On the Shoulders of Others

March 9, 2009

It is not a biblical proverb, but I still like it.

Do not make fun of one who is ill-bred, or your ancestors may be insulted. (Sir 8:4, NRSV)

“Ill-bred” renders a Greek word that simply means uneducated. (By the way, I’ve know some people who lacked formal education who were wise and accomplished.)

The proverb reminds me that we stand on the shoulders of others. Do you have an education? Wonderful! But you didn’t get there alone. You likely had parents who encouraged you and teachers who trained you. There may be others in your family tree, who didn’t have your opportunities, but helped provide yours.

My father grew up on his uncle’s tenant farm. His Dad passed away when he was only a toddler, and there was no Social Security at the time. My Grandmother Holden and he moved in with his uncle and aunt. They were poor.

But the intellectual life of this tenant farm family was rich. My Great Aunt and Grandmother were avid readers all their lives. My father was also a lifelong reader. It may have been only a tenant farm, but a world of ideas was available in books.

How did they afford their books? They didn’t.* They used the public library. It was one of the many public libraries built in the U.S. by donations from Andrew Carnegie. It was a grand structure built in 1905 for $12,500. It was the same library I went to as a child. My Dad graduated from the University of Illinois in 1939, the first college graduate of his family.

Are there people who have helped you get where you are today? We stand on the shoulders of others.

*The exceptions were a well worn copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Bible.