Can Wisdom be Taught?


“In the schools of antiquity philosophers aspired to impart wisdom. In modern colleges our humbler aim is to teach subjects.” – A. N. Whitehead
Is wisdom a characteristic of a person or is it a skill that anyone could acquire?  The idea of the wise person like Socrates or King Solomon has figured prominently in many cultures and suggests wisdom may be viewed as an individual trait.  Even when wisdom is viewed as learnable, people often think that wisdom takes a lifetime to acquire.  Both of these views of wisdom suggest that it cannot really be taught.  In this respect wisdom might be understood as similar to the way many people think about intelligence—you either have it or you don’t.

Pretty clearly, some degree of wisdom is greatly to be desired — if not for one’s self, at least for others. If wisdom depends on intelligence or knowledge, the classroom might serve as a kind of learning paradigm.  Indeed, we often talk about imparting wisdom to others and the importance of words of wisdom and Socratic dialogue could be viewed in just this way.  People seek wisdom through sage advice, and stories and fables are written to convey wisdom.  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.

Wisdom involves the interaction of cognitive processes with emotional processes and social values. Wisdom is the synthesis of knowledge and experiences into insights that deepen one’s understanding of relationships and the meaning of life. In other words, knowledge is a tool, and wisdom is the craft in which the tool is used.

‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers,’ wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Truths stay with a person for the rest of his or her life, colouring all subsequent thoughts and actions. Wisdom requires no law or threat of punishment to ensure compliance. The practitioner typically feels a strong compulsion to obey his or her own beliefs. The wise can still fall prey to indiscretions and questionable moral behaviour–being flesh and blood like us all–however, if one tracks such statistics, the odds of such failings are likely to be very small compared to the general populace.

Society esteems the wise for their virtuosity and for their rarity. Subject matter experts number in the thousands, but the wise may only number in the tens or hundreds. And history records their names and achievements for posterity’s sake.

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