Understanding Wisdom

What is wisdom? What does it mean to be a wise person or community? What does it mean to live wisely? How do we develop, evolve, and connect our diverse wisdom traditions and institutions? How has factory-schooling contributed to the construction/destruction of wisdom?

In this issue of Vimukt Shiksha, we ask you to think about the various meanings of wisdom; the role (if any) that wisdom should play in Indian communities in the 21st century; and, how we should transform our current educational goals, processes, relationships and spaces to re-generate wisdom.

Editor’s Note

“At present there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom. More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.”

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (1973)


In Search of Wisdom

It would seem that ‘modern society’ currently has no time for wisdom. Indeed, there are many individuals across the globe who might be so bold as to ask whether, in this world of hi-tech instant self-gratification, we even need wisdom anymore? They would argue that traditional wisdom has been a barrier to ‘modern progress’, particularly when their visions of progress prioritize the logic of new consumer markets and unbridled profits, nuclear weapons, human cloning, satellite television, polluting factories, Western consumption/waste levels, pragmatic corruption, etc. Much of 20th century development work has, in fact, been premised on removing this ‘barrier to progress’ by ‘eradicating’ traditional cultures, knowledge systems, and governance systems, and by ‘civilizing’ the ‘backward’, ‘ignorant’, ‘irrational’, and ‘illiterate’ masses.

Factory-schooling — in privileging so-called rationalistic, scientific, practical, and economic thought and devaluing/discarding other ways for perceiving, knowing, expressing, understanding, and relating — has been a primary vehicle for carrying out this destructive mission in India. Our modern education system has given no respect or space to local wise persons, wise languages, wise customs and wise institutions that have existed (and continue to exist) outside of the framework of formal/non-formal schools in India. We have not yet been able to lift the curse left by Lord Macaulay’s legacy in which he refers to studies in Sanskrit and Arabic as “absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, and absurd theology” (Minute on Education, 1835).

In post-Independence, there has been no explicit mention of the need to build pro-wisdom learning environments in any of our national education policy reports. Though, there have been many indirect references to the crisis of wisdom. For example, the National Policy on Education (1986) has called for “the existing schism between the formal system of education and the country’s rich and varied cultural tradition to be bridged.” The well-known Yashpal Report (Learning Without Burden, 1993) points to a breakdown of wisdom by stating that “a lot is taught but little is learnt or understood” in India’s schools. And even the 1999 PROBE Report describes “There is an implicit bias of curriculum makers and book writers that the village poor are ‘ignorant and illiterate’ and therefore need to be told how to conduct their lives ‘properly’.” But alas, in the end, all of these reports sink back into recommending an increase in funds, facilities, teacher training, enrollments, retention, literacy rates, competencies, and achievement scores. And factory-schooling not only continues to undermine our diverse wisdom traditions but also to promote a world of fragmentation, alienation, competition, superiority/inferiority, dependency, short-term selfishness, cynicism, purposelessness, and ultra-consumerism.

Growing pockets of people throughout the world, however, have begun to realize that we urgently need something (radically) different, but what is that something different and how to develop it? They understand that it is absolutely necessary that we start thinking again about how to create new wisdom frameworks in communities if we are to truly work towards peaceful, just, and sustainable people-centered development(s).

In our search for wisdom, we must begin by acknowledging that there exist many different understandings of wisdom ranging from the psychological to the moral, from the specific to the universal, from the practical to the mythical/spiritual. There are also many different spaces, times, and experiences (stories, songs, dances, games, festivals, work activities, health practices) for inheriting, generating and sharing wisdom. These rich and diverse understandings and spaces contribute to dynamic learning processes which enable us to become more fully human – processes for developing our individual and collective reflectiveness, creativity, sensitivity, and social responsibility; for dealing with the inherent ambiguity, messiness, complexity and sometimes absurdity of life’s turns and twists; and for participating in humanity’s struggle for greater meaning.

