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    Educational Philosophy

    Humility, the Classical Way

    May 10, 2021 by Brandy Vencel

    I could wish that our students possessed such earnestness that wisdom would never grow old in them.
    — Hugh of St. Victor

    Lately, I’ve been knee-deep in curriculum. I’ve looked at options I haven’t looked at before (no, I’m not leaving AmblesideOnline; this is for a side project). I’m not just looking at the curricula; I’m reading what the companies say about what they have made.

    I’ve noticed a disturbing lack of humility out there in the larger classical world. I’m not saying it’s everywhere; goodness knows there are also the good guys we all love. But I keep running across this attitude that we up here are going to help you down there because we are so superior to you in every way. You down there? You have unrefined tastes. You are ignorant. We up here Know Things and we want to elevate you to our level.

    And I guess if we get there, we’ll get to look down on the little people, too?

    I dunno.

    On the one hand, it’s true: we come to this project with underdeveloped tastes and loads we don’t know. We have so much to learn. (At least, I did and do.)

    On the other hand, I wonder if some of this swings too far the other way, forgetting that the prideful never will learn.

    Last month, I finished reading Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon. I loved it so much. One thing I noticed was how very humble it was. While Hugh insists we must read the greatest books and authors, he never comes close to snobbery. Listen carefully to what he says:

    Now the beginning of discipline is humility. Although the lessons of humility are many, the three which follow are of especial importance for the student: first, that he hold no knowledge and no writing in contempt; second, that he blush to learn from no man; and third, that when he has attained learning himself, he not look down upon everyone else. (pp. 94-95)

    To Those Who Know, Hugh says,

    Good for you! You have drunk at the very fount of philosophy — but would that you thirsted still! (p. 95)

    And again, he reminds us what the wise student looks like:

    [He] gladly hears all, reads all, and looks down upon no writing, no person, no teaching. (p. 95)

    I don’t think this is an argument from Hugh to justify being indiscriminate. His point is not that we should literally read everything (later in the work he actually cautions against trying to keep up with people with voluminous reading habits and declares it impossible to read everything). I also don’t think this is an argument for putting bad or inferior books into the curriculum.

    Hugh’s point is all about attitude; it’s the spirit of the thing. The classical spirit so deeply desires wisdom that it is always ready to learn. It’s always willing to learn, even when the person standing in front of us is poor or uneducated. It never views itself as a superior human. It remembers that Wisdom Himself came down as a mere babe in swaddling clothes. (How many of our great teachers would have scorned to kneel in a stable at the foot of a manger? Or, as a friend of mine said today, “These guys sound smart, but they wouldn’t have actually gone to a Shakespeare play while Shakespeare was still alive.”)

    Pursuing wisdom is a grand endeavor, and we occasionally feel ourselves soaring at great heights. We must take care not to let our heads get dizzy and inflated from this (or to collect teachers in this vein). While chasing wisdom is glorious and Wisdom Himself is worthy of all worship, we … are just ourselves. Perhaps a little better than yesterday, but not much to speak of. No matter how much we have read or learned, there is so much more ahead of us (for ours is a bottomless God). We must not mistake Wisdom’s glory for our own.

    This article first appeared in the Scholé Sistership.

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  • Reply Rhionah Ssemakula May 6, 2024 at 2:13 am

    Thank you. This is a huge personal struggle. I am thankful I am more aware of it because I wasn’t before!

    I also realized (very recently) that only the humble can really teach others. When we are proud teaching time is a stage where we get to display how much we know, but if we are humble, the classroom or dining table is a place to discover, encourage, and guide. We are mere shepherds leading others to a drinking trough that we have not exhausted. I also appreciated Lucy’s comments on service as service is also one of the best ways to cultivate a humble heart, I imagine that if classically educated kids are serving a lot it may just remind them that mere knowledge is not the goal and knowledge is to be pursued to honor God with our minds and serve others.

  • Reply Lucy Barr-Hamilton May 13, 2021 at 11:37 pm

    Thanks Brandy. This last year has been hard and I have focused a lot of energy on church ministry to our community and our homeschooling has stumbled a lot. I spent a day yesterday with Good friends and their children and I felt so ashamed that we are so lacking compared to them in many ways, in how many books we are reading and how many things my kids can talk about, and how unprepared they seem to be. There are 2 things I need to remember and you’ve helped me with one, which is that if I thought we knew it all and were doing well, it would fill me with pride and I don’t need that. I need humility and a right attitude to my kids learning.

    The second is that serving our church and neighbours is so very important. I’ve often wondered and not got any further, whether Charlotte Mason spoke about children serving being a part of their upbringing /education. Yes it takes time from nature study or drawing, but isn’t it more vital to learn to serve in church?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 14, 2021 at 10:40 am

      You know, that is something I have thought about before: that CM was lacking in any real emphasis on service. I mean, there are a couple things here and there, but you’re right: meaningful service often takes real time out of the day/week. I think it IS vital, and I think that it’s also part of a full education, even if it’s not mentioned anywhere.

      • Reply Lucy education Barr-Hamilton May 14, 2021 at 12:23 pm

        Oh Brandy, thank you for writing that! That is helpful as I wrestle with what out weeks look like, especially from September when I hope we will have a normal year ahead of us. There are definitely ways I need to pull my socks up and refind the pre covid discipline in our days, especially as my daughter will be secondary school age soon, but I will maybe think through the service aspect.

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