WISDOM: The Highest Aim of Life and Higher Education
“Thomas P. Johnson Distiguished Visiting Scholar” talk given by Copthorne
This evening I want to have a conversation with you about three things:
The plan for the evening is this: I’ll spend about 45 minutes presenting my thoughts on these topics. Then we’ll assemble the panel here on stage, and open the mikes for a general discussion. I’ll be using slides to illustrate some points and to mark the change of topics, but won’t be bombarding you with visuals. You may have had a chance to glance at the handout. It’s not intended to be a “follow along” document during the talk. Instead, its purpose is to help you further explore the idea of wisdom, should the talk stir your interest. It contains some material from the talk, plus pointers to other resources you might want to check out.
People have been interested in wisdom for a long time. In the East, we can look back to the Upanishads, the teachings of the Buddha, Confucianism, and Taoism. In the West, it began with a few Sumerian and Egyptian texts, followed by the Old Testament prophets, the Greek philosophers, the Christian gospels, and the theologians of the Middle Ages.
The views of wisdom presented by these writers differ in detail. But they are consistent in the idea that wisdom is desirable and, in some sense, superior to ordinary. In the 20th century — for reasons not yet clear — the term wisdom fell out of common usage. People used words like excellence, intelligence, cleverness, aptitude, proficiency, and brilliance that danced around the edges of wisdom, but they avoided the term itself.
For much of the 20th century, wisdom was also out of favor in academia. Despite the fact that philosophy literally means love of wisdom, as we've already heard, wisdom was not considered a suitable subject for scholarly study. That began to change about 1980, and since then reports on 36 wisdom research studies have been published.
Back in 1995 I started THE WISDOM PAGE at this simple address: www.cop.com. It’s an online source of wisdom resources. One item you can find there is a doctoral dissertation by Richard Trowbridge. It discusses all 36 of those studies, so if you happen to be interested in that, you might want to go there. Interestingly, one of the reviewers of the dissertation was Rollins’s own Karl Peters, for many years Professor of Philosophy and Religion here, and currently Professor Emeritus.
Interest in wisdom now appears to be growing in the general population as well as academia. During the past year the number of Web pages worldwide has grown by about 200%. During that same period, however, the number of Web pages containing the word wisdom grew by 1200% — to a present total of more than 170 million pages!
What is personal wisdom? Like stupidity, we know it when we see it. But because wisdom manifests in so many different ways, it can’t be adequately defined in a few words. Short dictionary definitions of it highlight some of wisdom’s characteristics such as “keen discernment,” “a capacity for sound judgment,” and “the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships,” but they don’t really get to the heart of the matter. Here’s my take on personal wisdom.
At every moment in our lives we face some Real-Life Situation, some fact-based reality. But what do those facts mean? And what’s the best thing to do about them? Wisdom answers the meaning question by looking at the situation from a variety of helpful perspectives. It answers the action question by bringing wise values into the decision-making process. There are many of these “wise ways of seeing,” and many “wise values.” In wise people these basic building blocks of wisdom combine in various ways to create an array of “wise attitudes” and “wise ways of being.” And because the mix of characteristics differs from person to person, each wise person’s wisdom has a distinctive character or “flavor.”
A key point is that personal wisdom is internal, embodied by persons. Words of wisdom arise from it. Wise behavior arises from it. Socio-Cultural wisdom arises from it. But wisdom itself is not its products. Rather, wisdom is a mode of cognition — one that couples relevant intellectual knowledge with some important perspectives, interpretations, explanatory frameworks, and values. As I see it, wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge that helps us make better sense of the rest of our knowledge.
Aristotle differentiated between two kinds of wisdom: practical wisdom, and existential/metaphysical wisdom. I would add a third variation on the theme: activist, change-the-world wisdom.
Life-centered wisdom is an information-processing modality — one in which everyday situations are evaluated comprehensively, from many different points of view. Howard Gardner wrote, “The defining characteristic of wisdom is the breadth of considerations taken into account when rendering a judgment or recommending a course of action.”1 Let me give you an example. In a particular situation Wisdom might ask: Will this work? What are the consequences? Does this fit with my goals? Is this part of the problem or part of the solution? Does this represent excellence? Is this fair? Is it right? Is action needed or not needed? — and possibly many others.
