Seeking the Wisdom and Approval of Men: The Draw of Secular Higher Education

When I was looking into graduate schools for philosophy, I looked at a website called Philosophical Gourmet, which gives helpful tips on graduate school and also famously (or infamously, depending on how you view it) ranks graduate schools of philosophy.  The site is edited by Brian Leiter, who has carved out for himself a fairly distinguished career and currently teaches at the University of Chicago.  There is no doubt that his website is useful to a large degree; it speaks frankly about the job prospects of philosophy graduates (in terms of teaching at higher institutions) and about the challenges of grad school.  Because of this site and also because of the recommendation of a professor, I applied to the University of Houston which has a highly regarded Master’s program in philosophy (I got accepted but ended up not going, opting to stay around DFW area and go to the University of Dallas).

I have recently used his site again as I mull over my future, and this time I actually researched Leiter himself.  He is clearly highly intelligent and knowledgeable, but I can see why he gets embroiled in controversy, so much so that he has been asked to step down from his position as editor of the website/report.  As I looked over his personal blog, it was striking how pompous, arrogant, and condescending he regularly came off, especially to people whom he heavily disagreed with.  He is clearly a committed atheist who, at best, has a patronizing view of religion, if not a downright contemptuous one.  It is so bad that he has regularly taken heavy potshots at a fellow atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, for even entertaining that scientific or philosophical arguments for intelligent design and against evolution might be worth listening to.  Quite contrary to typical professional language, Leiter does not hesitate to call fellow philosophers “stupid” and “incompetent.”  It is clear he doesn’t much like Alvin Plantinga either for his Christianity, though he has no choice but to admit that Plantinga has done good work in philosophy such as his landmark work The Nature of Necessity.  Furthermore, when other philosophers have criticized his rankings, he often dismisses them as bitter people who don’t like that their own departments got ranked low.  Sour grapes, y’all.

As I read through his blog, I wondered to myself, “Is this the kind of guy that Christians should care about impressing?”  There is one thing that Leiter gets right: Perception matters in higher education just as much as anywhere else.  This is why many universities try to game the system in order to rank higher in the USA Today college rankings, even though many people who are more familiar with higher education tend to view them as rather misleading.  As Asian students know, their parents would rather brag that their kids went to the #10 school on the rankings than the #22.  More importantly, it matters for job opportunities too; you can be a very smart person who went to Texas Tech, but a guy not as bright as you who went to Yale may indeed get more interviews.

It is easy for Christians to get caught up in this, so much so that they too may look down upon those who go to seminary or who don’t know as much as them.  It’s no secret that getting a doctorate at a seminary (especially a conservative one) is not going to carry the same prestige in the larger world than one from a more secular leaning school (even if that school is Christian-affiliated).  This is true even if it is a seminary known for strong academics.  I’m not going to lie; I know full well that many doctoral dissertations from seminaries, especially ones for doctorates of ministry, seem rather academically uninteresting.  Still, there is still good work, both for ministry and academics, that is going on in seminaries, and they are specifically aimed towards building the kingdom of God.  Are we supposed to join the world and look down upon that because it lacks the prestige of secular academia?

There are many people in the world of philosophy who are congenial, humble, and kind.  However, as I like to say, life is a giant high school, so there are others who are very much concerned about being the cool kids.  Some even resort to bullying.  The “look how smart I am” attitude can honestly become very off-putting after a while, though it is no wonder that it is fostered due to this jockeying for rankings, perception, and prestige.  Though my school now is relatively small and Catholic, it would no doubt still carry a higher secular reputation than Southwestern Seminary, but I honestly miss studying Scripture at school and relating it to the real needs of people.

As I’ve pondered and prayed over my future, one thing became clear again: I am learning so that I can teach the people of God to think more carefully and so that I can try to answer questions to the best of my ability for nonbelievers who are seeking.  I pray that I continue to know this and not care who thinks I’m smart.  As I read more Leiter’s blog, I asked myself, “If a guy like Leiter thinks a guy like me is a moron… does it matter?”  And you know what?  It really doesn’t.  I didn’t choose this path so I can impress people like him or other parts of academia, or even impress random people because I can name drop Heidegger or Aristotle.  I chose it because I see the needs of the church, and specifically, the college students that I teach.  Maybe I’ll go on to a university for a Ph.D in philosophy, maybe I’ll go back to a seminary and study New Testament or Systematic theology, and maybe I won’t get a doctorate at all.  Regardless, my primary desire is to teach truth to regular people, not join the elite circles of academia.  The latter could serve to help do the former, but it will not be my main goal.  I really don’t give a flying crap.  And Scripture tells me that I should not:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

This I challenge to Christians who read this (as it is a challenge to myself): Seek the wisdom of God over the wisdom of men.  Seek the approval of God over that of men.  If you don’t, self-important pride comes rather easily.

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