The momentous task of consciously thinking about and generating dynamic new wisdom frameworks, however, is not exclusively for our male elders, for religious fundamentalist groups, for swamis/sadhus, for philosophers, or for tribal peoples untouched by modernity. We believe that it is healthy and necessary for those involved in education to debate these various definitions and to develop their own working understandings of wisdom which are appropriate to their specific contexts. We invite you to participate in this process.

Library Books Knowledge Historically Education


Wisdom ‘Capital’

[Adapted from Claire L. Gaudiani, “Wisdom as Capital in Prosperous Communities” in F. Hesselbein, et al., eds., The Community of the Future, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.]

The term “capital” is often associated with purely economic ideas of profit, efficiency, and material wealth. Gaudiani challenges us to see the notion of “capital” in a larger context as something that adds value to the well-being of a community.

For two hundred years, since the Industrial Revolution, we have spent capital to build societies. Through the 1950s, capital meant only cash. In the 1960s, economists urged us to treat “human capital” as an asset to be nurtured for profit. In the 1980s, sociologists noted that communities needed “social capital,” or a sense of belonging. In the mid-1990s, Lester Thurow declared that knowledge, or “intellectual capital,” was a community’s most important resource.

But this vision was still incomplete. We had overlooked the most important kind of capital, the kind that underlies communities just as a foundation keeps a great building from toppling. This fourth form is wisdom capital – the available store of thought collected over thousands of years that calls us to live in ways that sustain the well-being of others. In a time of growing change and complexity, without wisdom capital and the values it sustains, we cannot have strong and healthy communities.

Wisdom capital is not dispensed by any treasury. It is the product of wisdom traditions where it is still vital. Those traditions are handed down through stories retold from age to age, whether written or unwritten. They are stored in texts like the Bible, the Koran, the I Ching, and the writings of Confucius, Plato and others.

Uninformed by the wisdom tradition, data, information, knowledge, intellect, expertise, strategies, and even family or social groups can be organized to exploit, degrade, or violate. Wisdom capital is a community’s common ground. It is the basis for negotiating the goals of individuals vs. the community. It leads to trust, respect, and commitment to work together within and among communities.

A few suggestions for building wisdom traditions and applying them to our lives:

– Cynicism is the great enemy of future communities. Make every sacrifice necessary, both in good times and bad, to sustain community members’ faith in the core values found in the wisdom tradition.

– Make learning and teaching an ongoing part of the community’s life. Develop opportunities for the community to learn and develop wisdom traditions as expressed in diverse cultures. Give community members the chance to express their own personal relationships to and experiences with the traditions, and to share these with each other.

– Create teams to document and teach local history in interesting ways, using the expertise of local historians, village elders, and storytellers.

  Facilitate the development of communication skills like conflict negotiation and mediation, listening, collaboration, and team building among all members of the community. *

What is Wisdom?

To define Wisdom is a task that may require more wisdom than any of us have. Nevertheless. . .

An intellectual, moral, practical life; a life lived in conformity with truth, beauty.
[Ancient Greeks]

What men call knowledge, is the reasoned acceptance of false appearances. Wisdom looks behind the veil and sees.
[Sri Aurobindo]

Wisdom is the accumulation of deep understanding about our experiences of being human: knowledge about the mind, its capacities and delusions, the pains and strengths of the body, and the joys and sufferings of the heart.
[J. Rozhon, The Wisdom Conservancy]

Exceptional understanding of ordinary experience.
[D. Kramer*]

A smooth and balanced dialogue between two sets of attributes; outer, objective, logical forms of processing (logos) and inner, subjective, organismic forms (mythos).
[G. Labouvie-Vief*]

Includes characteristics of reflective judgment such as an exceptional intellectual ability and willingness to recognize the limitations and uncertainty of knowing, to consider how this impacts solving “thorny” or ill-defined problems, and to formulate sound, executable judgments in the face of this uncertainty.
[K. Kitchener and H. Brenner*]

A balance between the opposing poles of intense emotion and detachment (affect), action and inaction (will), and knowledge and doubts (cognition). It tends to increase with experience and therefore age, but is not exclusively found in old age.
[J. Birren and L. Fisher*]

Your Definition:

[*Source: Sternberg, R., ed., Wisdom, Its Nature, Origins, and Development. Cambridge University Press, 1990.]

