Making the most of college: Learning with friends

Friendship is necessary to learning, and it strategically helps us to learn. Interpersonal knowing is what we humans were made for, what we hope for. Learn to see your friendships covenantally, as co-knowers growing together.

Appears in Fall 2007 Issue: Making the most of college (second annual)
September 1 st 2007

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
—1 Corinthians 13:12

Nate and Jonas have been learning together for years, since they were in high school. I had them as students in a class last summer at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (TESM). Jonas is a full-time student at TESM. Nate, a youth pastor, travelled here just to do the June term with his friend. Upon finishing high school (I learned) they had chosen different colleges, but this did not prevent their long-distance discussion of what each was learning. Friendship and learning have gone on for Nate and Jonas, for the better part of a decade.

At Geneva College, Kalyn and Anna, "seniors" (4th-year undergraduates), might as well be twins. Last spring when I first had them as students, I learned that they talk in tandem sometimes, and when they are both raising their hands to respond, one might pull the other's hand down—what they call an "arms race!" This semester they and another professor and I are discussing the work of Cornelius Van Til. For Anna and Kalyn, friendship and learning have gone on for their entire college career. Their friendship and learning have been extended to embrace their professors.

Let me tell you about my dear book club of twelve years when I lived in St. Louis. Together, roughly ten of us read over forty books. We came to feel that we couldn't read any book without discussing it with the others. We came to appreciate the signature contribution of each member. The books we read turned into events of journeying together in learning.

And then there is my colleague in philosophy at Geneva, Robert Frazier. From the outset of my time here three years ago, "Bob" has insisted that we are friends as well as colleagues. And friendship and collegial scholarship have grown in tandem. We seek to model this for our philosophy students as part of the packaging of philosophical living. Each of us serves as a first reader of the other's work. He amplifies my own insights by adding his own. His insights have turned up in my work, and mine in his, as we have shaped one another's thought. We celebrate each other's "exploits." But more than that, as a friend, Bob sees and comments on me as well as my work. I have come to know myself better for seeing myself in the mirror of Bob's gentle and healing "seeing" of me. I am truly a better knower for knowing in the presence of, and knowing with, Bob.

Blending friendship and learning is a good thing. I could "play the mom" and just tell you to go do it. But instead, I have the honour of thinking it through with you in this essay. I am going to argue for it epistemologically. I want to say that for learning ("coming to know") to occur, friendship must have been obtained—at least in some measure. Friendship is necessary to learning. And friendship, because it taps into the fundamental structure of all epistemic acts, strategically betters efforts to know.

Friendship as covenantal

Friendship, I am convinced, is constituted covenantally. It is a pledge, just as marriage is a pledge, only often implicit and without a ceremony. (Consider, however, the ceremonial dimensions of the pact of friendship between David and Jonathan mentioned in 1 Samuel 20). There are levels of covenanting that match our levels of friendship: from airplane seat neighbor to acquaintance to classmate to neighbour to teammate to, in the words of one delightful pair of teens I knew, "bosom friends since before we had bosoms!" Marriage is also friendship, but I believe marriage should never be the only friendship one has.

Covenantal bonds are often tacit, but nonetheless palpably real. If something looks amiss at my neighbor's house when I know she is out of town, I check it out. I rescue her trash can when it has blown into the way of oncoming traffic. We bind ourselves to faithfulness of a certain sort or level. Friendship is one the richest covenants, and rare. Deep friendship is intimate covenant love. It is important to realize that intimacy does not require sexual relations. Intimacy, as a friend of mine defines it, is "in-to-me-see"—fundamentally, being present to one another. It is not diminished by the absence of sexual relations. In fact sexual relations, if inappropriately focused on the body, can diminish intimacy.

Friendship requires unconditional regard for the other's dignity and good. Part of the self-binding that friendship requires is the end—the purpose—of preserving evenly free consent. "Friendship is the miracle by which a person consents to view from a certain distance, and without coming any nearer, the very being who is necessary to him as food," says Simone Weil in Waiting for God (1951). She is emphatic that if free consent is jeopardized, friendship no longer can be said to pertain. What you have instead is some form of abuse or other sub-par, sub-personal relationship.

