At the beginning of every academic year I like to remind myself and my students that true education is a form of repentance. It is a humble admission that we've not read all that we need to read, we don't know all that we need to know, and we've not yet become all that we are called to become. Education is that unique form of discipleship that brings us to the place of admitting our inadequacies. It is that remarkable rebuke of autonomy and independence so powerful and so evident that we actually shut up and pay heed for a change.
C.S. Lewis said it well: "The surest sign of true intellectual acumen is a student's comprehension of what it is he does not know; not what he does know. It is a spirit of humility that affords us with the best opportunity to grow, mature, and achieve in the life of the mind. It is knowing how much we do not know that enables us to fully embark on a lifetime of learning; to recover to any degree the beauty goodness and truth of Christendom."
Likewise, G.K. Chesterton asserted: "I am always suspicious of the expert who knows he is an expert. Far better to seek the wisdom of the common, the ordinary, and the humble--for God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble."
So I tell my students again and again that we have been given much--and that since we have been given much we ought to be able to move to that place of profound gratitude and humility. We have received an amazing inheritance of Art, Music, Literature, Ideas of Philosophy, of Science and Mathematics. We have received a tradition of excellence. We have been taught what it means to have both passion and purity. We have learned of the essence of chivalry, valor, and godly servant-leadership. All this and more have we received in the remarkable bequest of Christendom's great flowering.
We have also been the beneficiaries of an extraordinary web of relationships. We have begun to understand that true education is more about a culture than it is about a curriculum. It’s more about a way of life than it is a way of doing. A vision of what God’s called you to than it is about a mechanical set of prescriptives that are to be implemented in your life. It is about relationships, about community, about the rich covenant into which you have been grafted by God’s good providence.
Arthur Quiller-Couch, the mentor of a host of literary luminaries including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Maurice Baring, and Dorothy Sayers once described what we have received in this fashion, “You are indeed the heirs of a remarkable legacy--a legacy that has passed into your hands after no little tumult and travail; a legacy that is the happy result of sacrificial human relations, no less than of stupendous human achievements; a legacy that demands of you a lifetime of vigilance and diligence so that you may in turn pass the fruits of Christian civilization on to succeeding generations. This is the essence of the biblical view, the covenantal view, and the classical view of education. This is the great legacy of truth which you are now the chief beneficiaries.”
All this ought to be more than a little humbling. Of course, humility is not exactly a popular concept these days. We are taught to take pride in ourselves, in our accomplishments, in our stature in this poor fallen world. Humility seems to be little more than glorified insecurity—or worse, a lack of ambition. Fernanda Eberstadt, in her brilliant coming-of-age novel Isaac and His Devils, captured this sentiment, "Humility has a dank and shameful smell to the worldly, the scent of failure, lowliness, and obscurity."
But how different is the Biblical perspective. A nation whose leaders are humbled in fear before God will suffer no want (Psalm 34:9). It will ever be blest (Psalm 115:13). It will be set high above all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 28:1). Similarly, families--and even individuals--that walk in humility will be exalted and lifted up in due time (Proverbs 3:34, James 4:6).
Thus, the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession properly begins by asserting that, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." The English reformers that composed that venerable tome, recognized that the beginning of any serious endeavor must necessarily be rooted in a humble and holy fear of our Gracious and Almighty God--that worship of Him, fellowship with Him, service to Him, and communion in Him, must be the vortex of any and all other activities. The Biblical faith is a circumspect fear of the Living God. That is its essence.
“But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God has from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or letter. Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, who has loved us, and has given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and establish you in every good word and work. Standfast and walk humbly in what you know” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-17).
Herein is the heart and soul of education. Herein is the beginning of repentance.