How Psychologists (are trying to) Understand Wisdom

“The recognition that total understanding will always elude us is itself a sign of wisdom.”
[R. Sternberg]

Wisdom has been a much discussed topic by philosophers and theologians throughout the ages. In Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development (1990), edited by Yale professor of psychology and education Robert J. Sternberg, a group of Western psychologists seek to open up this discussion by presenting a number of different frameworks for thinking about, analyzing, and even measuring wisdom. Underlying their essays is a mix of historical, philosophical, folk, and psycho-development understandings of wisdom. The authors use a variety of research methodologies based in developmental, cognitive, social, personality, and educational psychology to try to better understand some major component processes of wisdom: the development of wisdom, the traits of wise people, and the products that result from wisdom.

Some of the authors seek to understand the development of wisdom by separating it out by the different ingredients that, when blended together in the right proportions, produce a sort of recipe for wisdom. Others try to understand wisdom by differentiating it from conceptions of intelligence or creativity. Most of the authors see the development of wisdom as an integration or balancing of two opposing aspects of personality – the cognitive and emotional. Wisdom thus brings together previously separated processes of logical knowing with uncertainty and reflection. To these processes, some authors add the dimension of volition, that is, a willingness and motivation to act on certain information.

Another avenue for the study of wisdom lies in the identification of persons who are sought for advice and presumably display the behavioural traits or patterns that are characteristic of wisdom or wise people. This angle is appealing to those who believe that wisdom does not exist in a vacuum and cannot be viewed apart from human beings. L. Orwell and M. Perlmutter suggest that a wise person is not only smart, but also has a highly developed personality structure that enables him/her to transcend narcissistic personal needs, thoughts and feelings and reach a certain level of detachment. Some characteristics of a wise person — empathic, exceptionally understanding, and open to change – are shared among the various authors.

We can also look at the products of decisions as another way of understanding wisdom. Wisdom presumably allows us to make good decisions at the individual and societal levels. In this respect, M. Csikszentmihalyi and K. Rathunde frame wisdom as a virtue providing a compelling guide to action. They see wisdom to provide a major mechanism of cultural evolution and an alternative to extrinsic rewards based on pleasure and materialism. On a more individual level, D. Kramer suggests five highly inter-related functions of wisdom that appear in our daily life: to resolve dilemmas and make decisions in one’s own life; to advise others; to engage in the management and guidance of society; to carry out one’s own life review; and to question the meaning of life. P. Arlin argues that we cannot understand wisdom simply by looking at the results of specific decisions or solutions. Before we can reach the right answers, we must first formulate the right questions. According to Arlin, wisdom is closely related to “the art of problem finding.”

A number of authors also suggest that the human elements of traits and states are not enough to create wisdom, and that we also look at context when we consider whether or not to qualify actions or decisions as wise. For example, J. Meacham argues that many life experiences (including over-accumulation of information, success, and power) or atmospheres (such as today’s atmosphere of rapid technological and cultural change) can be extremely threatening and damaging to wisdom. Only a “wisdom atmosphere of supportive interpersonal relations” caters to building the personal strength necessary to “engage in confident and wise action even when in situations of doubt.”

In their conclusions, the authors themselves admit that their explorations of the topic of wisdom are at an early stage. The subject of wisdom is complex and elusive and merits much more thought and research.

An Age in Need of Wisdom

Kishore Saint

“When cleverness is bliss, it is foolish to be wise.”

