On Campus

The case for imparting wisdom

Critical thinking is not enough

Steven Schwarz rightly points out in a recent article that while universities have for a long time now been big on knowledge, it’s been an even longer time since anyone seriously suggested universities should be places to develop wisdom. He sums his position up eloquently this way:

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 the time comes to sum up our lives, they are the only things that ever really matter.

Of course, the fact that Schwarz brings it up shows that the idea of teaching wisdom is not completely dead, and I think many faculty, and indeed, more than a few students, are as eager to engage the idea as Schwarz is. As the student Maria says in Robertson Davies’ 1981 novel The Rebel Angels, “I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form–though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, ‘Sorry, there’s no call for it.'”

I was just such a student, too, and I know students like that, and yet, collectively, professors are generally reluctant to list “develop wisdom” in their anticipated course outcomes.

For one thing, wisdom seems to imply definite answers, and is thus contrary to a great deal of the intellectual direction of the past century. In my own discipline of literary studies, for instance, we tend to teach that meanings are multiple, that truth is constructed and thus, if not arbitrary, at least always subject to challenge. And it’s not just literary scholars.  Economics, the dismal science, has often proven dismal at predicting the workings of the economy, and even Physics is ultimately all about uncertainty.

Still more difficult for professors is the problem of egotistical presumption. Who am I, the professor says to himself, to claim to know what is right and wise? I don’t want to preach to my students, and they don’t want to hear sermons. Teaching skills — even broad skills like critical thinking — seems more appropriately modest.

But if Socrates was right to say that the beginning of wisdom was to recognize how little we know, then maybe there is hope for wisdom in the modern university after all. There may, in other words, be a place between imparting competencies and outright evangelism. And, in fact, over the years, I have become gradually less squeamish about suggesting that the things my students and I discuss in class may contain the seeds of wisdom. I try not to pontificate too much, but if the point of reading great works of literature is to give us a way of grappling with the big ideas of human existence, then why be shy about grappling with those ideas in the lecture hall? Comedy and tragedy, for instance, are more than literary and dramatic forms. They provide reflections on the two principal ways to confront human suffering: laughter and mourning. Thus reading Othello gives us a chance to reflect on the sources and nature of evil. Reading The Merchant of Venice gives us a chance to talk about the social and moral implications of debt. Great literature, perhaps by definition, inspires us to think about about how we ought to live meaningful lives. Historians, philosophers, political scientists and others can fill in similar arguments based on their disciplines.

Of course we need to train surgeons and accountants with very particular skills so they can do their jobs, and it’s a good thing if English majors learn to write well. But universities also need to create and sustain a class of people who have the courage to confront the biggest issues we face and to make thoughtful judgements about them. We need people with the serious cast of mind that only comes from contemplating life’s most vexing problems in a careful and creative way. You can call it judiciousness if you want, or gravitas.

Or you can call it wisdom.

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