Big picture, existential wisdom is a variety that Eastern spiritual practices help to develop. Rational evaluation still plays a role in this form of wisdom, but rationality is not enough. That’s because the goal is insight into both the informational aspect of reality (that is, form and appearance) and the noninformational aspect (which has been called Being and Spirit traditionally, and I would use the terms Energy and Awareness). Eastern practices develop and harness the psychological modalities of intuition and identification. These modes of cognition potentially allow us to see beyond the transient to the eternal. Beyond Maya to Brahman. Beyond form to the carrier of form.
Activist wisdom starts with a well-developed foundation of personal wisdom. But the wise person who wants to change the world adds to that foundation an intellectual and experiential understanding of the world situation. Through reading and direct experience they explore the world problematique — that matrix of interconnected problems that the world faces. Wise Activists then focus on some limited part of it, and devote their time, energy, and wisdom to changing it for the better.
British philosopher Nicholas Maxwell has called wisdom “the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others.”2 The embracing of “high” or “superior” values is a hallmark of wisdom. High values have two roles in the lives of wise people. First, they can provide illuminating slants or perspectives on the data of life. Second, they guide the decision-making process.
A computer’s hardware and software work together to make the computer’s decisions and control its outputs. In similar fashion, brain processes and their values work together to make our decisions and control our behavior.
The brain is the hardware of our behavioral control system. The elements in red constitute the heart of the software. They work together to make our decisions. Information about the immediate situation is presented to the brain by our senses. The brain also has access to memories of other situations and other decisions as well as previously acquired knowledge and perspectives. At the heart of this process is our hierarchy of internalized values. In ways that we don’t quite yet understand, the brain takes these informational elements and arrives at a response to the situation — a decision to act in some particular way, or perhaps not to act at all.
Playing a central role in all this are the values. Roger Sperry, who many of you know won a Nobel Prize for his split-brain research, put it this way:
I would add a corollary: superior values, “the values of the wise,” produce superior decisions and superior behavior.
What are those superior values? There are many lists, and there is a document on The Wisdom Page that contains a number of them. Here, we’ll look at just one.
The self-actualizing and ego-transcending people that Abraham Maslow studied were wise people. And Maslow’s reports on their behavior and mindsets tell us a lot about the nature of wisdom and the values that underlie it. Maslow’s self-actualizers focused on concerns outside of themselves; they liked solitude and privacy more than the average person, and they tended to be more detached than ordinary from the dictates and expectations of their culture. They were inner-directed people. They were creative, too, and appreciated the world around them with a sense of awe and wonder. In love relationships they respected the other’s individuality and felt joy at the other’s successes. They gave more love than most people, and needed less. On the screen is a set of values that were central to their lives. Maslow called them the Being-Values, or B-Values.4
Wise values express themselves in wise attitudes and wise ways of being and functioning. Among the value-based expressions of wisdom that speak strongly to me, are:
(We don't expect our dogs to know everything. Why should we expect human beings to figure everything out?)
If you have questions or comments about one of these — or some other aspect of wisdom — I invite you to bring it up during the post-talk discussion.
One final word about values before we move on. In my comments about values I’ve been referring to a person’s deep down, internalized, operational values. These are not necessarily the same as a person's professed values. The internalized values reveal themselves in behavior. The professed values may exist only in words. To understand what values are really in control, we can work back from behavior — our own behavior and that of other people.
Pleasing to us or not, there it is.
Let’s switch our attention now to socio-cultural wisdom. Societal institutions — corporations, political systems, economies, NGOs — are purposeful entities. They exist to perform certain functions and to behave in certain ways. And that behavior is directed by values. Those values are typically a combination of
Some institutions were imbued with wise values at their founding, but were co-opted later. Among the drafters of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights were some very wise people, and that wisdom was reflected in the governmental structures they created. But they couldn’t anticipate every future happening, nor build into the Constitution every possible protection. As early as the 1860s Lincoln warned about the control that big money could exert over government. And that has clearly happened in the years since then.
Economies are another example. Economies were created as societal subsystems to provision people. Group A had more of some good than it needed, and it traded the excess to Group B for a different good. The provisioning function hasn’t disappeared, but today’s economies and their institutions have superimposed other purposes on top of the original one. Making a lot of money for a relatively small group of people has become the primary purpose; benefits to society are secondary. The economic tail now wags the societal dog.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Governments can be configured to serve the many instead of the few. And the original purpose of economies can be restored.
In my view, a wisdom-based society would be one in which many of the high values that guide the lives of wise people would also guide society’s institutions. Among those values would be truth, honesty, justice, cooperation, peace, compassion, universal well-being, creativity, and comprehensive knowledge. These values would be implanted into institutional systems in ways that insured, as far as possible, wise institutional behavior. And the institutions would be run in such a way that those values would be maintained on into the future.