We live in an age afflicted by deep and disturbing ambiguity and indifference towards wisdom. Unparalleled achievements in science and technology, as well as ever more advanced accumulation, access, and exchange of information, have made us ignore our deeply rooted wisdom traditions. Exploring different understandings of wisdom may help us think about how to re-link education, development, and governance with wisdom for the 21st century.

Indian Wisdom Traditions and Definitions

Traditionally, wisdom has been considered a quality of the human mind marked by clarity of perception, depth of insight, holistic vision, and succinct, meaning-full expression. Though based in innate human faculties, wisdom is cultivated through experience and cogitation. As such, wisdom can become a correlate of age, giving rise to wise old persons (“siyana” in northern languages means both age and wisdom) and “wisdom of ages”.

As expressed in the Punjabi saying, “Padhya nain par gunya hai” (s/he may not be literate but is rich in virtues), one need not be schooled to be wise. “Gunya”, derived from “guna”, means quality or virtue. A wise person is endowed with special gunas and may be referred to as a “guni.” Traditional healers of physical, mental, and social disorders are one such group of gunis.

Alongside gunis and sages exist diverse wisdom structures. These range from traditional councils of elders, panchayats, sanghas, and craft guilds to modern legislative bodies and professional associations. Each group has its own collective wisdom, codes of conduct, accreditation, and adjudication. Living in wisdom happens when and where coherence is achieved between these groups and the rest of the society, as in the case of ethnic communities or areas influenced by ethical enlightenment and devotional movements. Examples of these can still be found in Ladakh, amongst groups like the Bishnois of Rajasthan, and in tribal areas.

A more abstract concept of wisdom in the Indian tradition is expressed in the Sanskrit word “Pragna”. This is distinct from “gnan” (knowledge) and “vignan” (science). According to Isopanishad, gnan and vignan are forms of ignorance or darkness if adhered to reductively. Pragna is wisdom with divine and cosmic dimensions. The search for and growth towards Pragna involves austerities and discipline, experience and endeavor, learning and knowledge, faith and devotion, but its ultimate realization/revelation comes through a Guru and/or with divine grace. According to the Bhagwad Gita, being situated in Supreme Wisdom — Sthitpragna — is the highest purpose of human incarnation.

In addition to scriptures and literary classics, traditional wisdom finds expression in proverbs, folklore, legends, poetry, and songs. The narratives of the wise are laced with these expressive forms and are passed on informally through the generations. They provide listeners with multiple layers of insights and guidelines for action, behavior, and relationships in the natural, social, and cosmic fabrics. A doha (couplet) of the Hindi poet Rehman illustrates this well:

Rehiman Paani Raakhiye Bin Paani Sab Soon
Bin Paani Na Ubre Moti, Maanas, Choon.

(Rehman says conserve water; without it all is barren.
Neither pearls, spirit, nor lime can be formed or livened without the precious fluid of life.)

Modern Thinkers on Wisdom

Erik H. Erikson, an important figure in contemporary western psychoanalysis and human development, is amongst the few who have given serious attention to wisdom as one of the “inner strengths” of human beings. Erikson defines wisdom as “detached concern with life itself in the face of death itself.” He also believes that “while each generation owes to the next that strength by which it can come to face the ultimate concerns…each generation must find for itself the wisdom of the ages in the form of its own wisdom.” Erikson’s reflections on wisdom combine western psychoanalytic understanding of the finite condition of human beings with eastern meditations on the infinite and divine aspects of the spirit.

The thinker and economist E. F. Schumacher also accorded high value to wisdom. He realized that “materialist scientism”, the command ideology of our times, cannot address the nature or purpose of human life. Answers have to be sought in the wisdom of ancient religious traditions with their recognition of the spiritual, social, and personal dimensions of human nature. The purposes and tasks of human life are to discover and live in truthfulness to self, to the society, and to the divine in an ascending order.

