In “Sighing for Eden,” William Willimon tells a story about a young man riding his bike who was forced off the road and into a ditch by a passing car.
What disturbed the bike rider most was not the actions of the driver, but his personal feelings immediately following the incident.

“I was surprised that the minute I hit the ground, I frantically searched for rock or a pipe or anything. If that car had stopped, I would’ve taken that rock and bashed the brains out of the guy who tried to do that to me.”

As Willimon sought to assure the young man that his feelings were understandable, the man replied: “But I’m a college graduate.”

The young man learned a valuable lesson: Education alone does not solve moral problems.

How many times have you heard a conversation that assumed education was the only thing needed to make individuals nobler, kinder or able to demonstrate better moral judgment?

In my lifetime, culture has seen education as the cure-all for moral problems from promiscuity to prejudice. Once a person “knows better,” says the conventional wisdom, they will act better.

We are convinced that better educated individuals will be better people. Very subtly we believe that knowledge is salvation. Yet theology, philosophy and social research disagree.

In “Strength for the Journey,” Peter Gomes quotes  Sheldon Krimsley’s questions: “Are more educated people likely to lie less? To express more humanitarian values? To be more beneficent to others? To show more empathy? To make more complex moral decisions?”

Then Gomes answers: “I don’t think so. Smart people are not necessarily good people for knowledge may be power, but it is not virtue, and smart people often do wicked things.”

When Gandhi was in this country during the mid-20th century, a member of the American clergy asked him, “What is it that you are most afraid of in the world today?”

“The hard-heartedness of the educated,” Gandhi replied.

Not famine, nuclear holocaust or a population explosion. Rather, the hard-heartedness of the educated.

Ghandi’s words are validated by research. Randy Richardson, a communications professor at Berry College, referenced a statistic that college-educated people are 40 percent less empathetic than the general public. I don’t have access to the study he quotes, but I trust Richardson’s research.

We should add to these observations the Apostle Paul’s comments to the church at Corinth: “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). The word he used for “puffs” is “to inflate,” as in the expression “an inflated ego.” 

Knowledge can inflate your ego, but it does not guarantee a nobler character. In the words of Gandhi, the story of Willimon and the research of Richardson, I hear echoes of Paul.

I write this article as a person who comes from a family of many teachers. I spent 24 years of my life in full-time education, and I was 48 before I lived 50 percent of my life out of school.

I believe in education because it opens doors, increases options and provides a path toward a better life. But education is not salvation. By itself, education does not make us more tolerant, kind or forgiving.

Moral change comes from love, not education. As a Christian, I believe the source of that love is Jesus.

If we read past Paul’s “puffs up” comment in 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle adds, “Love builds up.” Knowledge puffs up, but the love of God in Christ builds up.

Joel Snider is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga. A version of this column first appeared on his website, The Substance of Faith, and is used with permission.

Share This