Information versus Wisdom

Posted on May 26, 2019


Information versus Wisdom

Let’s think a bit grandly here this morning. Rather than politics, economics, the state of the world, or the state of anything—the media, gender, race, global warming, culture or society in general—let’s focus a bit on learning.

Learning is after all one of the keys to what makes us as humans. The other major factor is our DNA, our genes, what we commoners call nature. The first is commonly called nurture. So, we are made up of two factors, one controlled by nature and the other one by nurture, the circumstances of our lives after we are born.

We have little control over nature, although some scientists out on the edges of the science frontier are now tinkering with human DNA. This is not being received very well by other prominent scientists who don’t like the DNA practitioners playing God. We can alter cattle DNA to make a better cow, and tomato DNA to make a better tomato, but leave the DNA in humans alone. The counter argument is, “what if we determine the DNA is flawed and will produce an abnormal child, can’t we tinker with the DNA to make the fetus well, even before birth?”

Well, I’m not here to answer. Deeper thinkers that your local wordsmith will have to work on that one.

But, as an educator, I can sure address education today. And especially because it is through education that we pass down the best of our world and prepare our children and young adults in making a responsible future. And I mean education in the broadest sense, from parenting, teachers, pastors, coaches, anyone out there who has something to do with teaching others

My problem—simply put–is that our education system appears to be absorbed with information rather than how to use it, usually labeled wisdom.  My family physician, Dr. Steve Lovelady, and I were throwing around this problem a few days ago when I went in for my semi-annual physical. We both have grown children, grandchildren, and can observe very clearly that the younger generation is absorbed by their cell phone’s instant access to information, or data among the moderns. And I am not excusing myself from tapping away on my cell phone to access information, everything from the weather to the fire at Notre Dame cathedral.

But here’s the rub: information is not wisdom. What is wisdom? Wisdom is the ability to make good judgements of anything based on experience, knowledge and teaching.

All three—experience, knowledge and teaching—factor into the equation of what makes wisdom. Among Bible students, especially of the Old Testament—the distinction between knowledge and wisdom is made clear. The Hebrews were blessed by God as the “chosen people” and were often taught and informed by the prophets of this relationship, beginning with Abraham and given great impetus by Moses and others like Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.

So, the Hebrews had the information and knowledge, but they often chose not to use their wisdom to discern what was in their best interest. When Solomon, then king, was asked by God what he desired or needed, Solomon asked for wisdom to govern his people. And God endowed him with immense knowledge and wisdom.

We are not all Solomons, obviously. How do we obtain wisdom to govern ourselves and our world properly? God gave us a brain and a desire to learn and discern between good and evil, right and wrong, to do right and reject wrong and depravity, to behave with discipline and responsibly, and he also added joy and happiness to the equation. I know deep students of Scripture will be thinking, “well, what about evil, illness, Satan, etc. etc.” but let’s leave him out of the equation for the moment. He’s always there. We just need to invite him in when you feel tempted.

Now, to educate. At the college level, a “liberal arts” education was the classic curriculum. For you liberals and progressives and socialists battling conservatives today, old style liberalism had little to do with today’s politics associating liberal with the left or socialism, or to be even more simplistic, looking to the government to solve all the problems of mankind and “equalize” the playing field.

The “liberal arts” were not only humanities—English, history, philosophy, languages, etc.—and social sciences—psychology, sociology, history (its both), etc. but also mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc. A liberal arts program taught you both the facts–the information–but gave you a leg up on wisdom, or how to use it.

Another term familiar to educators is “critical thinking,” which roughly means how to use what you’ve learned.

Now, let’s get down to where the rubber meets the road. Today’s kids, from K through graduate school, have an almost bottomless fountain of information at their fingertips. Just watch those little thumbs tapping like mad when looking for answers. And they will find exactly why Julius Caesar exclaimed “Et tu Brutus” as the dictator expired under the knives of his enemies, and putative friends.

But why did they kill the man who helped make the Roman Empire and brought Rome to the pinnacle of world power in the Mediterranean-European world? What does power do to an individual? What alternate morals and laws and ethics exist for those who exercise power? Is power just a function of politics? How does power, and let’s add wealth to the puzzle, work on individuals in the private sector, like a John David Rockefeller or a Henry Ford or an Andrew Carnegie or let’s update it a bit, a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates?

You get the drift. These questions are not answered with a few taps on the keyboard. Why did we fight a Civil War between 1861-1865? To get rid of slavery is the simple answer. But one more complex and fascinating and demanding not only a knowledge or information, but some wisdom to boot: why was slavery accepted in the Bible if it was generally thought to be in the modern world an evil?

And education is under the gun today for creating liberal arts graduates who can’t get a job flipping hamburgers with their degree in history or English, when what we need are welders, plumbers, and engineers to design and build the next generation of space travelers.

We could on and on here. Is the globe really warming? And, if so, hasn’t this happened in the past? A friend of mine from the gym, David  , says—based on his thirty+ years in the petroleum and geology business, that the earth has gone through warming and cooling stages many times over the centuries, very little if none attributed to the mangling of the earth’s environment by man as today’s global warmers claim. You can’t google David for a quick answer. It is complex. It is determined by multiple issues crossing fields and specialties, going back millions of years.

A liberal arts education won’t catapult you into the best paying, most satisfying rung in the ladder of work. Take a minor in accounting or journalism to give you a hand. Take a summer job brick laying somewhere. I sold Fuller Brushes one summer in college and learned that I didn’t want to a door to door salesman, but I sure learned quite a bit about human nature that summer. Take a course in philosophy one summer if you are looking for something to do. I did. I didn’t become a philosopher or learn a lot about Socrates since it was a modern philosophy course about something like logical positivism, but as we wandered in and out of the worlds of philosophy, even if just touching on some, it taught me that there is a world out there which is important, and which I know nothing of, but should. Kind of like calculus. I always joke that I liked calculus (a requirement at Duke back in the 1960s) so much that I took it twice. But I learned to appreciate how complicated our world can be.

So, let’s not think that the information age has so vastly transformed us that we are nothing like our immediate ancestors—grandparents and the like—or long-ago ancestors who may have been chasing down game for tonight’s supper. Be like Solomon, not like some of the neer de wells who build idols out of wood and then worshipped them. Seek wisdom. Don’t be satisfied with a few keystrokes and Wikipedia. You all have the mind of God for we were, after all, created in his image. Use it.

Published as “We should seek wisdom, along with information,” April 28, 2019, in The Tuscaloosa News.

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