This week, I am pleased to share with you Melissa Schomers’ remarks on information, knowledge and wisdom, which were presented at The Gunnery on October 3, 2017. Ms. Schomers is a faculty member in the English Department and the Wallace Rowe Chair. Although her thoughts were initially intended for our students and faculty, I believe many adults who have too much “information at their fingertips” will find her words meaningful and relevant.
As a generation, you are bombarded by messages — I would argue more so now than ever before in history. These messages are fed to us through books, movies, advertisements, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, news outlets, our parents, religious leaders, friends, the list goes on — a slew of information. Through this bombardment, we are constantly presented with competing ideas, competing morals and competing ethics.
In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman writes about this information glut. He states that humans “proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning.”
Our bombardment would not be possible without the technology of writing, and while Postman does not limit himself to writing as a technology, he does begin with a parable about the invention of writing, telling the story of King Thamus of Egypt. Theuth is Thamus’s best and most skilled inventor, and in the following excerpt, Theuth has brought the invention of writing to Thamus and declared that it will be a “sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” Thamus disagrees, and contrasts Theuth’s excitement by highlighting the danger of writing, saying:
“Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence, be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”
Thamus surmises and Postman expands upon the very idea of true wisdom — that a quantity of information will lead to a false sense of knowledge and create the conceit of wisdom. Postman goes on, “[Thamus] points out, for example, that writing will change what is meant by the words ‘memory’ and ‘wisdom.’ […] he worries that wisdom will become indistinguishable from mere knowledge.” Essentially, Postman suggests we will lose our ability to discern the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom.
We live in an information age, with an endless supply of human knowledge and thought available at the click of a button, but I often wonder if we have entered into the very state of conceit about which Thamus warned. How do we take all this information at our fingertips and turn it into true wisdom?
You find yourself in a unique position, wherein you have 150 hours to study and learn about any subject, foregoing all else. Think of this as an immersive and intensive independent study. You may choose — as I might — to devote this 150 hours to literature. You may choose to study accounting. You may also choose to spend this 150 hours learning motorcycle repair or crockpot cooking. You don’t know that you will ever use this information again, nor do you know if it will, in fact, be of any use in the next year, let alone the next 10.
What would you choose?
The teachers in the room may be snickering a bit at this question as it represents something that is not nearly so hyperthetical, nor even hypothetical. As faculty at The Gunnery, we are expected to teach — in only 132 hours — all the required information to be knowledgeable, and dare I say wise, in a given subject.
Let’s take English as the example. Over the course of a year in my class, I have 132 hours within which to teach all of English: that includes writing (with its grammar, spelling, punctuation, rhetorical devices, etc.), reading (annotation, asking questions, identifying literary devices, etc.), and the history and connections of literature more generally (within which we might place historical context, details about the author, literary theory, allusions to additional texts which help you understand your current text, etc.), and I am to make this selection from all of written human history and spanning both a western and eastern canon.
If that task seems relatively impossible, let’s up the ante. I am required to do all of this with no knowledge, understanding or sense for what the future might be like, what skills we might need, and what instruction might lead to successful citizenship in the future. I must teach you all of these things, and again, all for this future world that I can’t fathom. As Chuck Klosterman writes in But What if We’re Wrong, this premise “requires a ‘successful’ futurist to anticipate whatever it is that can’t possibly be anticipated.” Klosterman’s argument is that we must expect the unexpected, and in expecting the unexpected must also expect that the most irrational or illogical conclusion will likely be the truth…that our own logical conclusions are inherently flawed because the premise from which we start is already wrong. For example:
Aristotle was wrong about why objects fall to the ground, but we held this false belief about gravity for nearly 2,000 years of human history.
Vincent van Gogh died without ever selling a single painting and now is one of the most famous representatives of the Post-Impressionist movement.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, was an utter failure during his lifetime, selling a measly 5,000 copies, and it is now considered one of the great classics of the Western literary canon.
Returning to Klosterman’s point and using his example of Aristotle and gravity, Aristotle believed that objects fell to the ground because that was their natural state. The fruit grew on the tree, the tree came from the ground, therefore the fruit will return to the ground. Logical, sure. For 2,000 years, we made logical assumptions based on that premise, but the premise was wrong.
Klosterman goes on, writing, “this is how the present must be considered whenever we try to think about it as the past: It must be analyzed through the values of a future that’s unwritten.” And that future world, he writes, is going to be “fundamentally unlike our present world.”
Let’s get back to the job of teaching, and remember, I am teaching to a future that will be “fundamentally unlike our present world” and in 132 hours I must impart all my information, knowledge and, perhaps even a bit of wisdom, to prepare you for a world that I can’t predict and for the value systems and beliefs of a future that’s unwritten!
How then, do I teach you to read?
How do I teach you to write?
How do I teach you to think?
How do I teach wisdom in an age of “information glut,” when anyone can be seen as an expert simply because they Google? And when I am preparing you for a future value system that has not yet been written?
My students hate when I ask questions and don’t have ready answers, so this time, I’ll try my best to offer up a solution. I believe that true wisdom comes when we are asked to consider difference, when we engage with perspective, and when we wrestle with the complexity of a given topic–understanding that issues are most often shades of gray rather than black and white. The trick is that we must do so freed from our own biases or beliefs, achieving a distance from our own notions long enough to immerse ourselves fully in the notions of others.
Ask yourself: Do I understand the philosophy being presented to me? And once you’ve reached understanding, is it a philosophy I could live by–forgoing my own personal beliefs in a given moment? The answer does not have to be strictly yes or no. We can agree with an idea 10 percent, and let that 10 percent make us wiser. We can also agree with 63 percent of what someone has to say and make that part of who we are.
Frederick Gunn spoke to wisdom and our ability to think beyond our current values when, according to The Master of the Gunnery, he wrote that one should “Cultivate your religious faculties diligently. Think boldly, fearlessly; never fear where unfettered thought will lead you. If you are induced to give up many of your present notions, to become a heretic, never fear nor stop, lest by halting from the pursuit of truth you lose your soul.”
We live in a society which operates by certain premises, but what if we find, as our abolitionist founder did in an era of slavery, that some of those premises are wrong? To that end, I would insert one small addendum to Gunn’s statement and ask that you cultivate all your faculties diligently–be they religious, spiritual, moral, ethical, intellectual. Cultivate your ability to see with perspective, your capacity to engage in discourse without discord, and if you find yourself moving counter to your present notions–becoming heretical, as Gunn says–cultivate the courage to think “boldly, fearlessly” in pursuit of truth.