On Academic Arrogance

The know-it-all attitude of the undergraduate student at a university; the willingness to expound at great lengths on any and every subject on the part of the graduate student; the confident airs put on by the college or university professor – all of these are examples of academic arrogance. Academic arrogance is unfortunately all too common, and is enhanced, no doubt, by the attitude that persists in our society that the university-educated person or the educated professional are somehow superior to those who have received only a high-school education.

Arrogance is of course everybody’s problem, but it would seem that the academic is particularly susceptible to this vice. It is most significant that the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was  called a tree of  “knowledge” (Gen. 2:17). The essence of the original sin consisted of man and woman arrogantly telling God, “I know better than you. I think the fruit looks good and I will trust my own senses, my own reason, rather than take you at your Word.” And, ever since, arrogance tends to accompany our claims to knowledge, or even just the pursuit of knowledge (cf. Rom. 1:21-2; II Cor. 10:4-5).

Academic arrogance is wrong, first of all, because there is little reason for it. No matter how brilliant, or how well educated one might be, one’s knowledge is really very puny. Although humans have made great strides in science, there is still much that we do not know. Thus, it is rather appropriate that several scientists have published a book entitled, The Encyclopedia of Ignorance.

Academics also don’t really have an edge over the “simple-minded” in terms of avoiding problems of closed-mindedness, bigotry, or self-deception. Faddishness is common among intellectuals too – just browse through some academic journals and you will observe the frantic chasing after some intellectual fad that appears suddenly, and then just as quickly passes from the scene.

Knowledge is no guarantee of virtue; education is no cure-all for the ills of society, as is so often assumed. There is just as much, if not more, immorality on our college and university campuses, as elsewhere. It may perhaps be cloaked in more sophisticated forms, but sophisticated evil is still evil.

Academic arrogance is not only wrong because it is without much foundation, and hence really un-academic; it is also wrong because of its religious significance. It involves rebellion against God. The Christian academic therefore must be particularly on guard against the sin of arrogance.

Humility is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the truly Christian mind. Christian scholars are careful to maintain an attitude of humility before God, who is their supreme authority. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7; Isa. 33:6).

Christian academics always acknowledge God as the source of all truth. They see themselves, not as the creators, but as the discoverers of truth.

The Christian mind is always aware of its limitations. Christians should always be careful not to give the impression that they have all the answers. We don’t! We only know in part. We only see through a glass darkly (I Cor. 13: 9,12).

Christian teachers are always a little surprised that they are called to teach.  After all, what have they got that they have not received as a gift from God?

Christian scholars do not shy away from trying to explain their profoundest insights to the layperson, and welcome the criticism this makes possible.

A Christian apologetic has a modest air about it. Our witness should always involve a humble proclamation of the gospel.

For the Christian academic, the discovery of truth should lead to worship (cf. Rom. 11:33-36). Worship is the antidote to all kinds of arrogance, including academic arrogance.

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Oct. 23, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)

 

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