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Can Wisdom Be Taught?
Roundtable, magazine, 1971. Publication of USC Chaplains Office.

"In the schools of antiquity philosophers aspired to impart wisdom. In modern colleges our humbler aim is to teach subjects." - A. N. Whitehead

"The whole value of history, of biography, is to increase my self trust, by demonstrating what man can be and do." - R. W. Emerson

Let us understand "wisdom" in the following manner: a person has wisdom provided that (i) he understands the certain and the probable sources of frustration and joy in his self, in his relations to others, and in his relations to his non-human environment, and (ii) he habitually utilizes this understanding in selecting those routes of thought and behavior which maximize the fulfillment of his total system of needs and wants. This understanding of "wisdom" harmonizes with the discussions of wisdom in both Eastern and Western philosophy. It is agreed on all sides that wisdom involves the direction of life by relevant knowledge, and thus, that it incorporates both a theoretical and a practical element.

Pretty clearly, some degree of wisdom, as just described, is greatly to be desired -- if not for one's self, at least for others. Parents fervently wish it upon their offspring, and others, beyond the stage of such wishing, tender it to the world at large in various forms and manners. The following was found inscribed (dated 1692) on the wall of old Saint Paul's Church in Baltimore, and is now sold on scrolls for the edification of all who have a dollar to buy it:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story .... Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism...Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass ... Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. . . . . .You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should... Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be; and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

The -- rather pathetic -- words of Polonius to his son Laertes, leaving "these few precepts in thy memory," no doubt owe a part of their special pull to the pervasive parental predicament involved in “putting the young on their own.”

...Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade.
Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy:
For the apparel oft proclaims the man; ...
Neither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend;
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all,--- to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

(Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)

Now I believe that these two samples of directives to wise behavior, in addition to containing a great deal of sound advice, also bring sharply before us -- in the triteness, presumption and dubious generalization which they contain -- the problems which many feel in the very idea of teaching wisdom. For surely, upon considering the matter, we all immediately realize the futility of spouting prescriptions of the above sort at people with the intent of bringing them to act with wisdom. Probably we realize it even when we engage in it. Moreover, most of us would feel a certain presumption in using exhortations of the above sort -- especially in the relation of teacher to student, as it nowadays is structured. And yet all of this does not, alone, show that wisdom, in some important sense, cannot be taught. Exhortation is not the only, nor the most effective, way of teaching; and it may be that principles of the good life could be taught in a manner not necessitating presumption in the teacher.

However, if wisdom somehow is to be communicated, though not via exhortation, how is it to be done? And is the manner of its communication such that the task would reasonably fall to our schools and universities? Certainly many parents do expect their children to be wiser as a result of a university education; and many universities give indications that their work is at least somewhat oriented to the meeting of that expectation. I quote the following impressive paragraph from page eight of the 1970-71 Bulletin of the USC College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences:

The program as a whole is designed to give the student a better understanding not only of the basic skills -- language as a factor in thought, emotion, and behavior; independent reflection and judgement based on the critical evaluation of facts and evidence; the methods of systematic inquiry and how they may vary with different fields; and the interrelation of the various fields of knowledge -- but also, perhaps more importantly, of the meaning and significance of values and the criteria of evaluation; of moral, religious, and aesthetic experiences and the role they play in the life of an individual and a culture; of the goals of self realization, personal integration, maturity, creativity; and of the nature and meaning of freedom in a democratic society.

Similar intimations of the wisdom to be gained in the curriculum at USC are to be found on page forty-six of this Bulletin.

But if we look away from these expectations and promises to the actualities of life in the academies, we will find little reality corresponding to the hopes. I have asked a number of faculty members at USC for their views on just who, or what parts of our program, at USC is supposed to be responsible for fulfilling the promises quoted above from the Bulletin. So far, I have found no one with any clear idea of how the result promised in the Bulletin is to come about, nor of what the individual faculty member's role is in the process. A large number of faculty members will frankly tell you that they will assume no role in procuring wisdom for their students. Their job is to teach classes in certain areas and to impress their professional peers. Clearly their view of the matter does not strongly clash with the views of university administrators who hire and reward them.

Nonetheless, it is this sort of unclarity and/or unwillingness in faculties which constitute the proximate cause of the present state of the universities -- described so aptly by Hans Morgenthau as follows:

The universities have provided us with mastery over nature, but they have been unable to give it meaning and harness it to human purposes. They claim to be dedicated to the disinterested search for truth about man, society, and the universe. But they have transformed themselves, through the very dynamics of their undertakings, into gigantic and indispensable service stations for the powers-that-be, both public and private. They serve society but do not sit in judgment on it. The student who enters the university with those questions about man and the universe--(stated earlier: What does a man live for? What is his purpose in life? What is the meaning of death, which appears to wipe out that life as though it had never existed? What, in short, is the truth about the human condition?) -- on his lips finds himself in the presence of an institution that, to paraphrase Tolstoy, is like a deaf man answering questions nobody has asked. The university pretends to be the mouthpiece of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But in actuality, in so far as what it presents as the truth is really true, it is largely irrelevant to what concerns man, young and old, and much of what it presents as truth is either not truth at all or truth only by accident, arrived at because it furnishes the powers-that-be with ideological rationalizations and justifications for the status quo.