Another key feature of friendship might be said to be solidarity. Solidarity is a quasi-ceremonial mutual identification in which each aligns herself with the other, with respect to the task, to the situation, or with a group of people. While some might argue that this public dimension is not essential, I have had a few experiences in which its absence undermined my confidence in the friendship. It is often when someone takes a public stand with respect to us that we feel palpably confident in a friendship." Solidarity is just the public confirmation of the covenant.

Solidarity involves a kind of mutual flank protecting. Picture two people together defending themselves against attackers in a pitched sword-fight: they stand back to back, and they cover what each himself cannot cover. Each must rely entirely on the other to protect himself. Friendship says, "I am here for you." Friendship involves and is sustained in mutual trust. Trust assumes truthfulness and integrity. It takes humility and courage.

So, in talking about friendship and learning (coming to know), I don't have in mind simply a comparatively stark accountability to study together, although such arrangements just might be the start of something grander. Nor do I have in mind the impersonal nod toward "community," so popular in the sociology of knowledge. I have in mind a finite number of named and known friends, with whom you journey together in your coming to know, and who figure crucially in the very knowing.

Knowing as interpersonal communion

How is covenant friendship integrally connected to learning, to the epistemic act of coming to know? I want to say that knowing actually is friendship—friendship with the yet-to-be-known. And second, if coming to know is to happen, at least some features of friendship must be operative.

I am writing a book in which I argue that we should take as our paradigm of all acts of human knowing, the interpersonal covenantal relationship. While I have a biblical rationale for this, my principal argument is that this is just how knowing works. I don't deny God's Lordship and ultimacy in knowing; I only affirm that humans can't start where He is, but must start where He put us. This is what philosophers describe as "a phenomenological approach." In fact, attending to what actually happens deepens our insight into what Scripture actually says. If I am to understand a certain astronomical phenomenon—a comet, for example—I must put myself in position to see it. I do not summon it and expect it to appear! I ascertain its terms, as much as I am able, and strive to meet them. I bind myself; I covenant. I am covenanting, in fact, with the yet-to-be-known, and this is like a wedding! If and when its self-disclosure comes, it will be just that—freely given revelation. Coming to know involves something like a dance, much as I imagine Edison's repeated efforts to invent a light bulb. Coming to know (learning) is an unfolding, mutual, covenant relationship between a personal knower and a person-like known.

The education guru Parker Palmer in To Know As We Are Known (1983) argues that "the known" is person-like—that knowing is interpersonal and covenantal, capitalizing on the etymological derivation of the word, truth, from troth, or pledge:

To know something or someone in truth is to enter troth with the known, to rejoin with new knowing what our minds have put asunder. To know is to become betrothed, to engage the known with one's whole self, an engagement one enters with attentiveness, care, and good will. To know in truth is to allow one's self to be known as well, to be vulnerable to the challenges and changes any true relationship brings. To know in truth is to enter into the life of that which we know and to allow it to enter into ours. Truthful knowing weds the knower and the known; even in separation, the two become part of each other's life and fate . . . [T]ruth involves entering a relationship with someone or something genuinely other than us, but with whom we are intimately bound . . . Truth requires the knower to become interdependent with the known. Both parties have their own integrity and otherness, and one party cannot be collapsed into the other . . . We find truth by pledging our troth, and knowing becomes a reunion of separated beings whose primary bond is not of logic but of love.

"Knower" and "known," then, are two persons in relationship. I see my own work as making this case. I argue for "epistemological etiquette." It is inappropriate and counterproductive to demand the disclosure of the real. Instead, we "invite the real." Covenantally binding ourselves (behaving!) includes a commitment to the as-yet undiscovered reality; commitments to love, patience, humility, listening beyond our previously conceived categories, and personal openness; and it includes embracing with hope the half-understood promise of the real, to the end of communion and . . . friendship. All knowing, we may say, is knowing whom.

Knowing as knowing with or in the presence of

If we look closely, we will find that the knowing event implicitly involves not two, but three-persons. It takes a triad: the knower, the known, and the knowing for or with. Knowing implies another person, in the presence of and with whom the knower is knowing.

