Degrees of Learning

I’ve been thinking a lot about the debate between many abuse advocates/survivors and Jon Uhler regarding Jane, the woman who had been raped 11 years ago while a student at Master’s College (now University). I wrote about it yesterday. I think Jon could learn a lot from the people who have experienced abuse and battled to overcome it, but he repeatedly listed his credentials in psychology and his belief that victims are empowered by naming their abusers. He dismissed what they said (quite arrogantly, I thought). He missed a great opportunity to be a true advocate.

I thought these two topics–education and what empowers an abuse victim–would be interesting to explore. I’m going to split them into two posts. In this post, I will discuss education and I’ll write about empowerment later. I want to begin by stating three things. I could add more, but listing these three is good enough for my purposes:

I value education.
I think a college education has value.
I also think that a college education has its limits.

Colleges were created to pool information so that every individual wouldn’t have to discover knowledge and techniques on his own by trial and error, “re-discovering” what others had already discovered and figured out. Colleges set a standard to attain to in an attempt to make sure students were well-trained and skilled in their chosen profession. Grades and degrees are official stamps of approval indicating that a student was presented with known information and was successful (or not) at passing tests. A degree helps customers seeking a particular service to determine if the person doing the job has been taught the skill.

Although there are certain fields, such as the medical profession, that requires certification before a person is allowed to do the job (and wisely so), college is not the ONLY way to learn and many things can be learned without it. Most students are given books to study and are then tested on the information, but anyone can study a book and learn from it if they really want to. A self-educated person is still educated. He has the knowledge, he just doesn’t have the official piece of paper. For example, I have been teaching myself Hebrew. I don’t need to sit in a classroom, I am perfectly capable of opening a Hebrew book, and I have access to teachers on the Internet, I have a friend who studies with me, and we have at least one Jewish friend who lives in Israel who helps us when we get stuck. I will never get a college degree in Hebrew Language Studies, but if I study diligently I will have the knowledge, which is more important to me. Both EJ and I believe that a truly educated person never stops seeking to learn. EJ went to college (as did I) and he says that college was just a first step. Getting out into the real world was when he really began to learn.

I have three stories to tell about education to illustrate what I want to say. I learn best through stories so I use stories to explain my thoughts.

Knowledge vs. Experience

Larry and his wife were the youth leaders for the Junior High School kids at church when I was growing up. I have forgotten most of what they taught us, but I still remember when Larry told us about when he went to school to learn to operate heavy equipment–you know, backhoes and bulldozers and such. Larry’s classmate excelled at the assignments and tests and got top grades. Larry struggled with the written assignments and got low scores on the tests. I think he might have had test anxiety. When it came time to actually operate the heavy equipment, however, the student who had excelled at the classwork sat clueless and overwhelmed by the controls. Larry, who had grown up on a farm and had operated tractors and trucks for years, was familiar and comfortable with the controls and excelled at actually driving the equipment.

College isn’t the only way to learn and excelling at classwork doesn’t necessary mean a person is actually skilled at the job.

Humility/Willingness to Learn

One of the things I love most about my husband is his humility and willingness to learn from everyone, whether they are college educated or not, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are a CEO at a prestigious company or the bagger at the grocery store. He treats the old man at the park with the same respect he gives to the billionaire owner of the company he works at. EJ believes that everyone has value and that he can learn something from everyone. And he does.

EJ is a CNC machinist. In every company he has worked, he has always sought out the old man who has been a machinist for 30 years or so, and asked him to teach him what he knows. Because EJ was willing to be taught, the old skilled machinists taught him the secrets of their trade–the secrets that weren’t taught at school.  However, inevitably a young man would get hired and he would stride into the factory filled with his own self-importance. He would assume that he knew more than everyone else because he was, after all, educated in the latest CNC techniques and could teach these other guys a thing or two. He had contempt for the outdated knowledge of the old machinist. Because of the arrogance of these young men, the old machinists refused to teach them their secrets. They gained no more knowledge than what they had on their first day of work, which means they stagnated. Eventually, they either humbled themselves to ask the old machinists to teach them or they floundered in their self-important ignorance  and were fired.

Humility and a willingness to learn from others is of great value and will take you further than a college degree.


We have a fascinating book by John Hudson Tiner called The History of Medicine. From this book, I have learned some valuable lessons from men like Hippocrates and Semmelweiss.

Hippocrates was a Greek who was born in 460 BC. He revolutionized medicine in his time and is often called the “Father of Medicine.” Other doctors at that time based their healing on the belief that all diseases were caused by evil spirits, hateful demons, and vengeful gods. They treated their patients with chants and magic potions. One treatment called for a patient to travel to one of the many pagan temples in Greece, make a sacrifice, and spend the night in the temple where he was supposed to dream away his disease. Hippocrates believed that diseases had a natural cause. “Find the cause,” he said, “then you can cure the disease.” He worked to gain the confidence of patients and put their minds at ease. He instructed his students to find out as much as possible about their patient–his symptoms, how he felt when the illness began, what he usually ate and drank, did he change his diet? He instructed that patients be allowed to rest and were kept clean, had fresh air, and had simple wholesome food. He taught his students to treat every patient the same, both friends and foes, rich and poor. He wrote a guideline for honorable standards of action, called the Hippocratic Oath, which medical students still take after completing their training. He was remarkable. However, like many pioneers, he had to contend with the jealousy of his contemporaries, who warned that the gods would be angered by his changes.

