Wisdom

I mentioned a couple of years ago that Franny in J.D. Salinger’s delightful novel Franny and Zooey decided to drop out of college because, she said, “no one there talks about wisdom.” T.S. Elliot famously asked “Where is the wisdom we have lost with knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Both of these comments deserve further comment.

As a philosopher who has devoted his life to helping young minds grow, a “philo-sopher,” a “lover of wisdom,” I have often asked myself the same questions. In my field, I have found members of my profession lost in a cloud of jargon searching for the “philosopher’s stone,” the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. This, in my experience, has translated itself into a bunch of academic introverts weaving themselves into a tangled web of abstruse verbiage splitting hairs with a wicked grin on their collective faces, playing one-up to see who is the cleverest.  One of my professors at Northwestern suggested that if I wanted to succeed in my profession I should find an obscure topic no one knows anything about and write journal articles about it. As Franny asked, what became of wisdom?

This question lead me back to the classics, which I have quoted of late in these posts, writers such as Euripides and Sophocles, who seem to have a better grasp of what it means to be wise. Socrates, reputed to be the wisest man in Athens, insisted that his wisdom (if such it be) consisted in the fact that he knew that he did not know. That is, he did not presume to know things about which he was ignorant — unlike our president-elect who presumes to know more than 97% of the world’s entire scientific community, or anyone else for that matter.

Some distinctions are in order. Wisdom is not about knowledge and it’s not about information. We have both in abundance. We also confuse information with education when we say things such as “she needs to be educated about child-rearing.” No, she needs to be informed about child-rearing. Education is what transforms information into knowledge. Knowledge coupled with experience and common sense may then become wisdom. It depends on many variables, and some have insisted that the experience must involve some degree of suffering. I suspect this is true. In any event, wisdom requires a certain amount of information and a certain amount of knowledge as well. But above all else it requires a sense of how to apply that knowledge and how to weed out the misinformation from the information — a growing problem with bogus news on the Internet, the Fox News channel, and our increasing tendency to reduce all truth to gut feelings.

I would suggest that wisdom is the knowledge of what is appropriate in a particular situation, what the situation calls for. It comes very close to what we loosely call “common sense.” And in my experience, women seem to have more of it than men. It is a wise person who knows what to do and when to do it. A large part of this comes with the skill of critical thinking, which can be taught — and which all college professors of all stripes insist they are teaching (though most are not). We cringe at the word “critical,” because we have been told not to be “judgmental” and criticism is a form of judgment. This, of course, is absurd. Judgment is what separates the wise from the unwise. And criticism allows us to wade through the tons of information and misinformation thrown at its each day and separate out those few items that are worth careful consideration. Education, above all else, involves the development of critical sensibility, the ability to grasp what is essential and important and reject nonsense and blatant falsehood.

Education, therefore, ought to be about wisdom, teaching the skills that allow us to use our minds critically and glean important information from the dreck that surrounds us — and how to apply that information. Too often it is about information, per se, teachings kids the skills they will need to get a job or filling their minds with the information their teachers and professors have decided is important for them to know. The ability to winnow the information ought to be the skill that is taught and we can then hope that the young person will be lucky enough to wed that to a bit of common sense — which I suspect we are born with. Or not. But, in any event, wisdom ought to be discussed in our colleges and universities.

I do believe it can best be discovered by reading the words written by wise men and women who have experience of the world, who know what is appropriate in any circumstance and who have a wealth of common sense. And who write well.