Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, Outside of the Gate of Honour from Senate House Passage
Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the LORD, and humility comes before honour. (Proverbs 15:33)
Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honour. (Proverbs 18:12)
Most days, on my way to the library, I have to pick my way through a narrow passageway between Senate House (the ceremonial headquarters of Cambridge University where degrees are conferred) and Gonville and Caius College, dodging speeding cyclists, tourists stopping to take photos, and long crocodiles of schoolchildren. Caius – pronounced “keys” – is not one of the largest Cambridge colleges, but it is noteworthy for its symbolic architecture. In particular, the college has three special named gates – the gates of Humility, Virtue, and Honour.
When they matriculate and begin their studies, Caius students ceremonially enter by the Gate of Humility. At the centre of the college, students daily pass through the Gate of Virtue on the way to the dining hall – incidentally, this gate bears the inscription “‘Iohannes Caius posuit Sapientiae” (“John Caius placed this here for Wisdom”). The Gate of Honour, opening onto the narrow public passageway, remains closed most of the year, until graduation day comes, when those who entered by the Gate of Humility process through the Gate of Honour for the short walk to the Senate House where they will be awarded their degrees.
I am not sure how many current students are aware of this, but, through its architecture, Gonville and Caius College is vividly dramatizing the truth repeated twice in the book of Proverbs, that “humility comes before honour” (Proverbs 15:33; 18:12). It is necessary for students to humble themselves under the discipline of learning before they can attain the honour of a degree, but, for Christians, humility is a calling that we never graduate from. Regardless of our achievements or position, we are exhorted,
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6).
Summing up a recurrent conversation on this blog, Hannah Eagleson asked recently, “how do we strive for excellence in our careers and yet also remember that we follow a God whose Wisdom is expressed in humility?” I don’t have a definitive answer to offer. As an early career academic, I am especially aware of the tensions thrown up by seeking to stay humble in spirit while competing in a fierce job market where you have to sell yourself (which does not come naturally to me). I agree with pretty much everything Anna Gissing said about humility and confidence in her post last week – though we need to acknowledge our limitations, humility is not about denying our God-given strengths, but about acknowledging that they are indeed gifts, in no way grounds for claiming superiority over others, but rather tools for serving others. Humility can also be expressed through being quick to give credit for others’ help (“I am indebted to Dr. XYZ for this reference”) and being willing to serve others in ways that have no obvious payoff for our resumé (e.g. taking time out to listen to a struggling student or passing on references useful for a colleague’s research project).
The students of Gonville and Caius pass daily through the Gate of Virtue going to and from the dining hall. This architectural feature suggests that an ethical formation in virtue should be at the heart of the academic enterprise, an ideal aspired to in liberal arts education from classical antiquity to at least the nineteenth century, but now under threat. The increasing cost of tuition in many countries understandably leads governments and funding bodies as well as students to want tangible material benefits for their investment, while neglecting less tangible benefits such as the appreciation of beauty and the fostering of empathy for others. Though a more holistic vision of education as formation is not unique to Christians, we have distinctive insights to offer here, even if it is sometimes prudent to translate them into secular terms. A concrete example of this is the development of thinking on intellectual virtues/virtue epistemology, in which Christian scholars such as Linda Zagzebski and W. Jay Wood (among others) have played a leading role, exploring how virtues such as courage, perseverance and love are applicable to intellectual endeavour as well as interpersonal relationships.
Yet our vision of education as Christian believers connects to a larger picture of reality. In the light of the biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption, ethics is not enough, as the first half of Proverbs 15:33 reminds us: “Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the LORD”. The fourth and final post in this series will explore the tension between our call as Christian scholars to affirm genuine truth and goodness in the thought of others who don’t share our faith, and our call to a decisive commitment to the God revealed in salvation history.
- How can I humbly serve another person today?
- What habits does the Holy Spirit want to form in my life? Which virtuous dispositions do I need in my relationships with other people? Which do I need in my teaching and research?
- How can I encourage my students, colleagues and others to see education as more than a means to utilitarian goals? How can I model a commitment to a holistic vision of education as formation?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom. […]
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!
(Psalm 90:12, 17)
Gene C. Fant, The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2012). A brief and accessible introduction to liberal arts education from a Christian perspective, addressing current challenges to the value of liberal arts education, as well as the interplay between secular learning and scriptural revelation.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981; 3rd ed. Bloomsbury/Notre Dame, 2007). A classic in the modern revival of virtue ethics, an approach to ethics (inspired by Aristotle and elaborated by Thomas Aquinas) that focuses on the formation of virtuous character dispositions through habitual action. MacIntyre was a Marxist philosopher before his conversion to Catholicism.
Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 1996). One of the pioneering works in virtue epistemology.
Robert C. Roberts & W. Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford: Clarendon, 2007). After some theoretical groundwork, this collaborative work gives accounts of specific intellectual virtues including “Courage and Caution”, “Generosity” and “Practical Wisdom”.
Laura Frances Callahan & Timothy O’Connor (eds.), Religious Faith and Intellectual Virtue (Oxford University Press, 2014). This essay collection considers more explicitly the intersections between intellectual virtues and religious belief.
Image courtesy of Gerhard Bissell, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gonville_and_Caius_College,_Cambridge,_Gate_of_Honour.jpg