Gandhian Wisdom

Finally, and inevitably, we come to Gandhi whose observations, advice, and life give us the guidelines for wisdom in our age. In Hind Swaraj, he categorically declares to his questioner-critic that he will fully dedicate himself to the cause he defends so assiduously, viz. the freedom and reconstruction of India in accordance with her own civilizational genius. With this in mind, he initiated the Constructive Work and Basic Education movements. Constructive work included Hindu-Muslim unity, khadi and village industries, Panchayats, and removal of untouchability. All constructive work programmes were premised on the principles of “Swadeshi” or self-reliance, the mutual aid and tolerance in locality- and occupation-based human communities. Basic education too was founded on “wisdom and charity” as the prime human strengths to be cultivated through “creative activity, unselfish cooperation in living, and intellectual curiosity.”

For Gandhi’s wisdom to turn into action requires dedicated, and highly competent “lok sevaks” or peoples’ servants relying on the communities in which they live for sustenance. This Gandhian concept of grassroots community work aims to revitalize and transform the social milieu through education, organization, and social action. It is guided by principles of justice, tolerance, and cooperation. At the same time, the socially wealthy are expected to hold wealth in trust for the community. The wealthy should work towards facilitating the transition to community ownership and self-management in a sustainable, non-destructive, and non-exploitative manner. This non-violent approach ensures social justice without the coercive power of the state.

Living Without Wisdom

Yet, while the Gandhian vision continues to be the conscience of the Indian people, it has long been abandoned in practice. What prevails in education, development, and governance are the not-so-efficient and partially successful imitations of the global development thrust– geared towards maximizing private gain for the few in power. From time to time the conscience-keepers raise alarms about the sustainability, fairness, and quality of these systems. There are local protests and even innovations for redirection guided by ecological and ethical wisdom. These efforts receive momentary support and attention, but are invariably marginalized or co-opted in due course.

How do we explain the rift between knowledge, sciences, and technology on the one hand and wisdom on the other? Why does our age place the wise ones on high pedestals and then ignore or pay only lip service to the principles of prudence, love, and care which they represent? Why does our living continue to exhibit St. Augustine’s confessional insight, “The good I should, I do not; the evil I ought not, I do,” or Duryodhana’s self-reflection, “I know Dharma, but I am not inclined to it; I also know Adharma, and I am not averse to it?”

We must first search for answers deep in our personal selves. We need to try to understand and redefine the essence of human nature, the purposes of human life, and the present human condition. These personal reflections, insights, and feelings can be shared and clarified with others in a spirit of genuine dialogue, listening, and learning; in short, a growing together in wisdom.

Eventually, those who have the courage and competence must take this spirit of inquiry to the public spaces and fora of the prevailing systems of education, development, and governance. This is what the ancient seers Buddha, Mahavir, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed, and Guru Nanak, amongst countless others, did in their own times and ways.

We can only assume and hope that our generation still feels the need to find its own wisdom. As this yearning for wisdom intensifies and reveals the deep-rooted distortions in human consciousness, an enlightenment may come about, revitalizing the will to change the current market-mediated, greed-driven, and destructive patterns of human living.

Shri Kishore Saint is with Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal (Udaipur, Raj.) a voluntary organization that aims to promote sustainable and people-centered development among Bhil tribals. He has extensive training, background, and experience in education, ecology, and development.

Wisdom: A Casualty of Indian Schooling

Dayal Chandra Soni

In this article, the author discusses how Gandhiji’s Basic Education is linked to wisdom. In the process, he challenges us to rethink our definitions of whom we call an “educated” person and whom we call an “uneducated” person in today’s society.

At first thought, it seems to me that wisdom has a very practical side which is tied to our various everyday life experiences — whether in the fields, the market, the family, or elsewhere. A wise person is one who has learned (internalized) useful lessons from his/her right and good actions as well as from his/her wrong and bad actions. S/he has also learned from other people’s right or wrong actions and the results thereof.

