David Brooks, Schools and Wisdom (Part 2 of 2)

Read part 1 of 2 here.

Brooks identifies “pattern formation” as the next step in educating toward wisdom. Wow, is this part difficult, for a variety of reasons. First, which patterns? Whose patterns? The same ideological power politics threaten this process that threaten factual acquisition. But the attempt to identify patterns within and across disciplines is a terrific and important intellectual exercise–a step up from learning information, it’s learning what to do with information, how to connect dots, how to ask evaluative questions, identify points of synthesis. This is where interdisciplinary study comes into play later on, as well as comparative politics, philosophy, religion. Brooks points out that pattern formation “can be done by a good lecturer, through class discussion, through unconscious processing or by going over and over a challenging text until it clicks in your head.” True. And also by having to respond in writing to a thoughtful question or prompt or by a well crafted group project assignment.

I particularly love Brooks’s reading example because I think it is one of the most difficult experiences for a teacher to make possible but is one of the most intellectually rewarding for students. At some point in the process of reading a difficult passage, whether a piece of literature (whether in a first or second language), a poem, or a scholarly essay, decoding comes down to the student and the text. The teacher or classmates can guide, can point out the pattern, etc. but the fruit of the experience of the student’s brain and resilience applied doggedly to, say, a passage from Dante or Locke or Toni Morrison or Faulkner or a geometry, calculus, or physics problem appears at that eurkea! moment when it clicks, when the student gets it. Her confidence grows, as does her enjoyment of learning–even her understanding of what learning means, looks like and can be like–not to mention she now knows more and is, perhaps, a little further down the path towards wisdom. The next passage will be easier not because it is less difficult to understand but because the student knows she can do it–has developed that muscle, both intellectually and in her spirit–and because she has developed an appetite for it–it’s fun. All of a sudden there are more patterns out there than we knew–in the classroom and outside of it–and we can make more sense of the world ourselves rather than relying on others to make sense of it for us. I’m convinced that not enough students have this experience before leaving high school. It’s empowering and enlivening and the exercise of school becomes much more evidently purposeful and full of meaning in its wake.

This–pattern formation–makes possible the next layer in Brooks’s path, “mental reformation. At some point while studying a field, the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing–how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.” Yes! Brooks simultaneously puts his finger on multiple things  here. This is the next step in intellectual maturation–for the student to realize she has learned a new language and way of seeing suggests both that she’s now better equipped to make sense of the world and her place in it in new ways, ways previously unavailable to her, and that she begins to develop the intellectual humility to do so. She can pull these intellectual tools out of her toolbelt to make sense of, say, an election, or a newspaper article rather than just reacting with a gut opinion. It’s at this point that the student may begin to realize that every gut reaction does not necessarily warrant attention, that truth should not be determined or defined solely or primarily by how one reacts emotionally to an idea or suggestion. It’s at this point that the student may be able to admit that their own idea isn’t the best idea, or is wrong, and change their mind. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Brooks writes that “At this point information has become knowledge. It is alive.” At some point along the way, certainly by this point, teachers have worked their way out of a job (with that student). The student has flown the coup, left the nest, which was the whole point in the first place.

And then, “Finally after living with this sort of knowledge for years, exposing it to the rigors of reality, wisdom dawns. Wisdom is a hard-earned intuitive awareness of how things will flow. Wisdom is playful. The wise person loves to share, and cajole and guide and wonder at what she doesn’t know.” Clearly Brooks thinks that wisdom isn’t available to the high school student. I agree. I’m more than two decades out of high school and am still waiting for that dawn. But the framework he lays out in just a few sentences sketches out nicely what the high-school level steps along the path to wisdom might include. Clearly, a great school provides a variety of experiences outside the classroom to contribute at least as meaningfully to attaining wisdom as these more typically classroom-oriented components. Among the necessary ingredients must be great faculty for whom being pilgrims on the path toward wisdom is part of their greatness, in addition to their pedagogical jujitsu. I commend our founder, Mr. Gunn, as a model for what this wisdom looks like in action, especially as a teacher and school leader. He embodied it in everything that he did, including his instruction to new teachers in the 1870s to make sure that they made school fun. The Gunnery’s motto, “A good person is always learning,” also jives with Brooks’s thesis–I think both Mr. Gunn and Mr. Brooks would like what they see us trying to do.

“The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom” Brooks writes in conclusion, “are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy. You can’t overleap that, which is what High Tech High is in danger of doing. ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ is inspiring because it reminds us that the new technology demands new schools…The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed. The rules have to be learned before they can be played with and broken.” Well said.