To this point we’ve thought about the nature of personal wisdom and the nature of societal wisdom. We’ve looked at what wisdom is. Let’s look now at how wisdom is developed, and what role higher education might play in that process.
For some time now there have been calls for education to get involved in wisdom development. In his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher said:
A decade later, Nicholas Maxwell wrote a book entitled From Knowledge to Wisdom in which he makes the case that academia could greatly increase its value to society if it switched its focus from the search for knowledge to a search for wisdom. He proposed that scholars conduct what he called a “cooperative rational search for what is of most value in personal and social life.”6 Rational inquiry would continue as always, but its basic task would now be, in his words, “to help us develop wiser ways of living, wiser institutions, customs and social relations, a wiser world.”7
To change society is a massive and extremely challenging task. It is so massive and so challenging that most people shy away from attempting it. Niccolo Machiavelli (who I gather knew a thing or two about political reality) stated the problem this way:
Machiavelli makes sense. But then there’s Goethe’s equally sensible advice:
We know that many societal institutions and their leaders actively resist change. They are energetically dedicated to preserving the status quo. Among them are elected politicians, leaders of the corporate and financial world, and the mainstream news media. The major forces for change today can be found elsewhere: in the UN and many of its agencies, in the progressive governments of some European countries, in the alternative news media, and perhaps most importantly, in the NGOs — in the tens of thousands of nongovernmental organizations that have sprung up in recent years. Are the people involved in these efforts to change the world for the better being stupid to even try? Or are they expressing both courage and wisdom in addressing what they see as the essential task of our time?
Where do America’s colleges and universities stand in all this? I see a mixed situation. On the one hand, there are pressures to preserve the status quo. Among them are long-established standards for proper scholarly behavior, and entrenched ideas about what students should be taught. In some areas, on the other hand, there have already been significant breaks with tradition. I refer to the establishment of entire college departments that focus on aspects of the present human situation. At Rollins, for example, there are now departments of
This is all very much to the good, and students in these programs clearly benefit. But could institutions of higher education do more? Nicholas Maxwell and a growing group of kindred-spirited academics are saying that they could. They could not only teach about societal problems, but whole institutions could engage in a deep, rigorous, multi-disciplinary exploration of what might be done about them. Ideas would arise from students, from faculty, or from groups of both working cooperatively.
The most promising ideas would then be subjected to traditional scholarly scrutiny and criticism. The goal would be to reject unworkable ideas and, in Maxwell’s words, “discover those rare, complex, coordinated actions which permit everyone to benefit.”9 By doing this, institutions of higher education could go beyond being observers and teachers of what is going on, to become an effective force for change.
So much for generalities. What specific steps could a college take to promote socio-cultural wisdom? Let me suggest a few possibilities:
The best starter activity might be an open discussion among faculty and interested students about the core issues: Should we adopt a wisdom focus? And if so, How should we go about it?
Programs that already explore current societal problems, might increase their emphasis on possible solutions and next steps worth taking.
Where possible, course materials could be restructured in ways that help students understand the present human situation more clearly.
Earlier this year, in his introduction to the Faculty Day of Scholarship, President Duncan said: “We are the scholar teachers who must transcend the boundaries of our own specializations and move beyond the comforting domains of our own scholarly expertise.”
Society’s problems are inherently multidisciplinary, and they need to be approached in a multidisciplinary way. Could these very problems perhaps be an organic vehicle for helping Rollins scholars to “transcend the boundaries?” What if the College selected a “Problem of the Year” for a year-long multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary investigation? Possible topics might include:
Scholars throughout the institution would bring their perspectives and expertise to the task. And students would bring their interest, energy, fresh approaches, and penetrating questions. In single-discipline classes and multidisciplinary teams, teachers and students would explore aspects of the problem. Ideas for solutions that came out of these investigations would be subjected to group review. Through constructive criticism, the originators of the ideas would be helped to strengthen the viability of their proposals, and see any fatal flaws. The emerging basketful of ideas would be shared with the entire school at the end of the year — perhaps in a symposium, or an easily produced print-on-demand book, or both.
We’re going to move shortly to the development of personal wisdom, but first I’d like to touch on the back-and-forth relationship between the personal and the societal. It starts with personal wisdom. If a societal institution ends up being guided by wise values, it is almost certainly because wise people designed them in. So there is a creative movement from wise people to wise institutions. But it also works in the other direction. Wise societal institutions support and encourage the development of wisdom in individuals.
