Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Un-Getting of Wisdom

It’s that time of the year again.

Students trudge around campus in their pyjama pants and doze off at the photocopying machines with swollen eyes, pinpoint pupils and coffee stained teeth. Now is crunch time, where we triumphantly mark off submission dates on our calendars, only to flip the page and discover a fresh cluster of deadlines we’d somehow forgotten about and our hearts drop miserably to the pits of our stomachs. On top of this is the grief of knowing that all that data we’d fought so determinedly to cram into our skulls will be dropped onto the exam paper and promptly forgotten. All this, at three in the morning and after twelve cups of coffee, compels us to ask the question: what are we doing this for?

It seems that the primary goal of higher education today is simply to boost the economy; with universities reinventing themselves to suit a neo-liberalist climate, they aim more at offering vocational training over education, preparing students to move directly from campus to the high-rise office building. I know that’s what I’m in here for; to serve three years, earn my certificate of graduation printed freshly off an HP laser printer and begin the rest of my life tucked away someplace obscure inside the media industry. However, while it probably isn’t necessary to write a ten thousand word thesis on Immanuel Kant, or to stand on our desks in the middle of class and declare “O Captain, my Captain!”, this approach to education, while perhaps serving us adequately in the short term, introduces the problem of practical wisdom and the inability to know when and how to use it.

Last week I received a phone call from my aunt informing me that my three year old cousin was sick in day care, and that she couldn’t get off work that afternoon to pick her up and take her to the doctor. I offered to do this, but when I arrived at the day care the supervisors refused to let her go with me. Apparently my cousin running towards me, squealing with delight and throwing her arms around my neck did not convince them that I was not in fact a devious child snatcher. We waited for forty minutes as they tried to reach my aunt at work while my cousin’s brow reddened with increasing temperature. While precautions are commendable, the inability for people to think outside the confines of what they know or what they’ve been instructed to do, to calculate when and how to make an exception to the rule and to improvise in order to make better moral judgements is problematic. People end up making bad decisions that often lead to disastrous consequences, and this unfortunately extends beyond individual incidences of bureaucracy gone mad.

Vice-chancellor of Macquarie University Steven Schwartz in his second annual lecture in August identified such problems in recent events such as the global financial crisis, where he notes that those involved had been highly educated graduates from the world’s most prestigious universities and business colleges who, although having the technical financial skills, lacked the necessary practical wisdom. Unwinnable wars, unsustainable industries and dangerous home insulation programs were all, Schwartz states, avoidable catastrophes, resulting from educated human beings making unwise decisions. This brings us back to education and its current aim of providing specialised and rigidly structured training, moving away from character building and creating people who think like robots.

The World Social Science Report this year published by UNESCO states, “In the face of global challenges which demonstrate that problems are increasingly interrelated, and spread fast from one part of the world to another, traditional disciplinary boundaries are being questioned.” Crises such as global warming, competing religious ideologies, overpopulation and increasing poverty need to be understood “in a plurality of contexts”, according to the report. The rigid and restricted mechanical skills held by each person cannot be enough to combat the problems we’ll be facing in the future. People will be required to make important decisions based on a broader understanding of what is essentially good and right.

The importance of practical wisdom has further been acknowledged in light of recent crises, with the BBC reporting in September that trainee soldiers in the US Army are now encouraged to study philosophy at the West Point military academy in New York State. David Edmonds writes, “In the classroom the new breed of philosopher soldiers are being taught Immanuel Kant, who thought that there were some things it was always wrong to do to other humans whatever the consequences, and without whom the modern conception of human rights is almost inconceivable.” The soldiers are given hypothetical scenarios that prompt critical reflection and train their moral instincts, helping them to draw the necessary distinctions between following unjust commands and making decisions based on their understanding of what is morally right.

Back in the safer confines of a university, Steven Schwartz proposes to allow final year students at Macquarie University to tie together the theoretical and practical sides of what they’ve learnt, studying both science and arts to broaden their education in a capstone course called ‘Practical wisdom’. The return to such approaches to education has undoubtedly met with its sceptics who point out that such an approach cannot possibly fit in with the money-driven ambitions of today’s economic climate, but considering all the calamities that have occurred in recent years, and those of which are yet to occur in the near future, such changes are no doubt essential. From the soldier who chooses to lower her gun to an unarmed child to President Obama who, before his inauguration stated, “We must ask not just ‘Is it profitable?’ but ‘Is it right?’”, the accumulation and use of practical wisdom is something to consider in these few years of our academic lives.

Published in Trespass Magazine on 8 November 2010


  1. You are such an influential writer. I really appreciate this article. Yes, practical wisdom should be imparted - versus lost - by educators.
    Nicely expressed.

  2. It's the classic Theory vs Practice analysis. Theory works well inside books. Practice works in life.

  3. The course sounds like a good idea, but humans do good because they want to, not because someone tells them to. I doubt Bill Gates is giving most of his wealth to charity because of a course he took at university.

  4. Skeptic Michael Shermer developed some conclusions regarding why those "academia" seem to be more politically liberal than those who go to college, graduate and become business people. He concluded that the people who remained in the university realm did so because they wanted to learn and explore new areas of thought; whereas the conservative college students wanted to use what they learned in college for the more practical purpose of generating wealth.

    There are lots of positions among educators regarding learning facts versus learning how to think. I am not always sure one can teach this concept. I have had my share of "customer service" issues with people who claim to be "managers" but who fail at applying management thinking, as in the case of your child care incident.

    In these instances I have tried to point out to these Managers that any dolt can point to rote policy and be inflexible; the role of a true Manager, in my opinion though, is to use their JUDGMENT and AUTHORITY to assess and interpret policy. If they cannot accomplish that level of thinking, they should not be "managers".

  5. Val, I agree 100% Many times in education the emphasis is on what we can get out of something instead of what we can contribute or what is in the interests of all. A bit of common sense wisdom would go a long way towards helping the problems in our society.


  6. I believe we are all born with a certain human essence, a certain human quality. This quality better be good as Education won't alter it if it's not. Education only adds to or complements whatever we already have. As a previous commenter remarked, Bill Gates is not a charitable person because of some course he took at the university. I would say Bill Gates is born with a very good human quality; he's made of good stuff.

  7. You hit it right on the mark, in my opinion. We have become adept at analyzing numbers and have no concept of how to analyze situations and consequence.

    I am also concerned about those for who are not suited for college. There are so many with an aptitude for the mechanical or electrical of building...the trades. I've often wished for a formal educational route for these people -- to learn proper way to do their thing, without having to spend thousands of dollars to prove that the are professionals in their fields.

    Great essay that says it clearly and concisely.

  8. I enjoyed reading this post. You make some valid points. I work and study at a University and some of the decisions made never cease to amaze me.