Years later, a Roman named Galen was born in 130 AD. He made the first attempts to master anatomy. He felt that a thorough understanding of the body was necessary for good medicine. However, there were severe penalties for dissecting human bodies under Roman law which he dared not break so he dissected animals–dogs, goats, pigs, and monkeys–in order to learn anatomy. He furthered knowledge greatly, but animal anatomy differs somewhat from the human body so he could only go so far. Galen urged doctors to study firsthand for themselves, but his advice was ignored. He became the undisputed authority and for centuries no one dared to ever differ from him.  In the 1500s, Jacobus Sylvius, one of the best-known doctors of his day, taught at the University of Paris. He refused to see any errors in Galen, and if the corpse being dissected didn’t agree with Galan’s writings and drawings, he believed the error was in the corpse. It took a doctor named Andreas Vesalius’ hard-fought battles to overcome the belief that Galan was always right and to further medical knowledge.

One of my favorite stories is of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweiss, who became the assistant director of the Vienna Maternity hospital in 1844. The hospital had two wards: one to train doctors and the other to train midwives. Pregnant women who came to the hospital were either sent to the ward run by the doctors or the one run by the midwives.  Semmelweiss was surprised that the women all begged to go to the midwives’ ward. He learned that the women feared the doctors’ ward because more patients died there. In fact, so many women died in the doctors’ ward that it was basically a murder factory. Semmelweiss investigated why fewer women died in the midwives’ ward and eventually discovered that the reason the doctor ward had more deaths was because the doctors didn’t bother with cleanliness. They might leave the morgue after dissecting a corpse, rush to the operating room for surgery, then go straight to the wards to care for patients without ever washing their hands or changing their bloodstained coats. Young doctors were actually proud of their bloodstained examination coats because it made them feel more experienced. In contrast, the head midwife demanded that her midwives be clean and neat. She even had her students line up each morning and hold out their hands to prove their fingernails were clean. Semmelweiss was willing to learn from the midwives, and he set up wash basins and demanded his students wash their hands. He also required that patients’ bed linens be replaced as soon as they became soiled. The death rate in his wards dropped spectacularly. You’d think the other doctors would be thrilled that fewer patients died, but they were enraged by these changes, which they thought were foolish and beneath their dignity. They didn’t want to learn from “ignorant midwives” who didn’t have the education or status they did. They resisted, undermined, and eventually drove Semmelweiss out of Vienna. As soon as he left, the director threw out the wash basins and the students rejoiced. The death rate soared again. They didn’t care. They had “won.” It wasn’t until the late 1860s that doctors finally began to accept that many diseases are caused by germs and can be spread by contact.

A college degree does not mean that a person is superior to others or knows more, even in his field of study. It doesn’t mean he is infallible. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have more he can learn. The person he thinks is ignorant, uneducated, and beneath him might actually have more wisdom than he does (as the midwives had more wisdom than the doctors in the hospital Semmelweis worked at). The point at which a person thinks he has nothing more to learn is the point at which he ceases to learn and grow. A college education merely means that a person has learned the current information that is known–or believed to be true–at the time. It doesn’t mean that the information taught is actually correct or shouldn’t be questioned. Knowledge is only as accurate/true as the knowledge of the teachers–and sometimes it’s very wrong, as the history of medicine shows.  What one generation is taught is often disproved or expanded on in the next.

What I am attempting to say is that I’ve encountered a lot of people who think they are superior to others because they have attended prestigious colleges/seminaries and have a string of fancy letters behind their name. I think that a degree merely means you learned the information set before you, and believing you are a superior person because of it is like believing you are a gourmet chef because you ate the food served you at a fancy restaurant. Don’t get me wrong: A college education can be a good thing, it can be a very beneficial thing, and I’m not intending to take away from the accomplishment of working hard for a degree. I love to learn. The extra bedroom in my house is actually a library filled ceiling to floor with books. Furthermore, I was in the honor society in high school and graduated in the top 20 of my class. I was also in the honor society in college and graduated summa cum laude. I worked hard and earned these accomplishments. But after proudly displaying my honors and degree for a couple weeks, I put them all in my life box (a box that holds momentos from my life) because they don’t define me, they don’t make me superior to others, and I value things like integrity, compassion, and hard work much more than the honors and degrees.

I think knowledge is a tool–like a hammer, saw, or rake. Tools are used to build and cultivate and make life better. If going to college will give you the knowledge to become a doctor and save lives, you have accomplished something awesome. But if a degree makes you think you are better than others, and if it causes you to treat others as if they are beneath you and can teach you nothing–like the attitude of the doctors that Semmelweis worked with–then knowledge has puffed you up and twisted you and your degree is rubbish. Knowledge is a tool to be used; it doesn’t make you a better person.

Graduating from a seminary doesn’t mean a person is a pastor. It doesn’t even mean he knows God better than the lowest “status” person in the church (whatever that means). Graduating with honors with a degree in psychology doesn’t make a person a counselor. I’ve known “pastors” who ripped apart sheep and “counselors” who were unworthy of the name. I’ve also known people, both educated and not, who had a true pastor’s and counselor’s heart. True pastors and counselors are not wise in their own eyes, do not refuse to learn from others, do not demand that people do things their way, and do not treat people with arrogance, contempt, disrespect, or dismissal. They have humility, love, integrity, respect for others, and are willing to listen and learn.

“…Knowledge” puffs a person up with pride; whereas love builds up.” (1 Cor. 8:1)

I may speak in the tongues of men, even angels;
but if I lack love, I have become merely
blaring brass or a cymbal clanging.
I may have the gift of prophecy,
I may fathom all mysteries, know all things,
have all faith — enough to move mountains;
but if I lack love, I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-2)



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