The Getting of Wisdom

by Steven Schwartz


I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn't, it's just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word “wisdom” mentioned! J. D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey)

Let’s face it, wisdom has an image problem. As far as the popular media are concerned, it is the province of ghost whisperers, extraterrestrials—think Mr. Spock the Vulcan—and wizened kung-fu sages (“The body is the arrow, the spirit is the bow, Grasshopper”).

Wise people are not only portrayed as old, alien and weird butalso bookish, risk-averse and unemotional. No wonder their pearls of wisdom are routinely ignored by the impetuous young. Youth thirsts for new experiences; it’s in their nature to take chances and follow their hearts. Wisdom just gets in the way. “Fools rush in, where wise men never go”, sang Elvis, “But wise men never fall in love, so how are they to know?”

You might think that universities would hold a different view; after all, they are in the wisdom business. Well, you might think this but you would be wrong. Every type of knowledge—massage therapy, homeopathy and circus performing is represented on campus—but the word “wisdom”, as Salinger has Franny say, is rarely mentioned.

It was not always like this. Wisdom, at least in its religious version, was central to the medieval university and its importance persisted right down to John Henry Newman’s day. But wisdom is no longer on the curriculum; it has been replaced with skills. Today’s universities are mainly concerned with preparing students for a career. Newman called such practical learning “a deal of trash”, but surely he was wrong. There is nothing wrong with vocational training; a fulfilling career is an important part of a good life.

Much of my academic work over the years has been devoted to career preparation. I was once a Dean of Medicine and there are few more vocational courses. Our students were all bright but they were narrowly focused on their career goals. They resented time spent on subjects not directly related to diagnosing or treating patients. It’s easy to see why. Studying philosophy does not make it any easier to remove a prostate gland; reading Galen sheds little light on how to recognise pneumonia. As far as our students were concerned, time spent on any subject not related to a doctor’s daily work was time wasted.

It’s easy to empathise with them; medical education is long, arduous and expensive. Why add to its length and cost with apparently irrelevant subjects? If students want to study history, literature and philosophy, they can take them up when they retire and have time for such frivolity. This makes some sense, from the students’ vantage point, but it demeans our purpose as universities. Yes, we must prepare graduates for what they will do but we also have a duty to help them to at least think about what kind of people they want to be.

Indeed, these two educational goals are inextricable. No one would try to argue that a deep knowledge of philosophy makes surgeons better at removing a prostate. But it might deepen their empathy and improve their understanding of what constitutes a high quality life, both of which could help them to decide whether a prostate should be removed in the first place.

It’s not just doctors who could benefit from a broader education

Studying drama would not have helped financiers devise the complicated financial derivatives that plunged the world into financial crisis, but if they were familiar with Faust they may have thought twice about the consequences of their actions.

Being able to quote Shelley will not help politicians get elected (certainly not in Australia) but studying Ozymandias might make them more humble and thoughtful about their accomplishments.

As I write these words, I can imagine the raised eyebrows of my academic colleagues. A generation of graduates familiar with the great works of history, philosophy and literature is a wonderful vision but reading widely does not guarantee wisdom. They are correct. Reading, by itself, will not make anyone wise. Experience is also required. As Odysseus learns on his journey back to Ithaca, some important lessons can only be learned the hard way—through experience. Nothing has changed. Youth start out with sex, drugs and rock and roll and with experience they eventually come to appreciate the Delphic prescription “nothing to excess”.

There is a problem, however. Experience, alone, cannot guarantee wisdom any more than reading can. The lessons of life are only available to those who are ready to learn them. If wisdom is the goal, then students must “walk 10,000 miles, read 10,000 books” said 17th century Chinese philosopher, Gu Yanwu. In other words, becoming wise requires not just having adventures but a cultured mind that is open, ready and able to absorb the lessons that experience teaches. Pasteur famously said that “Chance favours the prepared mind”, and our job as university academics is to take his words seriously.

To prepare students to learn from experience, we need to go beyond vocational training. Life, death, love, beauty, courage, loyalty—all of these are omitted from our modern vocational curricula and yet, when it comes time to sum up our lives, they are the only things that ever really matter. On Ash Wednesday, the priest admonishes the faithful to “remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” A salutary reminder of what we all have waiting for us. In the meantime, like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we spend our years trying to find some meaning in our lives.

It is easy to fall into the pit of nihilism, to consider life “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. But before we let our students reach this conclusion, we should at least try to provide them with the intellectual foundation they need to make such a judgement. In the few years they are with us, we should be concerned not only with teaching students the state of the various arts, we should be equally concerned with the state of their hearts.

In Choruses from The Rock, T. S. Eliot asks these questions: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” If you think these are just the melancholy musings of a poet who spent too many hours at his desk, out there in the “real world” they’re saying the same thing, albeit in different ways. For just one example, The World Social Science Report 2010, published by UNESCO, observed today’s global challenges are increasingly interrelated, spread fast from one part of the world to another, and so bring into question traditional university disciplinary boundaries. These “profound and menacing developments" need to be understood "in a plurality of contexts" – which surely includes what we learn from the great works of the past. Specific and narrow skills are simply not enough to enable us to understand and solve the problems we face.

It is not easy for universities to go against the utilitarian flow but it is our duty to try. As author Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter to a friend, “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you”. It’s time we once again started hearing the word “wisdom” on campus.

Steven Schwartz is vice-chancellor of Macquarie University. He blogs at:

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