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Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer1

Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
honor is not fitting for a fool.
Prov. 26:1 (NIV)

This post will demonstrate that I do not believe the last sentence of Bonhoeffer’s quote above. I contend we are not defenseless against stupidity or what the Bible calls fools and foolishness. I think our defense can start by identifying fools and foolish ideas and offering clear reasons why they are foolish. Ideally, Christians in universities should help with this process.

Yet, I must confess that I don’t help my students identify fools and foolishness as well as I should. The likely reason is that I’ve absorbed the cultural pressure to be nice that I described recently. I don’t think I’m alone. According to the Google N-gram, we have talked less about “fool,” “fools” “foolish,” and “foolishness” ever since the 1930s.

I would hypothesize that the declining use of these words stems from the dominance in our culture of sentimentality, by which I mean excessive tenderness and niceness. For Christians, it may involve the erroneous assumption that we need to be “nicer” than both God and Scripture or perhaps an erroneous view that we should avoid that kind of “demeaning” language.2 That sort of foolish niceness is a vice and a way our culture has deformed us.

After all, biblical wisdom literature is quite clear that the path to wisdom entails learning to identify fools and foolish ideas. Yet, we often avoid this part. For example, how many times have you heard Proverbs 1:7a in Christian discussions about education, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” but you never hear the second part quoted, “but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Indeed, I cannot recall a time I have heard the second part quoted in these contexts.

The wise and diligent know how to identify fools, help others identify them, and avoid them (Prov. 14:7, “Stay away from a fool, for you will not find knowledge on their lips”). Indeed, Jesus and Paul freely identified fools and foolish ideas (Mt. 7:24-26; Mt. 25; Luke 10; Gal. 3:1, 3, etc.). Christian education should help with these tasks. I was reminded of this important endeavor when rereading the philosophy of education by one of the greatest Christian educators, John Amos Comenius:

We do not choose parasites, fools, or buffoons, but serious, wise, and pious men as tutors for the sons of our kings and princes. Should we not blush, therefore, when we confide the education of the sons of the King of kings, of the brothers of Christ and heirs of eternity, to the jesting Plautus, the lascivious Catullus, the impure Ovid, that impious mocker at God, Lucian, the obscene Martial, and the rest of the writers who are ignorant of the true God?3

Comenius is simply applying and expanding upon Proverbs 14:7 in his day. We should make sure our young students are equipped with the Christian critical thinking they need to identify fools before having them read fools.

To help students identify and critically analyze fools we must dig deeper than surface level impressions to expose foolishness. I remember when I first started reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile. Rousseau was clever, but the thought that immediately came to my mind in reading the book was that this person had no understanding of children and education. It was only later when reading Paul Johnson’s helpful book on fools entitled Intellectuals that I realized my intuitions were correct. We have no evidence that Rousseau studied children as a basis for his theories. Moreover, we also know that he gave away the five children he had with his mistress to an orphanage. Two-thirds of abandoned babies died at that orphanage within the first year. Rousseau was a callous moral monster when it came to his children. Yet, many educators throughout history have followed Rousseau’s baseless and empirically deficient educational philosophy, even though he was a fool.

Today in academia, we find foolishness in areas where cultural pressures encourage the acceptance of sloppy thinking. One contemporary area where I recently heard silly sentimentalism and foolishness was in a diversity, equity, and inclusion training video. One person in the video noted, “When we are not open to the life experiences someone else brings, we are saying, you are not part of our culture and that is exclusive. That is a non-welcoming attitude.”  Now, consider what I believe is an inspiring story of non-welcoming exclusivity shared with my research team by an African-American student at Baylor working in the admissions office.

I will never forget this day. This one kid walked in. I was up at the front desk, and he walked in with his mom, and he’s from Tennessee. And we were just making small talk. And he goes, “Are there a lot of people that look like you at this university? Because I’m not about that.” And [my white supervisor] literally comes running from his office and was like, “Actually, if you’re going to do that, and if you are going to be a person that is like this, we don’t want you here.” I think that was just really super nurturing because it was like the office had my back. And I wasn’t alone in this situation, I didn’t even have to explain the situation, they were just listening in. . . . I didn’t even have to explain anything, I did not have to show any emotions and [my supervisor] switched places with me.

