In a world where our media are saturated by post-truths and false moral equivalents, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know who to trust or what to do in particular situations. When emotions and the strength of our opinions seem to count more than the accuracy of information, we urgently need an alternative course of social and educational action that is viable, sustainable and potentially accessible to all. One candidate is wisdom.
Conventionally, we think of wisdom as a special attribute. Wise people are usually elderly sages, visionaries or high academic achievers. They are rarely the person living next door, the young student in class or the factory operative.
Instead of an abstract idea or skill we can learn from books, websites and school lessons, I define wisdom as the quality of having the experience, knowledge and insight to think and act aptly in a specific situation for a particular purpose (Towndrow, 2015).
We enact wisdom rather than having it ascribed by others. Most often, it is necessary when dealing with an issue or solving a problem where there is more than one acceptable solution and more than one way of achieving it. To my mind, there is no wisdom at all in multiplication or factorising an equation.
In terms of practical or applied knowledge, wisdom is inherently contingent. It depends on people, times, places and events (past and present) to occur.
A Living Example
In 2010, Chilean engineers worked tirelessly to rescue miners trapped deep in a mine even though they were unsure how to proceed. They needed to take command but they also wanted to empower workers to innovate and experiment.
Time was limited, the terrain was difficult and dangerous, and no one knew if anyone underground was still alive. Urgent action was necessary because of the sanctity of human life. A world of onlookers was also hoping and praying for a life-saving breakthrough against the odds.
After careful consideration, the engineers authorised several drilling strategies to see which one would succeed first. This unconventional approach was successful. No one perished during that long ordeal and we can claim the engineers acted wisely, using their experience and specialised insights, in the face of the issues before them.
We might think wisdom is nothing more than common sense or general knowledge. It is not authoritative, and open to whimsy and speculation by the unscrupulous.
Yet, the wisdom about wisdom is what lies behind it. Broadly, the appeal to wisdom in public life prioritises many personal and collective attributes. These include (but are not restricted to) experimentation, and non-logical and atypical thinking.
Ultimately, I believe we need wisdom to prevail in our lives and actions for at least two reasons.
- Wisdom is a way to demonstrate our understandings of concepts, people and things. Not everything we do needs to be grand, overt or obvious. Sometimes, wisdom can be unpretentious, implicit and even silent.
- When wisdom proliferates, it allows us to rethink issues relating to the distribution of expertise in institutions, organisations and society. While we might defer to masters, chiefs and heads because of their positional authority, that does not automatically disqualify others from also having specialised knowledge in a particular field of practice. We need to look and consult more widely so as not to miss or ignore a wise voice or action.
While I propose a different view of wisdom, I know it does not fall from the sky freely. Wisdom, in a crucial sense, gives rise to itself in situations where there is an openness to alternatives rather than fixed ideas. It thrives on debate and dialogue, and a quest for meaning making where understandings are not readily available. The question is: Do we have the courage and discernment to act wisely and teach wisdom to others for the benefits it bestows in the end?
Towndrow, P. A. (2015). Wisdom as an outcome of critical thinking in the school curriculum. Beyond Words, 3(1), 1-12.
Dr Phillip A Towndrow is a Senior Research Scientist at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His interests include the educational uses of new media in society, teachers’ professionalism and English language learning.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.