Well-rounded graduates think of community

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 22, 2005

Albert Einstein once remarked, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." At this time of year when graduations mark important passages in the lives of many, I'd like to modify the learned professor's words, as follows: "Imagination is more important than knowledge – and humility, than degrees."

Now, I'm certainly not putting down the importance of formal education to as high a level as one can reasonably attain. A young person cannot normally expect to get very far in today's world without at least a high school diploma. And even to begin to appreciate the rich and complex legacy of learning our ancestors have left us, there are few substitutes for university studies in the humanities and sciences. Nor can we bypass the advanced education requirements to qualify for careers in medicine, law, social work, etc.

But as good and necessary as academic study is, there's always the danger that the satisfaction derived from such achievement can make some people arrogant, self-centered and contemptuous of others.

Such "delusions of grandeur," says Cochrane coffee companion and lawyer Greg Axelson, reflect the narcissism so rampant within our society. If we are spending years burning the academic midnight oil just to make ourselves into big shots and bullies, then our education is sadly misguided. Far from being our ticket to success, that kind of individualism is our downfall.

There is another way, of course – the way of humility.

Humility leads one to see knowledge as a license, not to trample on others, but to serve others with greater competence and respect. Indeed, rightly understood, the pursuit of excellence in all fields (not just academic) is about giving back to the community.

The late globetrotting Stoney Nakoda Chief Walking Buffalo made me especially aware of this higher priority way back in 1965 when I first moved to the Bow Valley.

I was fixing up an old log cabin at Morley to live in for the winter. Walking Buffalo would stop by daily and chat. Seeing my boxes of books, he liked to chide me about White Man's education being so artificial. Real education, he said over and over, came from Nature's University.

The forest was one of his favourite classrooms, he said. In the forest you have many trees and plants living together in harmony. Their individual identity and beauty find their fullest expression in the community of other trees and plants.

Speaking of forests, it was some years later that this same lesson was driven home to me by Edmonton coffee companion Leanne Forest. Leanne told me about something she learned from her parents, retired Senator Jean Forest and her husband Rocky.

Before his own retirement, Rocky operated a successful Alberta construction company, building hospitals, schools, and other public buildings. All the while, Rocky worked quietly behind the scenes to help many charitable organizations.

Jean, for her part, has been a prominent educator and business woman, a member of the board of CN, and chancellor of the University of Alberta. She was named to the Order of Canada in 1987 for her work on behalf of human rights and social justice.

Leanne told me about the philosophy of life Rocky and Jean drilled into their children from their earliest days: "Do the very best you are capable of, and do it not out of selfish ambition, but for the sake of community."

Like Walking Buffalo, the Forests understood that learning and status are not about self-aggrandizement – not about being more important than everyone else – but about serving community with humility and respect.

Around 600 BC, there was a Hebrew prophet who spoke along the same line. Addressing those of his people who had been taken captive into Babylon, Jeremiah delivered a message from God:

"Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

Yes, education and personal success are important, but even more important is the humble recognition of our role in the wellbeing of community as a whole.

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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