Ever since I learned that education comes from roots that mean to lead out, I have always been inspired by the idea that a good education leads us out of ourselves toward something greater or at least something different. A good education challenges our settled ways of thinking; I have heard one educator talk about how the best education shocks our presumption. We have many opportunities here in a diverse learning community such as ours, and while our motto Semper Discens (Latin for always learning) is inset above the stage in Fuller Hall, my hope is that this year will be filled with opportunities to be always educating and being educated.
In his recent remarks to the students of Catholic University, President John Garvey pointed to friendship as a way to become more educated in this sense of being led outside of ourselves. He spoke about how, when we are in relationships with friends, we come to see things through their eyes. Besides being a source of comfort and joybesides their ability to see, encourage, and celebrate the good in usour friends give us a chance to broaden our perspectives and expand our understanding of the world.
However, Garvey told the students gathered for their first day of college that friendship did more than just show us the world outside of ourselves. He quoted John Henry Newman, who saw friendship as training for the practice of universal charity, as a chance to get better at loving all people. Newman said,
The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us. By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which small at first, may like the mustard seed, at last overshadow the earth.
This view of friendshipwhich goes beyond simply knowing about the world outside of ourselves to learning to love people who are different than we arehighlights the difference between intelligence/knowledge and wisdom. Ron Rolheiser describes it this way:
Wisdom is intelligence thats colored by understanding (which, parsed to its root, means infused with empathy). In the end, what makes for wisdom is intelligence informed by empathy, intelligence that grasps with sympathy the complexity of others and the world, and this has implications.
Learning, to be truly helpful, must be matched by an equal growth in empathy. When this isnt happening, then growth in intelligence is invariably one-sided and, while perhaps providing something for the community, will always lack the kind of understanding that can help bind the community together and help us better understand ourselves and our world. When intelligence is not formed by empathy, what it produces will generally not contribute to the common good. Without concomitant empathy, intelligence invariably becomes arrogant and condescending. True learning, on the other hand is humble, self-effacing, and empathic. When we develop ourselves intellectually, without sufficient empathy, our talents invariably become causes for envy rather than gifts for community.
These words are important as we launch into another school year and seniors begin to look at colleges and plan for their post-secondary learning. They are important reminders that it is not enough just to be always learning and not enough to strive to gain academic honors or get into the best schools. To truly be what Luther calls people of education, enlightenment, and character, in order to truly be a strong and rich community, we need to shoot for higher things than knowledge and status. Through relationships with our friends and growth in empathy, if we are to be the kind of community we want to be, we need to be always learning how to be more understanding, loving, and wise.
Tom Lovett is Headmaster at St. Johnsbury Academy.