On Education and Humility

When, as a child, I imagined adulthood, I assumed that my sense of self would match the calendar—that I would feel as old as my birthday suggested. But, like many before me, I have navigated much of my adult life feeling little different inside than I did when I was seventeen. What I expected from adulthood is very different from the reality.

In the same way, when I began a PhD program I assumed I would feel educated upon completing it. But, not unlike my assumptions about adulthood, the reality has proven different from the expectation.

Two factors contribute to this feeling. First, deep study in any given field reveals to the student just how much knowledge comprises that field. The more educated the student becomes, the more he realizes just how little he knows. Second, deep study in any given field requires the student to remain ignorant of many other fields. James W. Alexander once quipped that to master a given field of study the student must “heroically . . . determine to be ignorant of many things in which men take pride.” During the time in which I focused my energies to master one discipline, my ignorance of many others necessarily grew.

As a result, my reticence to speak authoritatively—to declaim as if I know something—has increased as my education has increased. In the past I have spoken, blogged, and engaged on social media, often fancying myself some kind of expert or authority. Never mind that everything I know of economics or art or nuclear physics could fit into a thimble with room to spare. I read an article on Facebook. Hence, I was an expert. If further academic work has taught me anything, it has taught me a much-needed lesson in humility. Going forward, I hope to bite my tongue far more than I use it.

Sometimes a person who possesses genuine expertise in one field mistakenly fancies himself an expert in all fields. I knew a man whose expertise resides in the field of fluid dynamics, but who nevertheless spoke confidently about theology, law, and a variety of other fields in which he possessed no training whatsoever. I found him slow to learn and apt to argue. Although I had enjoyed far more training in theology, he could not learn from me, for he fancied himself more an expert than me. I hope not to repeat his error, and to remember that my particular expertise is profoundly limited in scope and non-transferrable to other disciplines.

In short, more than any fact I learned or expertise I gained, my education has given me a healthy dose of caution about the limits of my education.

 

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