In his essay, "Naming and Being," Walker Percy makes this point with regard to language: we label and describe things as to another person. We are, in his lovely phrase, "co-celebrants of what is." We name something for the other, for mutual acknowledgement of the other. The mere fact that we express knowledge in words presupposes and implies the presence of one to or for whom we express it.

What is behind this triadic "interpersonhood" of knowing? In it we hear the hints of two primordial, formative situations. One is our relationships as infants with our mothers, and the other is our relationship with God. And "back" of these? Probably the threefold interpersonhood, the perchoresis, of the Trinity. I commend to you the work of Trinitarian theologians such as John Zizioulas and Colin Gunton. See, for example, Gunton's The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (The 1992 Brampton Lectures).

No infant survives who at the moment of his or her birth is not caught, when they "come out," in some person's arms! No infant survives who is not fed while held in some person's arms, ten inches from that person's face. From the outset, all formative experience of reality is encountered, interpreted, and mediated in the context of a life-giving mother-child relationship. Of course we know before the face of another! How could it be otherwise? "Momma" offers a bottle and says, "Mmm . . ." "Daddy" dangles a toy and says, "Truck!" Nor is the face before whom a baby learns indifferent or expressionless. It must be the face transformed by delight and care; the face of one who is never unmoved by our cries nor our delights, who permits being known all the while knowing intimately.

Covenant love is the requisite context for coming to know, for learning, for everything that we learn. Structurally, it shapes and enables the knowing journey of our entire lives. The 20th-century philosopher of religion John MacMurray in Persons in Relation (1998) powerfully argues for the mother-child relationship as the proximate context for all personhood and knowing:

The first knowledge, then, is knowledge of the personal Other—the Other with whom I am in communication, who responds to my cry and cares for me. This is the starting-point of all knowledge and is presupposed at every stage of its subsequent development….The knowledge of the Other is the absolute presupposition of all knowledge, and as such is necessarily indemonstrable.

The pre-covenanting "Other" provides life and love. He or she also serves as authoritative guide. The caregiver names and thereby guides the child to see and rightly to interpret the world. (I actually think the interpreting is prerequisite to the seeing). The calculus professor, piano teacher, or skating coach trains us to see ourselves and our world as we submit with trust to their efforts. We must trust them to interpret ourselves to ourselves. They see us better than we see ourselves. Thus, we learn under the guiding gaze of a covenanted authority. All knowing is knowing with or in the presence of another in covenant relationship.

Our relationship with our caregiver is prototypical of our very ontological status as before the face of God. God the Creator with every moment covenants us into existence. He says, "Let there be" and . . . we are. Not only would we have no saving relationship with him without his initiative, we would not even exist without his relational covenantal initiative.

In the most basic way possible, God protects our flank. He stands between us and non-existence. All that we are and do, whether we realize it or not, we carry out before the face of God. This is a covenantal reality that Scripture indicates all people can't help but know (Romans 1). All knowing thus begins, in some sense for all people whether they know it or not, from worship—the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1:7).

Despite our creaturely status, however, there is a reciprocity in that "face-to-faceness." God sovereignly saves and then calls His people to respond in obedient love. John Calvin affirms at the beginning of his Institutes that in knowing oneself one knows God; in knowing God one knows oneself. All knowing is knowing God, and knowing with and before the face of God. (This is one of Cornelius Van Til's and John Frame's intricately intertwined claims. See John Frame's The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship, 1987). Nor is this divine face expressionless and indifferent. It is shot through with delight—in us (Luke 15). Amazing!

I hope you can see that these primordial and defining relationships are just what give impetus to the involvement of friends in learning. Our personal friend in learning is the concrete embodiment of the Other before whom we come to know, the co-celebrant of what is, to and with whom we are interpreting the world. She or he is in some respect the authoritative guide to whom we submit in order to see ourselves and the world. I know, for example, some special areas of my life and outlook in which it behooves me to accept my friend's counsel over my own sense of things or of my very self. (I have written more about this in my article "Learning to See: The Role of Authoritative Guides in Knowing," published in the Polanyi Society's journal Tradition and Discovery).

How antithetical this approach to knowing is to the solitary Cartesian self, standing alone, over and against an impersonal world which passively appears to his scrutiny. The philosopher Marjorie Grene is supposed to have said that Descartes' Cogito is "one of the great falsehoods of philosophy!" Knowing ourselves, and all by ourselves, is what we are worst at, not best at.

