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Above All Else: Humility

As I mentioned during my talk, Recasting the Drama of Catholic Education in the Spring, the term “education” has a much deeper meaning than is often intended in its contemporary usage.  When we hear the word “education” we often envision a process by which students acquire knowledge.  What is intended in the education that we provide at SJI is the formation of persons.  This purpose entails growing in knowledge, but even more significantly, character development, a personal growth towards excellence and a cultivation of what students will come to love.

Fundamentally, we believe that children in our society are underestimated not only in terms of what they can come to know and understand but, essentially, what they can come to love.  Against all odds, in a culture of entitlement, the most significant first step towards a love of the highest things is the cultivation of the virtue of humility.

What I do not mean by humility is self-deprecation.  Traditionally humility is bound up in the truth, in self-knowledge and a spirit of receptivity.  This receptivity is essential for our students in several areas:

  1.  Humility before the reality that we are exploring in the classroom- The classical approach of our academy stresses the priority of encountering the reality that we are studying directly.  If we are going to study insects, we should not merely memorize a textbook account of the subject, we should watch bugs.  If we are studying the founding fathers, we should cut out the middle man and read the Founding Fathers themselves, in their own voices.  This has implications not only upon what we study or how we study it, but with what attitude we engage our studies.  Students need to put aside all prejudices they might have about the Founding Fathers or insects and have a pure encounter with the object of their study.  This means getting themselves out of the way of their own intellectual formation, being humble.
  2. Humility within a community – The seminar model of SJI is based on conversation.  As Aristotle teaches us in the Politics, man is by nature a political animal.  We learn, are challenged to grow and become the best expressions of ourselves within the context of a community.  The Socratic approach of our academy entails learning through discussion, asking questions and engaging our classmates.  However, a healthy discussion demands humility.  Why is authentic dialogue so rare in the adult world?  Could it be that we are often so busy asserting ourselves they we cannot hear others and engage with them on a deeper level?  Students must enter the class discussions with a spirit of receptivity, a resolve to put others first and to assume that there is greater wisdom in communal discussion than one person’s asserted opinions.
  3. Receptivity to the mission of our academy – At a certain point, students have to truly give themselves over to their own formation.  Students need to trust their teachers and the vision of the school.  An aloof spirit will never permit them to reap the fruits of their academy program.  It is difficult to give oneself over, it requires trust and generosity, but these qualities are essential for students to be truly successful in any venture that they might undertake.

Humility entails self-knowledge, active receptivity in which students are engaged, involved but also fundamentally open to the goodness of existence, their fellow human beings and the great questions of our tradition.  In truth, without humility our students are better off not reading great texts or entering into Socratic seminars.  All that we will have succeeded in that case is producing pretentious, self-entitled children who can quote Plutarch.

As always, the responsibility rests with us, as teachers and parents.  Students learn first and foremost through the living models around them.  We will always see the best and the worst versions of ourselves reflected in our children and students.  This tremendous responsibility teaches us the importance of our own sense of humility, a lesson that is never completed.

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