How to Become Educated Despite Going to College

Feb 14, 2002 |J. Budziszewski

Ever feel like your classwork is keeping you from becoming the person you really want to be?

Zack lifted his knuckles to knock. Seeing that I was already facing the open door, he let them drop. "Hello! I guess you must have heard me coming."

"No, I was just wool-gathering." I gestured toward a book that I'd been thinking about. "Come in."

He sat down heavily and let his backpack slide to the floor. For a few moments he was silent. "Professor Theophilus," he said finally, "I'm not educated."

I considered him and smiled. "No, Zack, that you aren't."

"How did you get educated?"

"Becoming educated is a lifelong journey. I don't consider myself educated."

"Maybe so, but you're a lot more educated than I am."

"I've also been at it much longer."

"I'm beginning to think I haven't been at it at all," he said.

"That sounds ominous. What do you mean?"

"You said becoming educated is a lifelong journey. But I'm not even becoming educated."

"You're not struggling in your classes, are you?"

"No. Gradewise, I'm fine."

"I didn't think so. Are outside troubles weighing you down?"

"You mean like not having money for tuition, or my mom getting sick or breaking up with a girlfriend or something?"

I nodded. "Or something."

He shook his head. "Nothing like that. It's just that — well — I thought education was supposed to be more than job training."

"It is."

"Maybe so, but you couldn't tell from me. The job training part is going fine. But the education part just doesn't seem to be happening. It's all such a waste of time. Take this philosophy course I had last semester."

"I'm listening."

"At first I was excited because the professor talked about 'the great questions,' but after a couple of months I realized that he didn't believe there are any answers. Or take my elective on renaissance drama."

"Go on."

"I thought we'd read plays by great authors like Shakespeare and learn what they were trying to say. But the teacher said you can never find out what an author is trying to say, and that you can't learn anything by reading that you don't already know. So I asked myself, what's the use?"

"Sounds like you had a couple of poor teachers. But tell me what you mean by becoming educated."

"Well — I know this sounds silly — but I mean becoming wise."

"That doesn't sound silly at all," I said. "The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown."

"Proverbs, right? I don't mean that I was silly to want wisdom, Professor Theophilus. I only mean that I was silly to think I could get it in college."

"It would be silly to imagine that secular scholars are laboring to find God's truth. But they can't help stumbling across some of it. God has things for you to learn even at the secular university."

"I wish I could believe that."

"Don't be so gloomy. Your situation is much easier than Daniel's, for instance."

"The biblical Daniel? How does he come into this?"

"Don't you know the story?"

He looked sheepish. "When I was a kid in Sunday School I learned about the den of lions. That's all I know."

"Well, now you're grown up, so when you go home today, read the book for yourself. Read it as history, because that's what it is. After the Babylonians conquered Judah, they brought young men of the Judean nobility to their own capital as captives. These young men were to be trained in Babylonian language and literature for three years, then taken into the Babylonian royal service. No doubt some of them lost the heritage of the faith, and assimilated completely into Babylonian culture. But others, like Daniel and his three companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, managed to acquire the best of Babylonian learning and yet hold onto the word of God. With His divine illumination on their studies, they eventually outdid their own teachers, passed dangerous tests, and found ways to serve the Lord even as strangers in a strange land."

"Sometimes I feel that this whole university is a strange land."

"You should, because it is. Every land short of heaven is a strange land."

"That's what I mean."

"But Zack, Daniel and his companions were in a far stranger land than you are. Though it isn't the same as Christianity, Western civilization has been leavened by the Gospel for centuries. Your teachers are the custodians of a great deal more truth than many of them recognize. If Daniel and his companions could glean wisdom even in the Babylonian 'state university,' then surely you can glean wisdom in this one."

"That's what I want, Professor Theophilus. But that's just what I haven't been getting. How do I get it? How can I actually be educated?"

"Before we talk about college, suppose I begin with advice about the attainment of wisdom that I would give to any young Christian, whether in college or out of it. Wisdom is a calling for every believer."

"Okay. Fire away."

"The first thing is that you have to plan to acquire wisdom. You can't just expect it to happen to you."

He sighed. "That was my mistake when I came here to Post-Everything State. I thought it would just happen, and it didn't. But how do I plan for it?"

"One important thing is to know what you're looking for. Speaking very generally, you want to learn three things about the world that God has made: How to tell the good and holy from the bad and unholy, how to tell the true from the false, and how to tell the beautiful from the ugly. A lot of people laugh at this way of putting it, because they think that holiness, truth and beauty are matters of personal preference. That's a false sophistication. Holiness for me has to be the same as holiness for you, because there is only one God, and both of us were made for Him. Truth for me has to be the same as truth for you, because there is only one reality, and He put both of us into it. And so on. Do you get it?"

"Yes. You're saying that the good and the true and the beautiful are things I can really learn, really come to know. Didn't Plato say something like that? But he was a pagan."

