My wife is a music teacher, for example, and many of her colleagues like to claim their pedagogical authority from an unbroken lineage through Schnabel and Czerny, back to the great Beethoven himself. Among scientists, the American Physical Society once sponsored a contest to see how far any of members could trace their advisor “ancestors.”
My Academic Family Tree
Not long ago, a member of the Faculty Commons staff encouraged me to compile my own academic “family tree.” I was reluctant at first, since I thought it would be little more than an ego-building exercise, but the results were pretty interesting.
After a very kind administrative assistant looked into some old records, it turned out that one of my advisor “ancestors” received a doctorate at Cambridge under Ernest Rutherford, who in turn had studied under J. J. Thomson. A few “generations” earlier, you find a certain Adam Sedgwick who had a fellow named Charles Darwin as one of his advisees.
The definition of “thesis advisor” loses its modern connotations if you go back as far as Darwin, as does physics as a distinct discipline. Still, the link to this famous natural philosopher did give me pause. I could have indeed become very prideful of my distinguished genealogy, and ended it there.
Implications Of The Tree
Instead, I began to think about implications of the “family tree” itself. Adam Sedgwick was a very distinguished scientist in his own right. He was unknown to me, however, until I started this “genealogical” exercise, and the same might be true for most readers of this essay.
It would be safe to say, on the other hand, that nearly everyone has heard of Darwin, and all physical scientists know who Thomson and Rutherford are. As brilliant as Sedgwick was, it would be very hard to believe that he had any inkling of what a tremendous impact his “descendants” would have, down to the present day.
What are the implications for us? I’m sure many of us have heard sermons on similar perspectives when it comes to the genealogies we find in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Did Rahab, the mother of Boaz, or Ruth, the mother of Obed, have any idea that they would be ancestors of our Lord? While we have an intellectual understanding of the answer to this rhetorical question, we need to ask if we truly appreciate what it means to us individually.
This is where formulating our own academic “genealogy” could help. Many scholars have pointed out that their accomplishments were possible because they “stood on the shoulders of giants.” Believer and non-believer alike can benefit from such a humbling reminder of the intellectual legacy we are expected to pass on to future “academic” generations.
Our Spiritual Legacy
Christians should also acknowledge that we have an obligation for our spiritual legacy. We are to recognize the giants whose shoulders are supporting us, but we must also remember those we are lifting up in turn. Christ provides an example for us.
When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, many called Him “Teacher” out of respect for His knowledge and wisdom. They saw Him wash the feet of His disciples as well. We should have a similar mindset toward those in our institutions who we are entrusted to “shoulder.”
Merry Christmas and have a blessed New Year.