that this general kindness and humility seems to be common among the Abbeville professors? Is it a Christian/Southern influence? I'm asking because as I reach higher levels of learning I want to remain humble myself and not fall into the trap of arrogance most academics inevitably fall into.

-Jon

Dear Jon,

I find your message deeply interesting and gratifying.  Would you mind if I shared it with a few Abbeville Scholars?  They would be pleased at the evidence of their good works.

There is not the slightest danger that you will ever be like the bad professors that you describe, and for many reasons.

To explain them fully would require major study of English and German social, intellectual, and cultural history back into the Middle Ages.  You have DEFENDING DIXIE.  In my pieces "Scratching the Fleas"  and "The Yankee Problem" I make a stab at the margins of the problem.

These people have no religion, no culture, and no vocation.  You are guilty of none of these things.  All they have is their status which they cling to rigidly.  Without their status they would be nobody---just one more average cipher among the millions in modern urban society.

No religion?  Obviously they have no conception of a higher purpose of life, either as individuals and in their view of humanity.

No culture?  They lack any visceral inward connection with Western civilization such as has been for long been possessed by any uneducated farm boy or worker. Probably your good Welsh name is helpful in this regard.

No vocation?  Unlike you, they have no drive to understand life and our great cultural heritage, no devotion to learning.  They have merely picked out some niche of "expertise" that will give them status in a bureaucratic, soulless society.

Another reason that you can never be like them is that your career will be a struggle that will depend on ability, effort, and the small help that we can give you.  There will be no comfortable bureaucratic niche for you.

Thanks for your kind remarks about us Abbevilleans. We are not status conscious.  More importantly, we are civilized Christian men who feel an obligation to mentor the young to carry on a great tradition.  Those other people regard talented young people not as a blessing but as a threat.

Hope this helps.

As ever, Clyde

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