Becoming Good So We Can Be Great

by Gayle D. Beebe, Ph.D.

Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable about a man who escapes from an insane asylum and heads into town. He begins to think about what he can say so the people there won’t think he’s insane. As he sees a man walking toward him, he gets more and more apprehensive, and he finally blurts out “The earth is round!” This is an absurd thing to say in the context, and the other man realizes he has escaped from the asylum and calls the authorities. Kierkegaard’s point is that Christians can say things that are true but are so far out of context that they make us sound insane. What kind of impact will we have on the world if we say things that are true without really understanding the context of our situation?

The book of Proverbs orients us to wise ways to lead our lives. The second chapter (2:1-11) speaks of what I hope happens to our students through their education so they will develop the ability to recognize their context and respond appropriately.

The first five verses summarize our responsibility and encourage us to store up commands, turn our ear to wisdom, apply our heart to understanding, cry out for insight, and search for all these things as for hidden treasure. We want students to seek to grasp the knowledge they’ll need to master specific classes and experience the intellectual transformation that occurs in college. The goal is developing a capacity for learning and knowledge that gives them a perspective and context for all of life.

Simone Weil is one of my favorite writers and someone who inspired the novelist Iris Murdock. Both of them talk a lot about breaking the power of our dull, fat, relentless ego. They mean that we are inclined to see life from our own point of view and that it takes enormous power and energy on the part of others to break through that egocentrism and help us perceive reality accurately. Education is meant to develop the perception to see beyond ourselves and begin to anticipate how others experience life and the world around us.

In her essay “The Right Use of School Studies with a View to Developing a Love of God,” Weil makes the point that many of us pursue things that we’re good at, but if we have to really labor at something, we begin to understand how to learn. During our early married years, my wife, Pam, was a middle-school math teacher, and she frequently talked about the difference between an intuitive mathematician and a really hard worker who gains mastery of the discipline through effort. Weil asks us to look at the areas where we have to labor because it’s in the laboring — which we often try to avoid — that we begin to develop a capacity beyond ourselves.

In the second part of this passage, God promises to give us wisdom. From his mouth comes knowledge and understanding, he provides victory for the upright, protection and a shield for the blameless, he guards the just and protects the faithful. One of my favorite books is “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville. This Frenchman made two trips to the United States in the 1830s and wrote an eloquent, enduring volume about what it means to be an American. He was mesmerized by how many people volunteered to improve their community, which he didn’t understand until he went to America’s churches. He saw the heart of our country as the capacity to develop moral goodness. Others have talked about America being great because America is good.

As Americans, I think we have an obligation to pursue goodness. When we go off the rails, we need to get back on track, make amends and keep going. This is part of what it means to be a great nation. In the past, our religious identity has been Christian. As our world becomes more pluralistic, what will it be in the 21st century? I hope we preserve the sense that developing goodness leads to developing greatness.

In the last part of the passage from Proverbs, the writer says that wisdom will enter our hearts, knowledge will be pleasant to our souls, discretion will protect us, and understanding will guard us. Wisdom is gaining insight into the true nature of things, and knowledge is the ability to discern cause-and-effect relationships. Discretion means being prudent in our judgment and choosing effectively between alternative courses of action. Understanding helps us sort through these alternatives.

Last summer I read “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain” by Nicholas Carr, which draws on recent studies in neuroscience. Carr writes: “Heavy multitaskers have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, and they experience more stress as a result of being chronically online. The Internet fosters a hyperactivity that has negative effects on our memory and on our ability to comprehend a complex or nuanced argument.” The tendency toward brevity, speed and simplicity has disrupted our ability to do what Carr calls “deep reading,” or the capacity to understand broad, complex ideas — and our context. At Westmont we encourage students to develop this enormous capacity for deep reading to guide them in life and help them respond appropriately.

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