Learning and Virtue

In their essay on online education,  Dini Metro-Roland and Paul Färber make the following observation:

“If leaming is authentic, it represents a movement away from self towards something other, Hans-Georg Gadamer describes this process (and its achievement) as Bildung, it is finding a home in the alien and rising from the particularity of one’s private desires and purposes to a higher universal.”

They then illustrate the point with the following passage from an Iris Murdoch novel, The Sovereignty of Good, in which the main character describes the work of learning Russian:

“I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me…. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

Once more, for emphasis:

“The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

Learning and knowledge are grounded in virtue, particularly the virtues of honesty and humility. That is ancient wisdom, but it is too easily forgotten and we do well to remind ourselves of it from time to time.

(You can read the whole essay here. The link opens a PDF download.)

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