In this case, this staff member correctly identified and discouraged a racist fool from coming to Baylor University. Every university is a moral community that should enforce academic honesty and respect for others made in God’s image and thus it is entirely appropriate for a university to refuse to welcome cheaters, racists, or anti-Semitic fools who either glory in murder, rape, and violence or groups that do. Wisdom does not involve the blanket applications of particular virtues or practices, such as hospitality, indiscriminately. That’s foolishness.

Certainly, we want to teach our students not to be too quick to judge others or another group’s cultural creations since often we cannot immediately understand the inner rationale for some cultural practices. We must teach our students to work hard to empathize with and understand others. Students need many prior Christian virtues, such as humility, self-control, and gentleness, before learning and applying these skills.

Yet, at the same time, we must not shy away from teaching our students to identify fools, offer reasons for their foolishness, and yes be willing to avoid or exclude them when appropriate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity gets at the reason why this skill is important to develop:

The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. As so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.4

Unfortunately, academia is currently a breeding ground for this sociological problem. I can remember allowing myself to be made stupid in graduate school due to the factors Bonhoeffer described. Students learn quickly that certain viewpoints are the right ones even if they have serious questions about those “right views,” and I was no different. I remember being intimidated by the fools in my graduate classes even though I should have known “a fool is hotheaded and yet feels secure” (Prov. 14:16b). I mistook showing confidence, being domineering, having moral passion, and using lots of words with having wisdom (contra Prov. 15:2).

Again, Bonhoeffer gets to the heart of the issue, “The power of one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy and fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.”5 Bonhoeffer is simply expanding upon Prov. 13:20, “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.” We are paying the price for following fools at the moment. 


  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Ed. John W. De Gruchy, Trans. Isabel Best, Lisa F. Dahill, Reinhard Krauss, and Nancy Lukens (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 43.
  2. Scripture is clear that there is a difference between calling someone a “fool” as a term of derision (Mt. 5:22) versus identifying fools from whom you should flee (Prov. 17:12). Katie Kressar’s recent blog post provided a wonderful reflection upon the former. I’m using this post the reflect upon the latter.
  3. John Amos Comenius, The Great Didactic, Trans. and Ed. M. W. Keatinge (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1907), 236.
  4. Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison, 43.
  5. Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison, 43.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.


  • John Mustol says:

    Are not the “fool” and the “wise” of Proverbs more symbols that real people? Yes, there are fools and wise individuals in the world, but aren’t the vast majority of us both wise and foolish? Do we not all make mistakes? Paul wrote, “For all have sinned” (Ro 3:23). Sure, I need to avoid fools, but what do I do when I realize I’m a fool – or at least being foolish? Is humility the path to wisdom? Isn’t that what Proverbs 1:7 means – at least in part?

    • pglanzer says:

      John, I’m not sure what your point is. Regarding your first question, I would agree that they are ideal types that are meant to guide real people (similar to Christ’s reference to the wise and foolish builders). In answer to your second question, I would agree that we live on the spectrum between these types. What you seem to imply by your third question and the following comment is that we should not focus on discerning where someone is on the spectrum, since we are all sinners. I agree we are all sinners and need to rely on Christ crucified for our salvation (“foolishness to those who are perishing”) and that the fear of God/humility is the beginning of wisdom. Yet, affirming that point does not negate the need to discern between wisdom and foolishness/wisdom and fools in any area of life. Indeed, all of higher education claims to offer expertise regarding who is a wise/good engineer, biologist, accountant, historian, and the novice or fool. I would contend that extends to the moral life beyond professional expertise. We need to help students discern who is a wise and foolish neighbor, spouse, friend, student, etc.

  • Phillip Cary says:

    You’re commending an important Christian practice here. How should this practice take on board the word of our Lord, “whoever says, ‘you fool,’ will be liable to the gehenna of fire” (Matt. 5:22) ? (Perhaps this should be the subject of a follow-up article. . . . )

    • pglanzer says:

      Philip, Great question and suggestion. I perhaps should have elevated Footnote 2 into the text: “Scripture is clear that there is a difference between calling someone a ‘fool’ as a term of derision (Mt. 5:22) versus identifying fools from whom you should flee (Prov. 17:12). Katie Kressar’s recent blog post provided a wonderful reflection upon the former. I’m using this post the reflect upon the latter.” I think Katie’s post is the appropriate follow-up reading.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    The recent decision of Columbia University to suspend in person-classes due to the behaviour of pro-Palestinian protesters on campus shows that stupidity can indeed be sociological but also, at its core, be based on profound ignorance. To protest on behalf of any group without sufficient knowledge of the history behind what is happening now is ridiculous. That these protests have been taking place on many North American campuses shows how intellectually empty higher education has become. And it feeds, and it is fed by, failure at the K-12 level to ground our children and adolescents in solid historical, scientific, and moral truths so that they can judge the present with wise, critical minds.

