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How to study to build up knowledge, but also virtue

Jovem estudando e concentrado

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Daniel Esparza - published on 04/18/24

Studying is about exercising our minds, strengthening them for the challenges of life. The true power of study is not in what we know, but in who we become.

We all have a natural thirst for knowledge. As kids, we were infinitely curious, venturing into the unknown — sometimes at our own risk. Knowledge is a driving force that leads us to explore the world around and inside us. But the pursuit of knowledge shouldn’t be an end in itself. The renowned theologian Thomas Aquinas reminds us, in his Summa Theologica, that studium (the keen application of our minds) offers a path to something deeper than mere intellectual attainment.

Aquinas points out that while knowledge often seems to be the primary goal of study, the very act of studying is a discipline. Think of the long nights devoted to textbooks, the hours spent poring over complex ideas, the seemingly never-ending discussions with study partners and professors. Clearly, studying is not just about memorizing facts. It’s about exercising our minds, strengthening them for the challenges of life. In more ways than one, studying is working out the muscle of our minds.

Shaping character

This discipline shapes our character in subtle yet essential ways. Think, to begin with, of these three:

Humility: With every new subject, every concept mastered, you realize there is always more to learn. You never really master anything. The more you know, the more you know what you do not know. Studying fosters a willingness to acknowledge our own ignorance, opening us up to further growth.

Diligence: True study requires persistence, resilience. It teaches us to overcome distractions, stay focused, deal with frustration, acknowledge failure, and start over time and again. These are qualities that apply to countless areas of our lives.

Discernment: The amount of information one is faced with when studying can sometimes be overwhelming. Studiousness helps us develop critical thinking skills to separate truth from falsehood, the superfluous from the essential, the main argument from a footnote, a good idea from a mediocre one, the good from the prejudicial – and this, not only in academia but also in the daily onslaught of news and opinion.

But the value of studiousness goes even deeper. Aquinas argues that the order and focus we cultivate through study prepare us to deal with a wide range of issues beyond the merely intellectual. We become better equipped to deal with practical matters and to use our knowledge to make responsible decisions for ourselves and our communities.

The next time you wonder why you are reading something that seems to be far too detached from the everyday need to get things done, keep in mind that apparently useless subject matters are teaching you not what to think but how to think.

Informing our lives

This is key Catholic principle: faith and action, like body and soul, are intertwined. Our understanding of the world, shaped by our studies, should inform how we live: serving others, working for a just society, and honoring our relationship with God and our neighbor.

So, yes, pursue knowledge. But let’s all remember that the true power of study is not in what we learn, but in who we become. As Catholics, may our studies be a testament to our faith: a commitment to intellectual growth in the service of a life of virtue.

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