(The N.Y. Review of Books, Sept. 24, 1970, p. 38)

It is not possible in this place to argue for the correctness of the above description of the current state of our institutions of higher education, nor, assuming its correctness, to analyze fully the more ultimate causative factors involved. Two such factors, however, should be mentioned here. The first is the dogma, uncritically accepted on almost all sides, that a person's well-being is a strictly subjective matter about which there simply are no objective truths to be sought out or taught. Then, of course, one should not attempt to instruct or deal with students concerning their values, but only assume that their values will be what they will be, washed into and out of the students by the ebb and flow of their environment.

The second causative factor which I will mention is this: The culture of which the universities are a (largely) uncritical expression has a bed rock conviction that you cannot rely upon the truth to direct people nor upon people to take directions from the truth. You do not simply allow or aid the truth to be fully known, and then let events take their course. Things might not turn out 'right.' One must have recourse to what Erich Fromm has called "this specifically human ingenuity; the lie." He continues:

Most of us are awakened, some more and some less brutally, to the fact that people often do not mean what they say or say the opposite of what they mean. And not only ‘people,’ but the very people we trusted most --our parents, teachers, and leaders.

(The Revolution of Hope, p. 21)

Now I do not say that our American culture is worse in this respect than others, but only that it is very bad. It also engages in a great deal of hypocrisy on this point. But, in any case, I think that one reason why the university experience is so irrelevant to wisdom in life is that refusing to deal with the issues of wisdom in contemporary life is a sure way of staying out of trouble with the culture which supports the university. To deal honestly and thoroughly with wisdom in contemporary life would inevitably turn out to be subversive of the world order in which we live-- or at least to some important parts of it. And no doubt there would be danger of some running distracted down the blind alley of so-called 'revolution.' So, given that our social order does not and cannot rely upon truth to direct human affairs, there is nothing left to rely upon except pressure (including brute force), 'treatment,' and exhortion. It is right for academics to conclude that these are not in their line of work, and to suppose it not their responsibility to deal in wisdom, if the transferral of the commodity entails the use of such means.

But in the cornerstones of university buildings across our nation are carved the words: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." "Free" was understood, in this context, to indicate, not political freedom or at least not primarily that, but rather the state in which one appreciably fulfills one's vision of the good life: a state to which knowing what goes on in and around oneself is a necessary but not SUFFICIENT condition. Truth known was viewed as an armament of the spirit against the would-be tyrants in itself and in its natural and social surroundings. And indeed, although there are important senses in which wisdom and virtue cannot be taught, the university which set itself to trade in humanly important truths of all sorts -- and not in certificates, images, prestige, and money alone -- may contribute to its student becoming wiser if not wise. For it could search out and teach objective truths--established as obtaining for large classes of human beings, if not all concerning the sure sources of frustration and joy in the human self, in social relations, and in man's relations to his natural environment. Surely this has always been some part of the university's task. Only in recent decades has it been down-graded or omitted. But current events have forced the university to reflect and teach concerning the wise and unwise relations of man to his natural environment. And it may be that this re¬beginning of wisdom in one quarter will soon lead us to deal with the person himself, and with his social relations, from the viewpoint of the wise and the unwise.

It is perhaps time to say once again that, considered as educating or teaching institutions, colleges and universities should have as ultimate aim to help students understand what are the possible and what are the preferable arrangements of the relations and activities in which they must or may spend the rest of their lives. A humanely responsible program of higher education would lead the student into a vivid awareness of what can be done in his probable life circumstances by intelligent cultivation and deployment of the physical, sensate, conceptual, emotional, social and moral powers of the human being. It should, thus, teach the truth, including the truth about how to get at the truth. Its only ultimate task consciously undertaken should be intellectual. But that would not mean that the task must be humanly trivial, leaving the student as much of a fool as he was to begin with. It would answer theoretical questions which human beings ask for the sake of living wisely. Were the university today to undertake such a task, it would find millennia of human experience ready to yield testable hypotheses. There are even some wise people -- in the sense stated above -- still alive today.

Of course, many of us who are responsible for the course of university events do not feel ourselves to be especially wise, and, consequently, may not wish to be associated with the pursuit and communication of wisdom as I have portrayed it here. Many other barriers stand in the way of reforming the current university along the lines suggested. If such reform were attempted, much would have to be worked out in the attempt, and there is no reason to suppose that the entire faculty would have to be involved in the reform. But there are, on the other hand, faculty members in this and other universities who could and would take part in such a reform. Administrative officers should seek out such faculty members who do this work effectively, and they should assign specific and testable responsibility for the realization in students of the sort of wisdom which USC promises in its College Bulletin. Or else they should take those promises out of the Bulletin. Administrative leadership in this matter is absolutely indispensable.

It may be that this university and others will never reform along the lines indicated above. In any case, it is now being sensed and said by many, that until they can take their place in a life which on the whole makes good sense, our larger and smaller textbook truths taught in Human Triviality 101 at 10:00 MWF have a questionable or accidental value at best, or just no value at all. What will be the university's response? Can it continue to scorn inquiry and discussion of those principles by which a person must live if he is to be accounted wise? Or can it show that there are no such principles? Or will society finally decide that the university really has, after all, nothing of vital interest to it?