Great Scot Archive
Issues from 1998
Issues from 1998


Learning to serve others

A sacrifice of self in an age of ‘me-first’.


Rev Doug Campbell
School Chaplain

The ancient Greco-Roman world experienced a crisis around the time of the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana ushered in a golden age of hope and gave rise to a new philosophy of education that stood in stark contrast to the ancient Greek understanding of education that had stood the test of time.

In short, the competing worldviews could be summarised as between those who believed that we learn in order that we can know how to live, and those who thought that we learn in order to earn a living.

Previously the Classical Greek period had heavily emphasised the core values that would influence how the learners would live and play their part in wider society. The new educational viewpoint in contrast was exciting, contemporary and offered a practical way of living, with the possibility of happiness through financial security. Interestingly the philosophical differences between these ideologies closely resemble the same debate in western society during the last 150 years concerning the purpose of education.

The ancient proponents of this new educational philosophy guaranteed success and promised self-fulfilment. There was a belief that students, by following the new teaching, could have the good life now. Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher, criticised the new approach to education in his work The Worse Attacks the Better as being overly interested in personal financial gain, public celebrity and shameless self-promotion. Moreover, these new teachers were highly dismissive of the old teaching methodologies and their outdated and less than impressive teachers, who were far too interested in values..

The old educational system had propounded the Greek classical virtues of ‘prudence’, ‘self-control’, ‘courage’ and ‘righteousness’, while the concepts of ‘folly’, ‘intemperance’, ‘cowardice’, and ‘injustice’ were taught in order to be avoided. Although the new education system still referred to the traditional classical Greek virtues, this was simply a matter of convention and not from deeply-held conviction.

The Christian Church arose in the midst of this sea change in education and change in the priorities of the people of the empire. In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote to the Greek Christians in Corinth in a way that suggests that he too was countering the outworking of this ‘me-centred’ philosophy. For Paul, the Corinthians’ conversion to Christ was to affect every aspect of their life, including the intellectual, the moral and the social.

The Corinthian Christians’ ‘everything is permitted’ attitude revealed an underlying belief that it was their inalienable right to do whatever they wanted. Paul argued that instead of focusing on themselves, these Christians should adopt the attitude of Christ to deny themselves, pick up their crosses and follow Jesus. The Christian concept of self-sacrifice and loving others was counter-cultural then and it remains an alien concept for many today. Paul wanted these people to relearn the concept of living for and enhancing others, and not to live solely and primarily for themselves. Indeed Jesus said: ‘Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).

Jesus did not simply talk a good game when it came to self-service and sacrifice, but became the eternal sacrifice by which we are made right with God the Father forever.

At Scotch we long for boys to realise the responsibility they have to each other in school and to those they will encounter through their lives. We want boys to have a real and genuine sense of duty to others, and to be prepared to put their own rights aside for the sake of other people.

This idea of sacrificial giving of self is observed on Remembrance Day at Scotch, when the Year 7s plant little white crosses in the Quadrangle lawns, each one bearing the name of an Old Scotchie who perished during the two World Wars. When they gaze on the rows of little white crosses in the Quad, the boys are struck by the ultimate fate of those who embrace this path of self-sacrifice.

These young men of long ago, and the many others who fought alongside them, knew true discomfort, pain, loss, fear and sacrifice. They gave up their todays so that we could enjoy our tomorrows. In the slopes of Gallipoli they certainly did not enjoy ‘their best life now’!

As part of my education I was taken as a child by my grandmother to the Scottish National War Memorial, which commemorates Scottish soldiers, and those serving with Scottish regiments, who died in the two World Wars and in more recent conflicts. The rolls of honour list over 147,000 names of those soldiers killed in World War I and another 50,000 names were inscribed after World War II.

My grandmother led me to the room in Edinburgh Castle, and with a tear she pointed out the name of her beloved uncle who died in Flanders. She passed on her lesson of virtue and service and self-sacrifice for the sake of others, and by God’s grace I will pass that on to her great-grandchildren and to those who will listen.

Updated: 3 October 2016