Such processes give birth to a natural system of education. In this dynamic learning process, the younger generation typically assumes the role of learners and the elder experienced persons assume the role of a guide, counselor, or facilitator. But the new generation not only inherits this wisdom; they also add to the collective wisdom base, making it richer and deeper. This process of inheriting and refining wisdom has gone on from generation to generation. This is how common or practical wisdom has evolved in human society through the ages. But that is not the only mode of wisdom. Wisdom also has a higher level.

Differentiating Wisdom

We often use the word wisdom in ways similar to the ways we use the words knowledge, prudence, logic, intelligence, etc.. But, when we think about how the word wisdom differs from these other notions, we find the task difficult. Yet, for those who are concerned about quality-education, it is important to understand the difference between wisdom and these other words.

To my mind, while intelligence, prudence, logic, or knowledge might allow us to cater effectively to our personal or partisan interests, the role of wisdom goes beyond such narrow interests. I believe that the role of wisdom is to harmonize the individual’s well-being with that of the whole world, including not only all other living beings but also the natural environment which sustains all vegetation and all living beings.

Human life is different from the life of animals since human needs do not end at mere physical well-being. There is no question of moral upliftment or moral degeneration in animal life because animals are not conscious of any soul or any conscience within themselves. A human being, on the other hand, is conscious of his/her soul. Unless s/he faces his/her conscience and seeks to be in harmony with his/her soul within, s/he cannot lead a peaceful and contented life — even if s/he is bodily strong, financially rich, full of knowledge, and enjoying ruling or governing power over others.

The soul or the conscience residing in each one of us is the embodiment of God in human heart. God pervades the whole universe or the cosmos, excluding nothing and including everything — it is our conscience that enables us to see ourselves in all others. Thus, our conscience within becomes our main source of wisdom as wisdom lies in following and not violating our conscience. In this manner, wisdom can be viewed as a self-discipline that ultimately translates itself into a faith. In situations of crisis, this faith gives us the strength and courage to take crucial decisions against mere reasoning, or worldly self-interest.

Productive Work and Wisdom

In my view, education is ultimately a process which seeks to convert all intelligence, all knowledge, all skills, and all interests into wisdom. Now, if we judge the prevailing system of Indian education on this criterion, we shall find that the present system of school-education in India does not allow students to learn from their own experiences. A pre-determined curriculum or syllabus binds the teacher as well as the students. Schools do not promote searching, critical thinking, or questioning. Without these, the spirit of inquiry and creativity – which are the sources of wisdom – do not develop. Thus, wisdom is a casualty of the present Indian system of education as planned and established by the British Raj.

Awakening or promotion of wisdom requires the development of self-reliance and self-confidence. Such self-reliance can be inculcated only when a student practices some life-sustaining productive work with his/her own hands. It should be clarified at the outset that productive work is not only for the poor to learn — it must be an integral part of all children’s education, including the children of the rich elite.

By actually doing something with one’s own hands to produce some useful things which are required to sustain life, one will have the opportunity to attain wisdom by one’s own work experience. Secondly, if one cannot work with one’s own hands to sustain oneself in an individual capacity, one will be obliged to blindly obey bosses and managers and surrender one’s conscience to them. One will not have the courage or fearlessness to risk losing even an immoral job. Thus, though wisdom seems to be an abstract thing, it depends on the concrete ability to work with one’s own hands in order to gain firsthand experience of life and to sustain oneself in an individual capacity without depending on being employed by other people or organizations. According to this concept of wisdom, even an unschooled and illiterate person who is engaged in practical, productive work is better ‘educated’ than the present day schooled and literate person who cannot do any life-sustaining work with his/her hands.

The colonial British government deliberately planned the present school system to produce servile Indians, and let us admit that the system has largely succeeded in producing such

individuals. Mahatma Gandhi was aware of this anti-wisdom system of education established in India by the British government, and in 1937, he suggested that productive work with one’s hands must be made the backbone of all education before universalizing education in free India. When Gandhiji was asked why he did not recommend moral wisdom as a subject to be taught in schools, his reply was that the productive handiwork itself, which he prescribed as the nucleus of his educational plan, would take the form of moral education.

