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For the Love of Learning

Jeff Bilbro reminds us of learning's true motivation.

Jeff Bilbro, “Going Dark,” Breaking Ground, September 29, 2020.

Bilbro reflects on his having been let go as an associate professor of literature at a small liberal arts college. The shock of losing his job led him to reflect on his reason for learning at all: Is he just seeking to make a living? Or is there something more important about a life of learning?

He writes, “In the days that followed, I began to grow acclimated to the dark. The knot of tension dissipated. I slept well again. And I gained a new appreciation for the wisdom in Wendell Berry’s poem 'To Know the Dark.' When we go into the dark with a light, we don’t actually learn what the dark is and what mysteries it holds. We remain insulated in our bubble of light. For me, the light that shone along my professional path has been extinguished. I am now going dark.” What he briefly regarded as his “failure” led to inwardness and soul-searching, focused on his relationship to knowledge: “If our desire for knowledge is motivated by a love of spectacle and entertainment and external rewards, then we will cease to learn when the cord is pulled and the lights go out. Yet the studious soul is, at root, an amateur, someone who learns from love.”

This is an important insight. The loss of his paycheck helped him to see that his true motivation in learning is one of “love, not money.” He was encouraged to reflect on the thought that learning “is a human good, open to all, not just professional professors.”

Beyond this, Bilbro was led to contemplate the future of higher education, and in particular, of the liberal arts. He hopes the continuing decline of the liberal arts will lead institutions to “ask hard questions about their purpose and mission.” He expresses the hope for a rebirth of liberal learning: “All too often the logic of spreadsheets and metrics leads administrators to believe that they must destroy a university in order to save it. Yet perhaps if some institutions close and others drift away from their missions, new institutions, perhaps new forms of institution, might rise to carry on anew the enduring work of wisdom.”

The “enduring work of wisdom” is surely the calling of every Christian, and of every Christian institution. He quotes Wendell Berry, “‘The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.’” He concludes by saying, “I have no answers about where my family and I will be living in a year and what work I might be doing. And yet by going dark, I am coming to know the dark and to know that it too blooms and sings. And I am learning to hope with Berry that the darkness might make not only fear, but also grace, more palpable.”

Jeff Bilbro’s website offers many resources to encourage those who want to learn because they love the Lord and seek His wisdom in all things.

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