Gaining an Education and Developing the Virtues

Well, it’s again a long time between posts. Many unfinished sentences are waiting in the backstage wings of my wordpress account, waiting for inspiration to rush through them for their public debut. All in good time. My blogging silence has been largely due to successful completion of my first tutorial following a move into another discipline (the word ‘tutorial’ represents 65 pages of writing plus ten pages of book references I read), while touring my latest album ‘Grace’ as a singer/songwriter, speaking at three universities in the month of March as academic practitioner, also learning new music every week for Fuller’s chapel services in my capacity as chapel coordinator and helping hand, as well as all the strange extras required of being the wife of a youth pastor musician who runs an irregularly broadcasted radio show called “Tim’s America”. Now, I have not done all of these things without pain, or even to my own satisfaction. I’m trying to evaluate what really does need to be done and when, in order to lessen my pain. But, I think I know myself well enough now to say that I’m a high capacity person.

I used to feel really guilty about saying this. People freak out when they know what I do in any given week, so mainly I keep it hidden. And maybe this is wisdom, because usually they suggest that my capacity is artificially elevated for various reasons, none of them very flattering. I’m open to that – but life has been like this for a long time now. During my undergraduate studies I administrated a little band called United Live, and ran three choirs. During my first Masters degree I toured with my own indie rock band, rehearsing three nights a week and recording one and a half albums. During my third Masters degree, I was a worship pastor.

The thing is, I think I make people feel guilty when I openly talk about the varied areas of my life. It sounds a little like I’m bragging. So, I’ve been trained by people’s reactions to hide what I’m thinking. Most people’s daily conversation and activity revolves around very small problems. I know this because I’ve sat in various staff rooms (e.g. I also had a job as a personal assistant, aka type of nurse during my undergraduate degree) listening, silently taking anthropological notes trying to understand the inner dialogue of the working class. When that project failed and I realised most people’s inner workings were quite boring (particularly when Kim Kardashian related), I just ate short-bread biscuits (buttery cookies) and got fat, and then of course, joined a gym.

It’s actually not just me. There are other high imagination, high capacity people lurking around that I meet every so often. Many of them are in academics, because it is such a high pressure job. Teaching, writing, administrating and so many deadlines… how many people can actually handle it? Well, only 1.1% of the population in the United States has a PhD, so you can imagine world wide statistics. There’s many reasons for this small number – not just access to education. I recently read an article that, after careful analysis, suggested all potential students place the cost of their future education in the lottery. Even leaving out forgone income, the predicted return is preferable in all kinds of ways (relationally, emotionally, and the list goes on). My guess is that anyone doing these kinds of analyses is a bored PhD student.

But they made a great point – the only thing you can’t gain from the intelligent impulse to gather up a six figure investment and place it into the lottery, is the discipline it takes to do a PhD.

My mentor is a very intelligent man. This has been confirmed because every paragraph I submit with a secret question mark looming in my head while thinking ‘ok, seriously. that’s all I’ve got’ comes back with little red pen marks all over it. And those red marks are only given once. My job is to work out how to not have looming question marks in the same area ever again. For example, in my next tutorial, I need a substantive conclusion that makes logical sense when compared with the data I presented. Haha, whoops. There are days when I throw myself intellectually at my paper like a large sea lion getting into a boat. I get in, but it’s not exactly graceful. The window for getting away with this is closing.

Expectations continue, but it’s never the same issue that is being addressed. Which brings me to my recent epiphany. Last week, I was casually informed that I have now gotten past the point where I am required to prove that I can critically think. From now on, the task is developing my own voice. Weirdest comment ever. I felt like a puppy whose owner came home and found shreds of a book in my teeth. Well, apparently now I’m only supposed use something if it is relevant to me (puppy, drop that!). This means I can ignore all works I don’t actually like, and the only reason I would say something critical is if there is a hole I need to address within the collection of favourite trinkets and odds and ends that I’ve collected in order to forge my dissertation.

This was like suddenly bobbing out from being underwater for eleven years. For all this time, I’ve been developing the skill of critical thinking. But the skill of critical thinking made my life a living warzone.

As explanation, I’m an academic attending a Pentecostal church. If the percentage of people in America with a PhD is small, the percentage of people in academics in Pentecostalism numbers about 100-ish worldwide. And they are all my friends. There’s reason for that. In general, Pastors dislike academics, and academics dislike Pentecostalism.

Now, this is not true for my current church, which is Assemblies of God SoCal (Southern California). My pastor has a DMin, and they are very accepting of academia as a vocation. For this reason, we have many academics in our church. But I do get comments all the time from pastors along the lines of “oh seriously, you scholars are a pain in the butt”. Hmm. Well, yes, we are. But it’s not intentional. And you pastors are a pain in the butt too, if any of you read past my introductory sentence. I think this disconnect has to do with a misunderstanding that education has critical thinking as its end product. Critical thinkers refuse to sit in church and nod their heads appropriately during the sermon. They carry around a sticker pad with question marks, sticking them onto objects and people, and bringing it up with the pastor whenever they see them.

But I’ve realised something. Education is not about developing this skill of critical thinking. It is about developing virtues. Talal Asad uses the example of early monastic training, and the ways in which monks developed virtues – by coping manuscripts over and over and over again. It wasn’t about the task, it was about what was happening within them, the formation of character.

So, I’ve finally graduated beyond critical thinking. And for all those to whom I’ve been critical, my apologies (and ten points to the pastors who read this far, I’m looking forward to publicly complimenting you sometime). Hopefully during the next ten years, this skill becomes a trait that becomes a part of the character formation that I now know is the actual point of my education. I’m looking forward to my next stage of life, and proving my character.

4 thoughts on “Gaining an Education and Developing the Virtues

  1. This was a timely read Tanya, as I’m currently finishing my Undergraduate studies in Sydney at Macquarie and planning the next steps in pursuing my higher education – possibly abroad in the UK. What did you study for your three Masters degrees?

    A question I’m curious about is how have you been able to fund your research and pay off the mounting costs of education as well as everyday necessities?


    1. Hi Kevin,
      Great question for a student to be asking… I’ve actually pursued and received scholarships (APA and private) for my last two degrees. I also quickly learned that I only paid 75% if I paid upfront in my undergraduate degree, which was a huge bonus. My second degree I did use fee-help, but as of now I have no outstanding debt. I have no assets either 😉

  2. Must be something in the air, because I’ve been thinking a lot about my own “virtues” too (as well as “disciplines” – whatever those are, and if they even exist anymore in my life) as I’m wrapping up one adventure and looking to the next.

    You are a creative person – and so am I! But so much of our energy is lost as/when/where/how we devote ourselves to those who need us – is this progress? Jack-and-Jill-of-Trades, Master of None? Personally, the drive that compels (propels?) me to to help is also what causes me to feel chasms of disappointment when I unwittingly fall asleep over a curious volume of forgotten lore.

    Reading this post was very comforting & affirming of what I have been feeling and ruminating over for the last few weeks. Thanks for articulating it!

    1. I think you’re right, R… creative, imaginative problem solvers end up channeling themselves into relational ‘black hole’ projects that suck energy and don’t receive a hoped-for return.

      Myers just said “you are your most important development project”. I think that’s so true. He was teaching while suffering from a kidney infection at the time, but it was still pretty inspired…

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