Why Grad School Makes you Feel Dumber, not Smarter
“I actually feel way dumber and more unqualified now than when I started.”
I said this in a recent conversation as I was discussing my experience as a graduate student. This was probably the first time I had actually said it out loud, though I’ve been feeling it from the moment I started. My words surprised the ladies I was talking to.
You see, there’s this perception that more education, and especially graduate education, increases someone’s intelligence exponentially. But the grad student knows that this is not the case. This perception is actually laughable to me.
And though some highly educated people act like know-it-alls, the reality is more like what my college professor said: “The higher you go in education, the dumber you’ll probably feel. You’ll be surrounded by seemingly smarter and smarter classmates the further you go, and you’ll be taught by more and more brilliant scholars. Yet you yourself won’t feel any smarter because of your studies – for there will always be sharper, better-studied people around you.” It made perfect sense when she said this, and now, many years later, it’s proving to be true.
I can’t necessarily speak for all grad students, but this has been my experience in seminary:
I haven’t become smarter by being a seminary student. Rather, I’m continually pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to trust God to come through for me. By his grace, I keep learning and writing and doing things that I feel totally unqualified to do. And the amazing thing is…He keeps coming through for me. Every. Single. Time.
I usually feel like the most unqualified student in any classroom – the biggest idiot of them all.
But this journey has taught me a few things…
First, I keep getting this sneaky feeling that I’m not alone in this notion of personal inadequacy. Many of my classmates feel the same way. We’re all stepping into new territory. Some just do it with more overt confidence than others.
And second: About that feeling of inadequacy… this journey has also unearthed for me a silent lie I’ve listened to my whole life. This lie has told me that other people always have the upper hand on me. In other words, I have approached every new obstacle in my life with this deep, but misinformed, conviction that I am somehow less able, less qualified, less equipped, and much more likely to be wrong and to fail than any of my peers. Seminary has not only unearthed this lie but has also given God instance after instance to refute it. In fact, he refutes it at the end of every paper, at the end of every presentation, at the end of every semester: I climb each new mountain, by his grace, and am stunned every single time that I actually can do this stuff after all. God keeps proving to me that the two of us can do anything. I don’t have to have the “upper hand” – I have him.
Third: I’m only going to scratch the surface in seminary. Seminary is simply equipping me with more tools in my toolbox. I will spend the rest of my life using these tools to know him more and to better understand his Word. I’ll have more questions than answers when I finish because the more I learn about him, the more I realize I don’t know. And that’s okay. Having all the answers was never the point in the first place. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Fourth: God’s Word is so vast and deep. I will never exhaust its treasures. And I will never master its full meaning. I will never know all there is to know about the historical and cultural context in which the passages were written. I will never know with certainty why some passages read the way they do. I will forever be “unqualified” in this sense. But that’s okay too. God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called. And my obvious weakness will continually give him opportunities to show himself strong.
So yes, I’ve learned a whole lot as a graduate student. But as a result, I’m more aware than ever of how very little I know. And I’m totally okay with living in this paradox.