Towards Educational Transformation

When India achieved Independence from the British Raj in 1947, the strong and influential elite class saw to it that Basic Education as conceived by Mahatma Gandhi did not replace the colonial educational system in free India. The elite class wrongly defamed Basic Education as a form of exploitation of child labour.

But look at the result of continuing and expanding the same education system which we inherited from the British Raj. Individuals produced by this schooling system do not have the spirit of inquiry that would make them self-motivated learners. They are not interested in inheriting the wisdom contained in their local languages. And, they are not self-reliant enough in their livelihoods to be able to stick to their conscience and remain free from the rampant materialism, selfishness and corruption that we are facing today in our society. Today, our work ethic has deteriorated so much that our country is on the brink of financial bankruptcy and our political independence is being undermined by the so-called ‘developed’ nations.

So, the crucial question that faces us today is whether we can do anything even now to re-orientate our educational system towards inculcation of wisdom in the so-called ‘educated’ citizens of the country. In my opinion, the principles underlying Gandhi’s Basic Education are still relevant. They can open up many potential avenues for creative action and critical thinking giving birth to wisdom and the capacity to stick to one’s conscience.

For example, one small step in this direction could be dropping out the study of English language from our elementary education and introducing a productive craft as the core subject instead. Even this small change can begin to catalyze the learners and their teachers in again respecting and deriving wisdom from their own local cultures and from their practical work experience.

Shri Dayal Chandra Soni is currently affiliated with Gandhi Smriti Mandir Samiti in Udaipur. He has been involved in the field of education for over 60 years, including serving as former principal of Vidya Bhawan Basic School. He has also worked with Seva Mandir on a literacy campaign for rural areas. He has written more than 300 essays and published around 25 books on basic education, non-formal education, adult education, and women’s education.

What are the traits of a wise person?:

Perspectives of Psychologists

Empathic, reflective [M. Csikszentmihalyi and K. Rathunde].

Overall competence, good judgment, communication skills, sees things in large framework, exceptional understanding [M. Chandler].

Probes knowledge, seeks truth, welcomes ambiguity, resists automatization [R. Sternberg].

Good judge, realizes ‘knowing’ is uncertain, sensitive to contexts [K. Kitchener and H. Brenner].

Solves own problems, advises others, manages social institutions [D. Kramer].

Your opinion:

[Source: Sternberg, R. (ed.) Wisdom, Its Nature, Origins, and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.]

The Wisdom of Ecoliteracy

[Adapted from Capra, F. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.]

Ecoliteracy means much more than protecting tigers, curbing pollution, and re-planting trees.. It also means much more than memorizing and repeating competencies listed in the Minimum Levels of Learning (MLLs) for Environmental Studies. Rather ecoliteracy implies a profound understanding of the larger living systems with which human beings and human communities co-exist. It is critical for building real sustainable human development. To what extent does the current model of factory schooling support the development of deep ecological values such as interdependence, cyclical patterns, partnership, flexibility, and diversity in our children? More importantly, to what extent does the education system practice these values in its day-to-day management?

Reconnecting with the web of life means building and nurturing sustainable communities in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. To this end, we can learn valuable lessons from the study of ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. We need to become, as it were, ecologically literate. Being ‘ecoliterate’ means understanding the principles of organization of ecological communities (ecosystems) and using these principles for creating sustainable human communities. We need to revitalize our communities – including our educational communities, business communities, and political communities – so that the principles of ecoliteracy become manifest in them as principles of education, management, and politics.

Ecological communities and human communities are both living systems that exhibit the same basic principles or organization. Of course, we cannot learn anything about human values and shortcomings from ecosystems. But what we can learn and must learn from them is how to live sustainably. During more than three billion years of evolution the planet’s ecosystems have organized themselves in subtle and complex ways so as to maximize sustainability. This wisdom of nature is the essence of ecoliteracy.