A great work of literature, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, graphically depicts how "knowing alone" goes awry. Young Raskolnikov, sitting day in and day out in the stifling solitariness of his coffin-like apartment, draws unsupported and damaging conclusions that, had they been held up to the light of friendly scrutiny, would have been exposed for their limitations. It is the gentle challenge and witness of another, walking as she does before the gaze of God, which points him beyond his sick, solitary reasoning to himself, and to redemption and hope.

All knowing is knowing from a self so close as to be almost impossible to see, from a self about whom we can be grossly mistaken, toward a world which we mistakenly think just passively registers on our awareness the way this computer takes the hits of my key punching. Solitary and passive objectifying of the world is inherently flawed. An "Other" knowing us into self-awareness, and a sensitive indwelling communion with that, invites the surprising self-disclosure of the world—the knowing that engages the real.

Where do I sign up?

How may someone "partner" effectively in knowing? Where is such a friendship to be had? If you are reading this, you have already had many such friendships: your mother, father, siblings, extended family members, all in at least some measure, with respect to some avenue of learning. Let's hope that your parents still walk beside you in the solidarity of learning. I have twenty-something daughters. To walk beside them, as I am invited, is my heart's delight. I think of my daughters as foremost companions of my own learning.

All your school teachers can be numbered among such friends, from Mrs. Jones who taught you to read in kindergarten to Dr. Johnson in your graduate program. To realize this, you may have to rethink them in light of what I have described here. We can thoughtlessly tend to have dismissed teachers as impassive "fact dumpers."

And then, classmates—some always more strategically than others. Those rare and precious comrades in knowing with whom you enjoy a covenantal solidarity and trust that "unleashes." The marriage partner who is also often the dearest co-knower. And the colleagues, with whom some of us are privileged to share collaboration in learning as their job.

All knowing is knowing whom—a person-like, responsive world. All knowing is knowing with, knowing in the presence of, knowing under the caring guidance of—a covenant friend. Recognizing the triadic interpersonhood of all coming to know (learning) that I have argued for in this essay is a critical first step to being intentional in cultivating and practicing it.

Then one may actualize it from both ends—"the friend end" and "the learning end." Practice seeing your friendships covenantally and epistemically. Practice seeing learning (coming to know) interpersonally, covenantally, with respect to both the knower and the one in the presence of whom the knowing transpires.

Let me tell you about my "Boonie Boys." Ken, Ned, Greg, Wes, Giorgio, and a handful of others I know less well were all committed friends before they took my Epistemology course at Covenant Theological Seminary. Several of them lived in a small subdivision with a boulevard which usually served only for a dog walk. I am told that they frequently congregated out there to talk over what they were learning. In my class, these cream-of-the-crop students loitered afterwards, talking with me and with each other—often for an hour or so.

When they graduated, they committed to each other to meet yearly, dividing evenly the cost of transportation to the rendezvous point (in "the boonies"—hence, my label). They come together to listen to each one share at length quite vulnerably, and they speak truthfully and lovingly to what they hear. They discuss some book that over the year they have each read. They cook together and end with touch football in the snow. Throughout the year they stay in active touch. They also welcome me into their thoughtful communion. Several of these men are pastors; some have received or are pursuing doctorates. Friendship and learning, for the Boonie Boys, after a decade only continues to deepen.

The Bible says, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." We often quote this verse to "proof text" our fallible and finite knowledge that some infer will be one day infallible and infinite. But now, please see that whether now or later, human knowing is face-to-face, a knowing and being known. Covenanted interpersonal knowing is what we humans were made for, what we hope for. And it is our glory to practice it now.

Topics: Education

Esther L. Meek is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College. This year she received the College's Excellence in Scholarship award. Her 2003 Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Brazos) is a book for people considering Christianity who have questions about how we know anything at all. Her 2011 Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Cascade) proposes the interpersonal covenantal relationship as the paradigm for all human knowing. She has authored several articles and also gives talks, on subjects ranging from professional to popular, philosophy to Christian life. She serves on the board of the Polanyi Society. Visit her website,