Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
From “The Rock” by TS Eliot
Reflect for a moment on this entry from Wikipedia: “Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) is the binomial nomenclature (also known as the scientific name) for the only extant human species. Homo is the human genus, which also includes Neanderthals and many other extinct species of hominin; H. sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo. Modern humans are the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, which differentiates them from what has been argued to be their direct ancestor, Homo sapiens idaltu.”
Homo sapiens sapiens. Not just Wise Man but Wise Wise Man. Is our species deserving of the epithet? The wisest of the wise.
Our answer will hinge on our definition of ‘wise’. What could it mean to be ‘wise’?
Merriam-Webster suggests wisdom consists of three parts: (a) accumulated philosophical or scientific learning (knowledge); (b) ability to discern inner qualities and relationships (insight); and (c) good sense (judgment). To be wise, then, is not merely to be knowledgeable, it is to show also judicious discernment.
Judicious discernment in respect of what? In the service of what aim? One cannot be discerning or show good judgment unless one has a goal in mind. Or, a principle in mind. An ethics, a worldview. Something, in any case, to guide one’s thought and actions, and against which to judge them. To arrive at their wisdom or lack thereof, one’s decisions and conduct must be considered in the light of the values that animate one’s goals, principles, ethics or worldview. Shorn of these programmatic values, it makes no sense to speak of being ‘wise’.
So it is: “Wisdom is one of those qualities difficult to define—because it encompasses so much—but which people generally recognize when they encounter it. And it is encountered most obviously in the realm of decision-making. Psychologists tend to agree that wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and deep understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. There’s an awareness of how things play out over time, and it confers a sense of balance. It can be acquired only through experience, but by itself, experience does not automatically confer wisdom.” – Psychology Today.
Wisdom, then, is found only via experience, and then only when the decisions prompted or necessitated by experience serve an ethical, principled, coherent and properly balanced vision of the ups and downs of life that play out over time.
Can we credibly assert that humankind’s career on Earth is best characterised as uniformly ethical, principled, properly balanced, and informed always by such a ‘long view’? There is limited evidential support for such a claim.
Perhaps, on reflection, in naming and conceiving of ourselves as Homo sapiens, we have done ourselves a serious disservice by encouraging confusion and complacency. We have presented as a state of our nature a frame of mind and a habit of thought that, in truth, we only rarely and fleetingly muster, either individually or collectively. We assume as standard that which is, in fact, exceptional. Homo ingeniosus might be more aptly suited to our nature, homo callidus, homo vorsutus. We are tinkerers and meddlers, for the most part, experimenters and bodgers. Ingenious, dextrous, shrewd, clever and effective – but shortsighted, unbalanced, ethically untutored and, as a result, let’s be honest, not so very often wise.
We rarely live up to our name. And if, ultimately, to do so is our ambition, our confusion becomes real and consequential when we conceive of the attributes that do inhere naturally in humans – the ingenuity, the tinkering mentality, the curiousity, the experimentation, the urge to explore – as if they were wisdom. No doubt these are powerful, and (potentially) good and useful, characteristics in their own right – after all, for better or worse, they have got us where we are today … but, as we have seen, they do not equate to wisdom. Of themselves, they do not deliver us to our self-professed destiny as a species. Something else, something additional is called for.
Now, at this juncture, note that pretty much all we teach at school is the narrow range of often strictly technical and instrumental knowledges and competencies that flow from and, in turn, enable more powerfully the characteristics discussed above, related to ingenuity and wit.
Should school be satisfied with, let alone proud of, this? As we have seen, these characteristics are neither in themselves wisdom nor, even, necessarily, the promoters of wisdom, because they are nothing more (or less) than the manifestations of the cleverness, the technical adroitness, that they serve and amplify. They are, of themselves, devoid of value; which is to say, they are awaiting the bestowal of value depending on the ends to which they are put. They can, put to the right ends, to wise ends, help the actualising of good in the world. They can, put to the wrong ends, unwise ends, support the actualising of evil.
They are means; but school treats, teaches, examines and celebrates them as if they were ends.
Becoming literate, numerate, historically aware, scientifically informed, linguistically adept – all of these are potentially good, just as they are potentially bad or potentially inconsequential. Which of these they finish up being depends on the conduct of the life they eventually inform, the uses to which they are put, the ends to which they contribute. There is nothing inherently wise or even tending to wiseness about any of these states of being or accomplishments, as many impressively literate, numerate, generally schooled but, for all that, destructive historical figures have demonstrated to the cost of millions.
The source of much individual and social confusion, then, can be found in the misidentification by the school system of the means to an end with the end in itself. Schools function to make students clever, perhaps ingenious, perhaps effective – but rarely wise. We have constructed a vast array of technologies to measure cleverness, if cleverness can be formulated as the memorization of information and the ability to recall it, under pressure, sometimes in specific literary forms, sometimes as unmediated nuggets of fact, sometimes as the key to a riddle or puzzle, sometimes inserted into formulae and equations. But no such technologies exist to test or capture wisdom. It is not clear to see how they could. Wisdom may, by definition, escape technology.
Can schools teach wisdom? Clearly not – because wisdom is neither a body of knowledge that can be imparted nor a good decision that can be made on someone else’s behalf. You must arrive at wisdom yourself, in the light of your own ethical framework, by the process of your own freely made decisions. Someone stepping in to strong-arm, render or force your decision automatically disqualifies it as ‘wise’. Certainly, a decision made at the barrel of a gun may still be a good, sensible or otherwise admirable decision, but not a wise one.
Teaching wisdom is an oxymoron. As is mandating it. But, can school create the conditions and provide the circumstances in which attaining wisdom is possible? Yes.
To adopt this as an aim, however, school would need to rethink the value of knowledge. Knowledge as an end in itself, knowledge as an absolute, is of no value to the wise. As an end in itself, it has no application, and wisdom requires purpose. As an absolute, it has no room for interpretation, no space for discernment, and wisdom requires choice. Wisdom, in its complexity, never tolerates a single path.
Knowledge, as tested and examined under the current school system, provides an entirely inadequate guide to its authentic potential value in the world of women and men. It remains merely instrumental, pending consequence, temporarily pointless. And, as a result, as we see time and time again, more or less instantly forgettable.
To live and endure and, as we saw above, to play its part in the inculcation of wisdom, knowledge must enter into a relationship with choice, discernment, balance and the longer view. Only then does it fully accomplish that part of its promise that is positive, beneficial and sustainable.
How can school situate knowledge in this way?
By creating the conditions for genuine student choice, including the wrong ones, in an environment of safe-fail trial and error (Free Learning and the 5+1 Model). By reconceiving the curriculum as a framework of understanding – by necessity, given its scale and scope, a sketchy and incomplete one – with a cosmic range and an eye for evolutionary continuity and punctuation (Big History). By dissolving the bunkers and silos of ‘subjects’ and encouraging deep dives into the associations and links between research and understanding across the many fields of human enquiry (Deep Learning). By encouraging learners to assemble, freely, a critical, ethical framework from a clear-eyed analysis of different traditions as established across history, within which new information and ideas can be coolly evaluated (Human Technologies).