Education, Human Nature, Knowledge, Wisdom

Can Wisdom be Taught?

(About a 5 minute read)

My favorite explanation of what wisdom is goes like this:  “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is biologically a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing to not put a tomato in a fruit salad.”

Of course, looked at that way, wisdom should be easily teachable.  Just how hard can it be to teach people not to chop up tomatoes for fruit salads, eh?  But in life, wisdom proves to be nearly impossible to communicate in such a way that it is adopted, turned into action (or non-action).

Of course, by “learning wisdom”, I mean cases in which someone is consciously aware of both what to do (or not do) and why.  I’m not talking here of that common substitute for wisdom — time tested tradition.  You can follow genuinely tested traditions all day long without understanding why they work, and you won’t ever weigh an ounce more in wisdom by the end of the week.  “Wisdom” here means both how to behave and knowing why.

Back in my early 40s, when I hung around with dozens of much younger people than me, I was surprised to see the young people committing not only the same mistakes as my generation had committed, but also to see the same mistakes committed by the same sort of young people.

The Christian jock and cheerleader couple opposed to abortion once again got pregnant.

The romantic young “flower-child-girl” once again tries to save the leader of the local tough kids, only to end up in a relationship being abused by him.

The roommates take in their friend, the heroin junkie, only to anger their landlord when their share of the rent goes missing before it can be paid.

It’s not like in any of the cases, the kids had never heard the warnings growing up, “Don’t trust junkies to not steal from you.”  “Use birth control.”   “Avoid violent boyfriends.”  The kids had been told what was wise and what was folly a thousand times — it just had not sunk in.

But the same lack of learning applies to politics too.  Santayana famously said,  “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  But to me, the most telling thing is that even those who remember the past often enough seem condemned to repeat it.

Today,  how many Americans who know a bit about the Cold War currently pretend Putin has not re-started the War?

How many hard-nosed thinkers who laugh at the absurdities of creationism harbor outrageously ridiculous political opinions?

How many wars do you think the world will see between today and when the youngest member of your extended family becomes an old man or woman?  Even when one side is justified in going to war, the other side never is.

It seems to me that — regardless on what level one is discussing the matter — wisdom is quite difficult to teach and learn.   In fact, I can only think of three ways in which there can at times be some benefit to trying to teach wisdom.

First, it seems to me a good teacher and a motivated student can conspire to speed up the student’s learning process.  That is, they can work together to cut short the time it would otherwise require the student to learn a bit of wisdom.

Beyond that, the two can work to get the student on the right track.  That is, they can work on the way the student approaches a problem or issue.  For instance, many foolish people cling to the anger they feel towards someone — perhaps on the theory that they are thus ever ready to hurt the person they’re angry at.

However, such a pose almost always hurts the angry person far more, and more deeply, than it hurts the other person. A good teacher/student pair can get the student to approach the issue from the angle of looking to see how being angry hurts whoever is angry.  If the student does not immediately see the point, they are at least now on the right track to eventually seeing it.

Last, a good student/teacher team can expand on — broaden out — bits of wisdom the student learns.  They can progress from specific instances of something to generalizations that cover a million instances of the same thing.

For instance, they might notice a few instances of sexual objectification and from there proceed carefully to the realization and understanding of how sexual objectification is — on it’s most profound level — the same means or mechanism by which racists operate to characterize their victims.  That might lead them further to genuine wisdom in the matter when they not only see the underlying causes of such things, but why and how they are wrong.

So those seem to me the three ways teaching wisdom can help with learning wisdom.  By speeding up how long it takes to learn a bit of wisdom, by getting the student to approach an issue in the right way to solve the puzzle of it, and to see more broadly and/or deeply into something.

In my opinion, just about everyone is wise about some things, and blessed is the person who can learn merely from listening to or from observing others.  Yet, I believe what even when we do learn from others, we are not likely to learn in a perfectly straight-forward or wholly comprehensive at once manner.

No, so far as I can see, we don’t learn wisdom like we learn arithmetic — linearly.  It’s more of a gestalt process, more a matter of epiphanies.  As such, there is only a comparatively modest amount of teaching that can be reasonably expected — even with an outstanding teacher and student team.

Questions? Comments?


Please Note: This post was inspired by an article published on Miriam’s blog that you can find here.

14 thoughts on “Can Wisdom be Taught?”