One reason why high levels of wisdom are not commonplace is that each person starts from zero. The potential for wisdom may be there in the genes, but its actualization is not quick or easy — let alone automatic. Wise institutions, on the other hand, carry their wise values from generation to generation. Clearly, the more of these institutions there are, the greater the influence they exert, and the greater their effect on the development of personal wisdom.
In the late 1990s there were meetings in Burkina Faso of a “Council of the Wise.” This was a group of people from different countries and backgrounds who wanted to foster the development of wisdom in African culture. A useful outcome of these meetings, and a good starting point for our next topic, was the identification of four levels of wisdom development.
POTENTIAL SAGES includes almost everyone. These are busy people who have the potential to become wise, but have never felt the call to intentionally develop wisdom themselves.
SAGES IN INTENTION have come to understand what wisdom is, realize that they have the potential to become wise, and have decided, as the Council put it, to “follow the path of their potential.”
DEVELOPING SAGES are actively involved in wisdom-development activities.
ESTABLISHED SAGES are those who are recognized by others as wise people.
My hope is that here at Rollins College and elsewhere, activities could be put in place that would allow many students to reach the SAGE IN INTENTION level, and perhaps some to reach the DEVELOPING SAGE level. Naturally, in a wisdom-fostering milieu, faculty members would be getting wiser too.
As I have come to understand it, we become wiser people in two ways:
Regarding influences, it would be extremely helpful if the nation’s mainstream culture was a wisdom-fostering culture — one in which every institution was dedicated to helping us become wiser. But it isn’t. That’s the bad news. The good news is that when young people go off to college they, to some extent, step out of the mainstream culture and step into another one — the culture of the institution they are attending.
Herein lies a great opportunity. What if the institution decided to weave into its culture various influences and practices that would help its students become wiser as well as more knowledgeable? In our rapidly changing and increasingly dysfunctional world, wouldn’t that be a good idea? Maybe even a necessary idea?
We’ll consider practices shortly, but let’s first look at the kinds of influences already at work here at Rollins College, and those that might be introduced.
There are already wise people on this campus: professors, counselors, and others. Students gravitate to their courses and seek out their counsel. And if Rollins should adopt a wisdom focus, there would eventually be more of them.
A powerful influence would be a course about wisdom that perhaps all students took. A Wisdom Basics, or Wisdom 101 course, that introduced students to what wisdom is, and how it’s developed. It would cover many of the topics I’m covering tonight, but would obviously go into much greater depth and detail.
Literature has a powerful influence on people. And I realize that in many literature courses the actions of fictional characters and biographical subjects are already being analyzed from a variety of perspectives. I’m wondering here if student wisdom — particularly interpersonal wisdom — might not receive a boost if the analysis of these lives was also done from a wisdom perspective.
As we’ve seen, personal wisdom involves a variety of perspectival slants on the data of life. Here let me say a few words about four of them and their relationship to campus resources.
We need to know our place in the universe. How can students develop the ability to look at their lives from this contextual vantage point?
We also need problem-solving skills — generalized skills that we can apply to any problem we encounter. They are taught in some disciplines, such as engineering, but many college students are never exposed to them in a systematic way. What might be done here?
Let’s move now to practices. Becoming clear about the values we want to make truly our own in a deep and powerful way is an important first step. But we then need to move those values from our head to our guts and our heart. In psychological terms, we must internalize them so they are not merely nice thoughts, but actually guide our behavior. Doing this takes effort, and during one of his trips to North America the Dalai Lama gave an example of what we need to do. He spoke to an audience about the need to develop that key value of wisdom, compassion. His advice to those who wanted to develop compassion was to put themselves in challenging situations and then, despite the natural reluctance to do so, behave compassionately.
By making the effort to engage in value-based action — again, and again, and again — we eventually internalize the value. Expressing the value in action gradually takes less and less effort until it becomes part of our outlook, part of our natural way of being, part of who we are.
The existing academic structure already helps students to practice some of the important values of wisdom. Examples include aspiration, honesty, diligence, responsibility, self-discipline, critical thinking, determination, completion, and truthfulness. The new Academic Honor Code that goes into effect this coming fall, and the enforcement mechanisms that go with it, are bound to further the process of moral development. Honesty, truthfulness, personal integrity, and moral conduct — often background issues — will be in the foreground of student consciousness much more of the time.
