Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
True wisdom needs age and real world experience
JOIN THE DEBATE
Who, apart from a bunch of career academics, would think wisdom something you could teach in a classroom? Like, “See you at 4. I have a wisdom test.” Just call me Odysseus.
The getting of wisdom debate has everyone dusting off their Aristotle. In fact, though, even Old Man Ari – generally about as relevant to us as black figure painting, and as stiff – recognised that the special kind of knowledge we call wisdom had two prerequisites: age and experience.
Let me offer a tale. There’s a woman who spends much of her life walking our street. Over recent months she has gone from seeming sad but broadly functional to looking, and smelling, derelict. Her hair is grey and pendulous, like her skin, and through the winter the gauzy nightie that does her for streetwear became more pungent.
One evening, during dinner, she appears at our door. Could we, she wonders politely, give her money to buy food? Could she come and live with us? Nonplussed, heart-torn, I ask her name, shake her hand, exchange enough words to feel confident she won’t just head straight to the pub with it, then give her $20. “I’ll pay you back,” she promises.
Everyone says it was stupid to give her money, since she’ll now keep coming back, a limitless drain on my puny resources and perhaps (the implication is) dangerous. I’m caught. I don’t read her as a threat, yet whenever she knocks – which is now three or four evenings a week – I’m torn between the urge to give her more, and the fleeting image of her holding a knife.
Behind our closed door we debate what might be done, speculating that her landlady – matriarch of an alleged local drug dynasty – somehow steals her pension cheque. Roughly once a week I resolve to inquire, next time, as to the cause of her penury, but so far I haven’t. Just as I haven’t phoned DOCS – as if they’d do anything – or the Salvos or, well, who? The police? She’s not homeless, not criminal, probably not mad. Who will help?
And isn’t there, anyway, something cowardly in this buck-passing urge to summon some agency? The gap between staying safe and what my father would have called a “bleeding-heart conscience” (the Jesus path) is absolute. There is no middle ground here, comfortable or otherwise. But it’s not clear what is the right course.
I consider the Jesus way, inviting her in to share our meal, if not our lives. It’s clearly a test. But I’m assailed by the image of our snug little family being drawn into the bleak miasma of this woman’s existence, and I cannot bring myself to go there. If it is a wisdom test, it’s one I fail.
One of my earliest memories is tagging along after my mother as she fed soup to the old and the sick. Why she did this I cannot definitively say, but I recall my toddler’s repulsion at the darkened rooms, the wheezy silence, the smells. So is it this Good Works Aversion Therapy that stops me revisiting it on my own kids? Or is that mere rationalisation. Who knows?
I like to think I have grown, since, overcoming those chimp-type fears, but it is curious to be a relatively educated member of a relatively enlightened society and still be unequipped to resolve such a situation, not even knowing what goodness (I avoid the word ethics, with its reek of classroom and committee) would dictate.
So this is where I confess to having no clear idea of what wisdom means, much less how – if at all – it might be taught. This may be why Plato’s so-called humility theory of wisdom has some appeal. It boils down to this: anyone who claims to have wisdom, ipso facto doesn’t.
For Aristotle, wisdom linked virtue with happiness. Leibniz called it “the science of happiness”. The American philosopher, Barry Schwartz, defines it as the merging of moral skill and moral will in empathic action.
But surely, if “wisdom” means anything, it is the kind of slow-knowledge that comes not from scholarship, but from experience. The real world’s last bastion against academia’s territorial insurgency.
As to universities, I’m all for the American model, where a liberal arts degree precedes any vocational specialism. The vice-chancellor of Macquarie University, Steven Schwartz, who started this debate, argues rightly that universities – many of them rebadged as technical colleges offering courses in hairdressing and horse psychology – have become all “about money”.
Schwartz wants to enhance the world’s practical wisdom, to raise the bar on civilisation, to counter universities’ outright rush for cash. All good. But wisdom classes?
In truth, wisdom was never the university’s mandate. Scholarship, yes. Thinking skills, absolutely. But wisdom? Character? Many of the world’s wisest never set foot in a university.
Maybe, then, rather than wisdom 101, we should require of students a mandatory year spent, perhaps, among our own untouchables, the incessant walkers of inner-city streets.