Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)
Pride, like love, is a funny thing.
Maybe it’s academics in general or Twitter exclusively or the dangerous combination of the two, but it seems like pride is a distinguishing mark of the new academic regime. To get ahead, be self-assured. And it’s not without reason: academics spend years studying a certain sliver of information, so that they become the expert. They exhibit “mastery knowledge,” we call it. To be sure, academics do know certain things in great details. I remember this reality inspiring humility at the beginning: there are huge swaths of human knowledge that are yet to be known, and how much expertise there is across given disciplines. But I also noticed a sneaking pride: you know, I am pretty smart. I have mastered this knowledge set, so you people should listen to me. Like Ron Swanson walking into Home Depot, I dismiss others: “I know more than you.”
COVID seems to bring out the worst in everyone, and pride is no different. I remember seeing posts from Christian academics decrying parents who questioned putting masks on their toddlers and kids—as if this was a death wish over the entire nation. There’s only one way to interpret the science, and that’s their way. All else is intentional, evil distortion. Other academics make it appear like pretentiousness or snark is a Christian virtue.
David Foster Wallace identifies one of the reasons for pride in his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 on the value of a liberal arts education. He argues that we all suffer from a lingering but confident self-centeredness, a subconscious pull toward thinking we are the absolute center of the universe. We see and interpret everything through the lens of the self, and part of a liberal arts education is to adjust our lens in terms of how we think. “To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”
The Use and Misuse of Critical Thinking
What would it look like to have a little more critical awareness—especially for those in Christian liberal arts schools, where we should be modeling and teaching this critical awareness to students? Do we have the resources to steward a deep humility in how we think and interact?
One of the buzz words in higher education is “critical thinking.” Critical thinking is the answer to today’s plague of disinformation and poor thinking. Critical thinking leads to critical awareness. I’ve written elsewhere about the ills of critical thinking, and I know the sensitivity of such a claim. But I agree with feminist educational philosopher Nel Noddings as she notices the same elusiveness of critical thinking—it can mean anything we want it to.1 Noddings suggests that there are two ways (at least) to think about critical thinking. The first definition attempts to detect errors in reasoning, areas of neglect, etc. The second definition involves a habit of skepticism and of reading power claims behind truth claims. The first is a proper stage of thinking; the second is a perversion of thinking. But neither can account for a fullness of good thinking. Each assumes the individual as the arbitrator of truth—that the self sees clearly.
Critical thinking is not all to blame for this inherent pride in educators, but I wouldn’t call this way of thinking innocent either. If one reads or listens only with ears to refute, then there is no listening taking place. Pride rears its ugly head. Alan Jacobs acknowledges, “To enter refutation mode is to say, in effect, that you’ve actually done all the thinking you need to do, that no further information or reflection is required.”2 C.S. Lewis calls this the fallacy of Bulverism: the grand assumption that another person is wrong, and the conversation develops into explaining how wrong they are.3 There’s no arguing as to why they are wrong or what parts of their argument are right. One needs just to assume the other is wrong and go from there. Critical thinking does not demand this posture, but it may encourage it. Therefore, I do think the language we use matters. At the very least, this way of thinking encourages a skeptical posture—and to be skeptical of others is often to be sure of oneself.
Thinking with Charity
The philosopher Esther Meek suggests another way to pursue truth and argumentation. She writes that “love, not indifference, invites the real… Love presumes that the real is lovely or loveable or worth loving… What this is arguing is that love is what enables us to see things as they are and as they are meant to be.”4 Thinking, for Meek, flows through love, not critique. It presumes that someone else has something to teach you, and that you may find truth, beauty, and goodness in the oddest of places.
I want to offer that the Bible as a resource that gives us a better, more humble, more critically aware posture in thinking and considering truth claims. In 1 Corinthians 13—that popular marriage passage—charity, or love, is defined and explained. But latent within the text are the virtues of thinking and knowing, as well. This passage provides a certain set of postures conducive for better and clearer thinking. As it relates to humility, St. Paul begins, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”
For the sake of contrast to critical thinking and pride, 1 Corinthians 13 suggests that discernment starts in humility. In St. Paul’s verbiage, charity is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, but patient and kind. Rather than assuming learners “own” or “master” the truth, the Christian idea of truth is one of gift to be discovered. As such, truth is not something I boast in, as if I have the resources and talents to gain it. Truth is a gift rooted in grace. Truth comes down to me. I receive it. St. Augustine describes it like opening and closing your eyes. The truth does not change, but our ability to see does.5 Therefore, Christians have the resource for patience and kindness. Patience is required for me to know the truth, so I ought to be patient with others in their process. I can’t force my own eyes open nor someone else’s. We experience life as a gift from the Gift Giver. Perhaps the “other” can shed light on my understanding, and I am happy to be corrected, for as Christians, we never close the door on reconciliation and renewal.
Love also does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. For the context of this argument, love does not rejoice at wrong thinking. Here, critical thinking is clearly a step in the process, but the process as a whole is pointed toward a different goal. Rather than deconstruction, the goal is construction, and construction needs a worthwhile goal and vision of its own.
In a New York Times article, Jeanne Marie Laskus (2019) reports a story of Fred Rogers’s—of Mister Rogers—fame. He was invited to be part of a panel for the president. After speaking, he quickly left and even the secret service lost track of him. After being found, he communicated, “‘I wasn’t about to participate in any fund-raising or anything else,’ he told me later. ‘But at the same time I don’t want to be an accuser. Other people may be accusers if they want to; that may be their job. I really want to be an advocate for whatever I find is healthy or good. I think people don’t change very much when all they have is a finger pointed at them. I think the only way people change is in relation to somebody who loves them.’”
Now, part of the academic life is to correct error. Part of good thinking requires a critical element. But imagine if Christians in education were known for this type of Mister Rogers public witness: not accusers looking for error but encouragers seeking grace. Whether it’s in the public square or in a classroom, people change by the means of charity and in the context of love. Christian thinking flows from love, and charity is not arrogant or rude.
- Nel Noddings, Philosophy of Education (London, UK: Routledge Press, 2015), 86ff.
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think (New York, NY: Currency, 2017), 18.
- See C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Press, 1972), 273.
- Esther Meek, Loving to Know (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 435.
- See Paul Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Press, 2009), 29ff.