(About a 2 minute read)
Have I noticed a truth here, albeit perhaps an old one?
I was thinking of Will Roger’s sad, but insightful remark that most of us “need to pee on the electric fence ourselves” in order to learn wisdom, rather than be able to learn wisdom from watching others or from books.
While still thinking about Rogers, I visited Kat’s blog, where she had earlier briefly mentioned that somethings cannot be taught, but must be learned for oneself.
Naturally, that’s a somewhat distasteful idea — at least to me — for it implies that a good chunk of becoming “educated” is perhaps in some vital sense wasted on us. We might learn the facts, but we don’t learn their significance until we screw up for ourselves.
Over the past few months, I have increasingly adopted that idea myself, while still looking for ways in which it might be qualified.
About the same time I clicked on Kat’s blog, it occurred to me: Perhaps we cannot gain wisdom from passively accepting as true even the wisest truths — but what if we do not passively accept them as true, but subject them to reasonably skeptical challenge?
In other words, I can bring to bear all my powers of concentration and memorization in an effort to learn something — I can memorize the Bible or Mahābhārata from cover to cover — but unless I subject what I’m learning to skeptical challenges, my effort will in all likelihood be futile.
I do not mean here hostile challenges. Those are foolish if you want to learn something because if you’re hostile to some idea, then your mind is already made up, and calling your hostility “skepticism” is a load of self-deceiving perkle-squat.
But genuine skepticism in which we are careful that our challenges be open-minded strikes me a learning process. The outcome might be in doubt, but nevertheless, real learning is still going on.
So is it true that, no matter how important the topic, telling people what to think about it seldom produces a wiser person, but encouraging people to think about it can at times do just that — assuming they take the advice and do think?
If it happens that the above is substantially true, then that would seem to have important implications — among them the implication that skeptical thinking might be the best, or even perhaps the only, means to genuinely absorb lessons in wisdom from others, rather than be reduced to ever needing to pee on the fence for ourselves.