Education versus Wisdom

Education – the theme of this issue – and wisdom are two entirely different things. We all want our children to get a good education, with the requisite diplomas and academic degrees added to their repertoire and their CVs. But will they find wisdom in their education?

Not necessarily. An even better answer would be: probably not.

Wisdom is a cache that is difficult to acquire. It’s ephemeral, obscure, and most often not included in a school curriculum. Let’s face it, how many times have you seen ‘Wisdom’ listed on a high school course roster? I thought so. Never.

We educate our children to the hilt, and that’s good. I know, because I have two grown and well-educated daughters – one a US attorney and the other a journalist and budding author – and their education has always been a priority. But, I ask myself, have they acquired wisdom yet? Probably not… or, at the very most, a limited amount.

Wisdom, I believe, comes with age. You learn as you go. Life experiences teach us what is wise and what is not.

Have you ever noticed the look of utter contentment and calm on the faces of the elderly? I believe it comes, at least partially, from wisdom. The wisdom of knowing what is worth worrying about in life and what is not. The wisdom of knowing when to let go of something or someone, and when to hold on… tight. In essence, the wisdom of knowing what is ultimately important in life and what is not. No one teaches us those things in school. One and one sometimes make more than two in real life; sometimes they make three or even four, depending on the circumstances. The mathematics of life don’t always figure.

One can indeed read about wisdom in all the writings of the classical and contemporary philosophers and other wise men and women who have been imparting the wisdom of the ages – for ages. One of my favorites is Marcus Aurelius, born eons ago, in 121 AD. A devoted reader, thinker and Roman emperor, he penned his Meditations, a gem of a book that graces my nightstand, when he was in his fifties – after a very hard life.

Marcus Aurelius, considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers, wrote his Meditations in Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement – “to sketch the essential traits of human character and describe ways of coping with adversity”. His “richly varied reflections are unaffected by time”, cites Gregory Hays in his own translation, and have been cited as the favorite reading of Frederick the Great, the Pope, Goethe, President Clinton – and me.

To quote two of my favorite inspirational passages from Meditations which speak loudly and clearly to my current life:

“Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”

And: “Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can – if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”

Wow. General education doesn’t even come close to this, in my estimation. If only Meditations, and other philosophical tomes, were required reading for every young student. Usually, only those that study philosophy at university – or seek it out privately for themselves, such as I did – are privy to such wisdom. Perhaps some clever high school teacher somewhere is indeed incorporating it into his or her curriculum, but I have a feeling that it’s a rare occurrence.

One such place is the School of Life in London, albeit for adults. This unusual school, which opened in 2008, offers a titillating array of courses to encourage people “to think about the big questions”. Categories include: Love; Nature; Utopias; Vices; Virtues; Bibliotherapy; Good Ideas; and even Play.

Specific courses include: How to Survive Your Family; How to Make Love Last; How to Stay Calm; How to Be a Good Friend; How to Be Wise About Money; How to Think about Death; How to Be Alone; How to Find a Job You Love; and How to Make a Difference.

The School of Life’s goal is “to challenge, provoke and inspire you to think deeply about the issues that matter most…”

Now that’s education.

Shirley Agudo
2010 Spring

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