"Yes, even some of the pagans grasped this, and yes, Plato was one of them. Now another important thing is to remember that you can't separate how you think from how you live."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that if you want to understand the good, the true and the beautiful, then you can't live a God-forsaken, false and ugly life. The two go hand in hand. You may be able to learn certain technical skills without living properly, but you can't attain wisdom without living properly."

"Does that work the other way around too?"

"Sure. The more wisdom you attain, the better you will know how to live."

"But then I have a problem, don't I? If I don't have any wisdom to begin with, then I won't know how to live; if I don't know how to live, then I won't live right; and if I don't live right, then I can't get wisdom."

I laughed. "It's not as hopeless as that, Zack. You have a little store of wisdom already, if only you listen to it. Everyone does; God has seen to that. So live by it. Just as you were taught when you were small, always do what you know to be your duty, and never do what you know to be wrong. If you live according to the little bit of wisdom you have already, you'll be well-prepared to gain more."

"I guess that makes sense."

"The third important thing to remember is that becoming wise is like becoming fit. This has two parts. Part one. How should you eat if you want to become healthy?"

"I guess you should eat nourishing food, and stay away from junk food and drugs."

"Right. So what should you 'take in' if you want to be wise?"

"I see what you're getting at. My godparents made me memorize this when I was a kid: 'Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.' Right?"

"Right. Paul wrote that to the Christians at Philippi. He wrote it to explain what we should feast our minds, our thoughts, our imaginations on, and what not to waste our time on. To give just two simple examples, read wise books and hang around wise people; lay off the MTV and dump the friends who drag you down."

"You said your point had two parts. What's the other part?"

"Just continue the analogy. How should you treat your muscles if you want them to become strong?"

"Exercise them, I suppose. Stretch them. Make them work."

"Right. Do you see where I'm going with this?"

"Sorry. Not this time."

"I mean don't just feed your wisdom, exercise it. Don't just read wise books, read books wiser than you are — books that stretch your wisdom."

"But if they're so far beyond me, how can I tell whether they're wise or not? I won't even understand them, will I?"

"Do like long-distance runners do."

"What?"

"A runner makes sure he has good coaches and trainers — people who know what is and isn't good exercise, and can guide him. Then he paces himself. He doesn't start right in with a 30-kilometer marathon. Instead he starts light, but every day runs a little further. He builds himself up. Now do you understand me?"

"I think so. By good coaches or trainers you mean — would you say good mentors?"

"Right. Including not only good spiritual and moral mentors but good intellectual mentors."

"Do you think I can actually find good mentors at a school like this one?"

"Zack, there are much wiser teachers here than the two you described. Of course there are worse ones too. You have to put more care into the search. Don't choose teachers just because their classes fit your schedule, or because you think their courses won't be too difficult. Find the wisest and best. And then get to know them; haunt their office hours and learn whatever you can from them."

"Okay."

"By the way, don't assume that a teacher is wise just because he's a Christian, either. Not all Christian students have learned to think like Christians; neither have all Christian scholars. Some have merely 'baptized' the world-view of the surrounding secular society. So exercise all the discernment you can. The wiser you become yourself, of course, the sharper your discernment will become."

"I get you. But would you explain your other point? You said something about starting with a mile run but running a little further every day, and there you lost me."

"Take the books you read. When you choose them, you shouldn't start with books that are so far beyond your wisdom that you're completely lost, but with books that are only a little beyond your wisdom. Built yourself up, just like the runner."

"But there are thousands and thousands of books. Where do I start?"

"Once upon a time, colleges and universities tried to answer that question. They put a lot of care into developing core curricula — lists of great books that everyone would study, no matter what their major."

"We don't have that here, do we?"

I sighed. "No, we don't. A generation ago the core curriculum at Post-Everything State University was watered down into 'distribution' requirements — 'Take a little of this and a little of that, we don't care what, no one knows why.' But you can find mentors to guide you in curriculum choice, too."

"Are there any good books or websites about that?"

"How about a website with books?" I scrawled a web address on a slip and pushed it across the desk to Zack. "You'll find some resources here from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute — a lot of good advice and about curriculum and the great books, and even a set of online guides to the major academic disciplines. Unusually good ones."

"I've never heard of it. Is it a Christian organization?"

"No, but most of its advice makes sense from a Christian perspective, too. Personally I would change very little."

Zack looked at the slip. "If I try all these things you've suggested, can I talk with you sometimes about what I'm studying?"

"That's what I'm here for. And I can suggest some other faculty too."

"Well, thanks." Zack took a deep breath and rose to go. "I was feeling pretty low when I came in today. But maybe I can get an education after all."

"Of course you can, if you work at it. 'Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice; on the top of the walls she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.'"

Zack turned at the door and gave me a puzzled look.

I smiled. "That just means that Lady Wisdom is hard to miss. If you really want to meet her, it's not hard to find her house."

Copyright 2002 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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