  1. I like the way you started this Paul, perfectly explaining the difference between knowledge and wisdom by that tomato in a fruit salad. . So very true, wisdom is not easily taught and even with a good teacher there’s no guarantee a student will learn. I think that fundamentally we learn by doing, by making mistakes, by learning what’s right and wrong and by our own life experience. Yes, it’s by those ephipanies that strike us.

    Thanks fir a deeply thought provoking read and also for linking to my post. Your cafe always provides intriguing food for thought.

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    1. I believe it was Will Rogers who said, “Some folks can learn from books, some from observing others, but most of us need to pee on the electric fence for ourselves before we learn.” I’m more of a fence-pee-er, myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Many of us must be having the same conversations lately. Yesterday I was discussing something similar with a friend. When I was a teenager I found a wooden sign that I put on the wall in my room because I thought it was appropriate for me “Some people learn by other people’s mistakes. The rest of us have to be the other people.” What I didn’t know at the time is that it’s possible we are all the other people. Wisdom, it seems to me, comes from those mistakes. I’m pretty sure most of the wisdom I’ve managed to garner (a thimbleful, in the grand scheme of things) has been more from mistakes than from my successes.

    I do think it’s possible, as you wrote, to teach someone bits of wisdom. I have a 25-year-old niece who can’t get out of her own way, and she’s been visiting with us occasionally. I’ve learned the best way to help her think things through is to share the stories of my mistakes. She listens when I start with “I” rather than “You.” Sharing my vulnerability and foolishness is less likely to put her on the defensive. The teachings don’t necessarily stick or take right away, but over time, she’s wised up a little.

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    1. That’s fascinating, Robin. The notion that wisdom is universally learned through mistakes, rather than successes. Offhand, I don’t know how true that it, but it at least seems true that wisdom is more often learned through mistakes.

      Reminds me of a passage from Sophocles that goes something like this:

      Pain
      Falls into our hearts
      Drop by drop
      Until
      In time
      We learn wisdom
      Through the awful grace of the gods.

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  3. I tend to agree with Robin that using “I” instead of “you” greatly enhances the opportunity to share wisdom. What it also does is highlight another aspect of the exchange, for I have found I learn much more from any “teaching” I do than my “student” possibly could. There is something about the process of “teaching/sharing” that forces us (the teacher) to organize our thoughts before revealing them. In doing so (either organizing or revealing), we discover patterns and connections between events we might have missed before. And THOSE patterns/connections are the foundation (even content) of any wisdom we gain…

    That being said, I don’t know if wisdom can be “taught,” but I know it can be learned. Furthermore, I have found that the most efficient way to learn it is to try teaching it to someone else. Therfore, we should continue to try and teach it, if only so our own wisdom may grow…

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    1. What an interesting take on it, Lisa! I am very much inclined to agree with you about how we learn more trying to teach wisdom than we do trying to learn it from someone. Very much inclined to agree.

      Reminds me of what is so often said of therapists — they heal themselves trying to heal others.

      Yeah, I think you’re onto something there. Thank you for that keen insight.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think wisdom is as often capped by want as it is lacking. I’m not sure that I’m making myself clear, so I’ll explain. Often, we know the sensible action to take, but we choose the foolish one. The anti-abortion couple get carried away, and are too impatient to apply the condom, so they hope for the best. The friends of the junkie fool themselves that he won’t steal – they want to help; they want to be heroes, and they know that by trusting him, there is a 0.001% chance that the faith they show could give him the determination to go into recovery. As for the poor, sweet hippie girl I expect we could both write an essay on the reasons for her ignoring the wise choice.

    Often, we know we are not acting wisely, but we do it anyway/ I suppose true wisdom is not merely a matter of understanding, but of choosing the wise course of action.

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    1. That strikes me as an excellent point! Jane, I would not have thought of that, if hadn’t brought it up. Thank you so much. I do believe you’re right too. Offhand, I can recall an instance or two of what you’re speaking of.

      I wonder if a principle at work here isn’t the old notion youth have that they are immortal, that the bullet will never be for them, that it’s always the other guy who’ll get hurt, fail? I wonder if that has anything to do with it?

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      1. I think you’re right. It’s been claimed that boys in particular tend not to fully grasp the concept of cause and effect until they are about 25. It’s something to do with their brain chemistry.

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  5. In my experience, wisdom has been modeled for me in the way others have interacted with me, and by me adopting strategies passed on to me, or demonstrated by the actions of others. Trial and error and analyzing consequences of the same have been a necessary part of the process as well. Many stubbed toes and ego along the way, but the small gains keep me hopeful. I believe we learn and teach each other, often informally and incidentally. We are all in the same river.

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