Ambrose Bierce defined education as “that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” Learning, said Bierce, is “the kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.” I thought of Bierce when my wife recently told me about how one of her friends had reacted to our Christmas letter. The woman, upon learning I was completing a theology graduate degree, asked in earnest, “So your husband is a theologian?” My wife, much to her credit, laughed and answered no. “He’s definitely not a theologian. It’s more of a hobby,” she said. Yet few graduates of our universities are willing to demonstrate any measure of humility when it comes to their expertise, or, more commonly, lack thereof.
America’s everybody-gets-a-trophy syndrome has apparently made its way deep into the corridors of academia. Many times I’ve run into those who profess expertise in some field, only to scratch the surface and discover their academic credentials to be less than stellar. A few years ago, a supervisor at my then-job learned that I had once been a student at a Protestant seminary. “I’m a theologian,” she declared to me. I asked her, in the politest terms I could muster, how exactly this was the case. Because she’d secured a masters in theology from Georgetown, she said. She had never written a book, or a peer-reviewed article, or even presented a paper at a conference. She has no public record of work that might be cited by others in the field. Yet her degree, achieved in the evenings while working a full-time job, was apparently enough to merit the title “theologian.”
This problem is not unique to those in religious studies. I routinely see people claiming to be “historians” because they’ve written a popular-level book or teach at some collegiate or sub-collegiate level. Yet often they lack doctorates and are incapable of conducting truly scholarly research in the vernacular of their subject, or of reading other historians published in another language. I’ve run across “economists” with nothing more than a bachelor’s in economics who think their ability to crunch some numbers and apply what they learned in an undergraduate microeconomics class equates with being a specialist in the field. Perhaps we need to revise the song made popular by Huey Long: “every man a scholar.”
Previous generations evinced far more humility. Many of our nation’s founders, for example, were remarkable men of letters who individually traversed many disciplines: law, political theory, philosophy, agriculture, architecture, military strategy, theology, and science. Yet few of them would have had the audacity to declare themselves experts in all these disciplines. Even the polymathic Thomas Jefferson, who, though a secretary of state and a president, reluctantly understood himself as a statesman and would have been most likely to label himself a scientist and farmer. Consider also that the humbling phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” was in wide use throughout 18th-century colonial America.
This modesty was a common feature of the West until recent times. The beloved scholar C.S. Lewis wrote across a wide variety of subjects, often expertly—many professional theologians cite him in their academic work. Yet Lewis would have vehemently denied the label “theologian”—he had too much respect for actual scholars. More personally, my grandfather, a descendant of Irish immigrants, child of the Depression, and veteran of the Second World War, started a successful dental supply business in Virginia without even a high school diploma. He also possessed incredible gifts as an artist, writer, and poet, talents that never reached their full potential because of his family and professional responsibilities (he had to drop out of school when his parents couldn’t afford to pay the bills). Nevertheless, I’ve often quoted him in my own writing, and multiple family members possess his artwork, some of which is masterful. Yet if one were to ask him if he was an artist or writer, he would have laughed and denied it. He was a businessman, short and simple.
The contemporary urge to offer ourselves self-congratulatory titles is more than a silly reflection of our own inflated egos. It is insulting to those few who actually deserve the monikers we so casually throw about. There are real theologians, historians, and economists out there doing the kind of academic work that elicits few accolades. They spend years of their lives mastering their disciplines, learning languages, and seeking to unearth and communicate some new unknown truth that will add, however slightly, to man’s body of knowledge. These people work slowly, often disappearing for years to study some sub-strata of their field, meticulously contemplating and recording their findings, engaging with every possible primary and secondary text. They write academic books intended for other serious students of the field that use technical language and ideas. For some two-bit popular author or white-collar professional with a hobby to claim their titles is to undermine the very purpose of the academy.
This, of course, is not to say that bachelor’s and master’s degrees are useless or of little value (they’d better not to be: otherwise I’ve been wasting a lot of money on a master’s in theology!). If one makes the most of one’s time in college or graduate school, one should, generally speaking, be more competent to speak on certain subjects than the general populace. Yet this is a far cry from being an “expert.”
Ten years ago, while serving in Afghanistan, I met a talented young man who was serving as a briefer to then-commander of international forces Stanley McChrystal. During our conversation, I made some off-handed remark about experts on Afghanistan. “I’m no expert on Afghanistan,” he asserted, despite his prestigious role. It was surprising to hear, especially from someone of a generation (my own!) that is typically thirsty for trophies and titles. “We need to save that kind of word for people who really understand this country, who’ve studied it for many years, learned the languages,” he told me. Channeling his best Jack Ryan, he declared, “Me? I’m just an analyst.” Would that we all had the courage to be so humble.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.