How about other important values of wisdom? What kinds of existing or new academic structures could be used to help students internalize them? Take courage and cooperation, for example. To help students develop new levels of courage, willingness to risk, and teamwork would it be appropriate to introduce group adventure or high wire activities?
There are many other practices that could be of value to students — stress reduction practices, body awareness practices, attention-development practices and others.
Here I’d like to focus on one particular practice. I have much personal experience with it, and it strikes me as germane to a wisdom-development program here at Rollins College. I refer to meditation — but meditation as a psychological practice, removed from any association with religion.
In my experience, and that of many other people, meditation is the single most powerful tool for developing wisdom. Ken Wilber noted that “Less than 2 percent of the adult population scores at Jane Loevinger’s highest two stages of self development (autonomous and integrated),” and he went on to say, “No practice (including psychotherapy, holotropic breathwork, or NLP) has been shown to substantially increase that percentage. With one exception: studies have shown that consistent meditation practice over a several-year period increases that percentage from 2 percent to an astonishing 38 percent….”10
Starting a meditation practice with five minute sessions, or 30 minute sessions, is often discouraging. That’s because, early on, the student doesn’t see much in the way of results. In my experience, the way around that problem is to start with a 7-to-10 day meditation retreat.
In our culture we fill our waking hours with discursive thinking. We think about the past. We think about the future. We plan. We solve problems. That’s fine. But it means that in our busy, buzzy, world our mind is almost always busy and buzzy. It’s a noisy mind, full of high-amplitude informational content.
This graphic might help get the idea across. At the left we have the usual noisy-mind situation. Pure quiet awareness is there as the substrate or the ground of mind, but it is modulated by a lot of high-intensity information — thoughts, sensations, emotions — much mind content. At the right, the graphic depicts the quiet mind. This is not sleep. The person is highly alert and aware, but the quantity and intensity of mental information is way down.
The transitional slope between one state and the other depicts what happens during the first 3 or 4 days of a meditation retreat. The key to going from a noisy mind to a quiet mind is not just to tell someone to stop thinking — it just doesn't work — but to pay attention to something subtle. Now why would that be? Because we can’t think discursively and pay close attention at the same time.
In a sense, the noisy mind is a habit. A quiet mind is a different kind of habit. It turns out that if we spend several days paying attention to subtle bodily sensations — like those arising in the nostrils when the body is just naturally breathing, and those arising in feet and legs when we walk — the mind gradually shifts from habitual noisiness to habitual quietude. It usually takes 3 to 4 days of diligent morning-to-night effort in a supportive environment to make the switch.
A week-long retreat would allow students to taste the benefits of meditation. A quiet mind not only introduces the practitioner to a profound inner peace, it also facilitates communication with the subconscious. This in turn leads to greater self-knowledge and greater creativity. Moreover, the high level of attentiveness, coupled with freedom from content overload, leads to a clearer understanding of how the mind works.
I discuss all this in my books Toward Wisdom and Matters of Consequence. And I’ve put some excerpts from those books on line. Again, check THE WISDOM PAGE.
Could a “Quiet Mind Week” be an option for students and faculty at Rollins College? I picture a small start with a few brave faculty members and a few brave students giving it a try. Perhaps this first trial effort could be structured as a psychology experiment. And that experiment might have a Web presence where retreatants could share their experiences. I realize that it would be difficult to work a week-long activity into the already full Rollins schedule. Would the week before classes start in the fall be a possibility? Or the last week of Christmas vacation? Or sometime in the summer? In any event, I strongly suspect that once the retreat option existed here on campus, and a few people had actually given it a try, word would spread and there soon would be others trying it.
WISDOM: The Highest Aim of Life and Higher Education. It’s the title of this talk, and from all I’ve said this evening I hope you have come to see the rationale which underlies that bold statement. In closing, I’d like to emphasize four points:
To deal with its many challenges, the world needs both wise people, and societal institutions guided by wise values.
Personal wisdom enhances both our enjoyment of life and our effectiveness in the world. It does this by making our understanding more comprehensive, and by putting superior values in control of our decision making. Societal wisdom facilitates personal wisdom and general well being.
The development of wisdom need not be left to chance. Wisdom can be developed intentionally, through exposure to the right influences, and involvement with the right practices.
Institutions of higher education can help create greater societal wisdom by doing what Maxwell suggests: shift the academic focus from knowledge to wisdom. They can also help their students develop personal wisdom by teaching about wisdom, and enriching the institution’s culture with wisdom-fostering influences and practices.
Thank you so much for your attention. We'll be moving now to the conversational part of the evening.