    • Joseph 'Rocky' says:

      Gordon, amen! Not only have our schools have dropped the ball, but I would imagine politically correct pastors across the nation will avoid this topic this Sunday as well…We live in a time when it seems too often “up is down” and “down is up”.

      • Gordon Moulden says:

        Rocky: Right! “Up is down” and “down is up”; truth is out the window, and yes, the church MUST be the one place in society where people hear it. Secular society, so drunk on psychology, is totally lost when it comes to scientific truth, and so allergic to scripture that moral and historical truth is likewise shunned and ignored. Truth is the secularized West’s most hated four-letter word, and Satan, the father of lies, is ecstatic.

    • Phil Irish says:

      Interesting. I would have thought the protesters would be commended on taking a longer view of history, and working toward demilitarization and peacemaking. Student protests over the decades have often, in the long run, been seen to be on the right side of history (civil rights, Vietnam, for example). We’ll see, I guess, how South Africa’s case moves forward.

      • pglanzer says:

        Please take off your rose-colored glasses and take a clear look at reality. I’m sure there are well-meaning protesters, but there are also pro-war protesters who have demonstrated antisemitism, violence, and support for the genocidal views of Hamas. Many have cheered calls for the extermination of the Jewish state and Jews. Likewise, student protests throughout history have sometimes been for good causes but they student protesters have also supported Hitler’s fascism, Mao’s bloody cultural revolution, the 1979 Iranian revolution, and other violent revolutions. Those who claim to see the right side of history clearly have usually never read much history.

      • Phil Irish says:

        Thanks for sharing your view, Perry. I assure you I’m not wearing rose coloured glasses. Considering the number of Jews who are also against the actions of the IDF, it’s clear the cause is not anti-semitic. While there are instances of antisemitism or solidarity with Hamas, people summarizing the outcry in that way are using exceptions to discredit the cause without addressing the issues. We would do well to look at Christian practices that break cycles of violence. In any case, this is not the right place for an extended discussion. I just did not appreciate glib comments on a difficult topic passing unremarked.

      • pglanzer says:

        I gave a glib reply because your critique was shoddy and simplistic. Your recent reply still is. A claim such as, “Considering the number of Jews who are also against the actions of the IDF, it’s clear the cause is not anti-semitic” is overly simplistic. No, it is not clear. There is plenty of video evidence that the various protesters do not agree on “the cause.” You’re writing about the protests and the protesters as if they are monolithic. They’re not. The protesters are a mix of people with different agendas, so it would be best to treat them that way. I have no doubt there are Jews against the actions of IDF, but I also have seen and read plenty of evidence of antisemitism that cannot simply be dismissed as “exceptions to discredit the cause without addressing the issues” (e.g., whole groups engaged in anti-semitic chants). You cannot simply dismiss the evidence because it does not fit your political tribe’s narrative about “the cause.” The idea that you somehow have insight into “the cause” and the motives of the majority of protestors is ridiculous.

        Here is where I do agree with you, “We would do well to look at Christian practices that break cycles of violence.” To break cycles of violence in any situation, we need to acknowledge reality and evil in all its messiness—even if we sympathize with a certain political tribe (right or left). Also, we need to acknowledge that Christian practices will not necessarily be embraced by non-Christians (which means the majority of combatants in this situation and likely the majority of protesters).

      • Phil Irish says:

        I meant to suggest that Gordon’s comment was glib, and also your earlier one – which motived me to contribute my voice. I appreciate your comment, now, that the movement is not monolith (and how could it be). So characterizing protestors as not knowing history, or lacking moral judgement, is not accurate. Many people speaking in favour of limiting Israel’s incursions into Gaza and aggressive land settlement in the West Bank are very knowledgable about history — the founding of Israel, the wars, the Oslo peace process, different factions within both Israel and Palestine. To dismiss the complexity of the issue (which was happening, loudly, before my first comment) is to be in some kind of silo.

  • Joseph 'Rocky' says:

    Perry, yes. And our foolishness as a nation is currently an embarrassment beyond being able to adequately describe to those who fall prey to it.

  • Phil Irish says:

    Not your earlier one. Rocky’s.