With the passing of years, I become more aware of the faults in my character; and especially of that savagery that enters my speech and behaviour every time I face something that is, in my view, really unacceptable. That I become, at such moments, quite offensive, is something of which I am more and more conscious; though I do not grow, unfortunately, more capable of controlling it in any way. And this bad habit of anger has a particularly vicious twist: that as it comes on at times when I really do feel I am in the right in opposing certain things, it leaves me unable to make an apology that would go to the core of the disagreement, for I cannot honestly alter my mind about the issues. In many cases, the likelihood is that some sort of estrangement was inevitable, and that my temper only sped it up; but I do wonder from time to time that I have any friends at all.rfachir
is a friend, she is dear to me, and I have just treated her quite badly. Typically, I feel I am in the right about the issues; indeed, it is sheer astonishment that anyone should not see the point of what I had posted, that led to the abuse. I was astounded that a supposedly Catholic institution of higher learning should hire an atheist, not just as a professor of theology - that would be bad enough - but as subject director; and I was even more astounded that someone could not see the point. My view was, and I have to say that it remains, that rfachir
was, in this instance, misled by common but false notions about education. The answer I returned, however, was dismissive and - I suspect - contemptous-sounding; which is entirely wrong. Just because her ideas are common, if they are false I should at least take it on me to discuss them and show why they do not apply to the situation in hand - or to any situation at all.
said was this: "Do you expect a college, especially a Jesuit one, to endorse anyone who did not encourage students to question their assumptions?" And I still believe that the primacy of "questioning [one's] assumptions", which this implies, is a mistaken notion. So let me try and show what I mean in a more civil manner; pausing, first, to apologize to rfachir
for my lousy temper and bad manners.
When I think of the pleasure and the good that I got out of school and university, I am not conscious that "having my assumptions challenged" played any great part in it. To the contrary, what gave me delight was finding out more and more things; facts; confirmed, established, truthful statements and descriptions. I pored over maps, accounts, descriptions, dates, and images. I sought out textbooks and went through dozens of entries in encyclopedias; I read collections of old magazines; I even collected stamps for the bits of things that they could show me of other countries and times. I absorbed data like a sponge. I still do. From elementary school to middle age, what has never changed for me is that the pleasure of learning is the pleasure of finding things out, and the pleasure of explaining.
What this has to do with the famous quote "the wisest of them all confirmed that he knew only this, that he knew nothing", is that the widest learning, if taken with a sense of proportion, only shows us how little we know. The men who reach furthest in study and investigation only become aware of how much more there is to be still found out - and how much more never can. The human race, for instance, has been on Earth for some 170,000 years, according to estimates I heard not so long ago - yet I know that the earliest traceable history goes back to less than 6,000 years, and that is over a very small territory. The vast majority of human history can never be known; a sufficient demonstration of how permanently small and provisional our knowledge is bound to remain.
Nonetheless, permanently small and provisional though it may be, knowledge is itself the ultimate authority. Reached at the price of enormous efforts from generation upon generation of people whom, if we met, we would rightly kneel to, it is not to be lightly rejected or discarded. The people who are most keen on "challenging assumptions" are cranks - flat earthers, six-day creationists, and the like. Sane minds accept what they cannot prove, on the authority of those who can prove it; they accept the description of the cosmos from scientists, and of the past from historians. If nothing else, they know that they do not have the tools to mount a serious challenge; they know that superior knowledge brings superior authority. Every one of us has some of that in his or her own field. I would not presume to challenge a plumber's knowledge of hydraulics, or an accountant's way around figures, or a mother on child-rearing. On the other hand, I love to hear from them. Have you noticed how, whenever a person is speaking about something s/he is competent and experienced in, their conversation always becomes more animated and interesting?
The sane position, then, is a general expectation that knowledge is provisional, coupled with a specific confidence in those who have specific knowledge. The crazed position is the presumption that we have to "question authority" - that is, ultimately, competence. We are not competent to do so, except in our own fields; and in our own fields, our concern ought to be, if we had any sense, not with any position, but with truth. As a historian, I do not give a damn if the most prestigious scholar disagrees with my interpretation of a text, so long as s/he cannot bring an argument that trumps mine. (I have been proven wrong dozens upon dozens of times; it is a very educational experience.) It is not because of any attitude of "challenging assumptions", but because of a reverence for the ultimate authority of truth - which is what s/he, I and every other historian ought to be devoted to - that I will disagree with anyone, from Dumezil on down, if I feel their interpretation of facts is insufficient or downright misleading. And I will do so with due respect for their knowledge and insight - but... "Athenians, I love you and respect you; but if I have to choose, I will follow the God" (that is, truth) "rather than you."
You are unfortunately all too right in saying that Jesuits teach their students to "question assumptions" - especially those of the Church. That is why that order is declining in numbers and prestige. They have set themselves on a sterile road of worldliness, pandering to modern cliches, and destruction for its own sake; not unaided, so it is said, by a rich appreciation for the pleasures of anal sex. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is about authority - the authority of Jesus Christ, the authority of 2000 years of succession, of generations of debates which came to definite conclusions and excluded one proposition while accepting another. The notion that all doctrines are of equal value, that all may and should with equal propriety be "challenged" - with no reference to their status with respect to truth, or even only to their position with respect to the teachings and life of Jesus - is of all things the least Catholic; as well as the least scientific, the least historical, and the least rational. Knowledge proceeds by exclusion; if you cannot declare one thing false and another true, you do not have knowledge at all, but groundless opinion.