Ecosystems organize themselves according to basic principles such as:

– Interdependence — This starts with understanding various types of relationships and connections. It requires the shifts of perception that are characteristic of systems thinking — from the parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from contents to patterns. A sustainable human community is aware that nourishing the community means nourishing the relationships among its members.

– Recycling — A major clash between economics and ecology derives from the fact that nature is cyclical, whereas our industrial systems are linear. Our businesses take resources, transform them into products plus waste, and sell the products to consumers, who discard more waste when they have consumed the products. To achieve cyclical patterns, we need to fundamentally redesign our businesses and economy.

– Partnership — This involves the tendency to associate, establish links, and cooperate. Relationships in ‘modern’ societies are grounded in ‘logical’ economic transactions and emphasize competition, expansion, and domination. Ecological sustainability, on the other hand, emphasizes cooperation, conservation, and partnership. In a committed partnership both partners learn and change together — they co-evolve.

– Flexibility — The web of life is a flexible, ever-fluctuating network. The more variables are kept fluctuating, the more dynamic is the system; the greater is its flexibility; and the greater is its ability to adapt to changing conditions. In every community, there are contradictions and conflicts that cannot be resolved in favor of one or the other side. For example, the community will need stability and change, order and freedom, tradition and innovation. Rather than by rigid decisions, these unavoidable conflicts are much better resolved by establishing a flexible and dynamic balance.

– Diversity— In ecosystems the complexity of the network is a consequence of its biodiversity, and thus a diverse ecological community is a resilient community. In human communities ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and spiritual diversity may play the same role. Diversity results in many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations.

In a truly vibrant community sustained by a web of relationships, information and ideas flow freely through the entire network. The diversity of interpretations and learning styles – even the different errors and mistakes we make – is valued and nurtured because it enriches the entire community.

Let’s think together:

How do we develop ourselves into
wiser individuals and communities?

Many people believe that wisdom is related to knowledge and life experiences. While this is true, the development of wisdom also depends on the frameworks for thinking that we use to consciously perceive, raise questions about, and give meaning to the various knowledge systems and life experiences we participate in. If we are concerned with promoting wise living, our education system must move beyond narrow notions of literacy, or simplistic competencies, and begin to nurture diverse and complex (meta)-cognitive frameworks in every learner. Jude Collins, Professor of Teacher Training in Northern Ireland, describes that “The problem with competency-based curriculums is that learning becomes a matter of being able to perform certain tasks efficiently (and so does teaching). And the importance of looking at a wider horizon — the relationship between what’s being taught and social matters, political matters, matters of value and worth — become not just beside the point, but not even thought about.”

Consider the following features of integrated and holistic thinking. To what extent, does factory-schooling value or develop such decision-making frameworks in our children?

Evaluation of long term future consequences of present decisions;

Consideration of second-order consequences (side-effects or surprise effects);

Ability to make creative plans and strategies for the future, to monitor and modify plans (“rolling planning”), and to conduct evaluations to detect early warning signs of possible problems;

Skill in “systemic” thinking (capacity to see the whole as well as its parts, micro and macro contexts, and multiple rather than single causes and effects);

Capacity to detect inter-relationships and to assess their importance, which is often greater than that of the individual elements they inter-link.

“Some Features of Integrative Thinking” adapted from Botkin, J. et al. No Limits to Learning, Bridging the Human Gap. Oxford: Pergamon Press Ltd., 1979.

A Plea to Rehabilitate Wisdom in Our Cultures

By Verena Kremling and Boubacar Sadou Ly

The following article has been translated and compiled from texts written to prepare for and document the 1st and 2nd Meetings of the Council of the Wise (Burkina Faso, November ‘97 and ‘98). The idea for a Council of the Wise and an Academy of Wisdoms originated with the Association pour la Promotion de l’Elevage au Sahel et en Savane, an association working towards agricultural development and human potential in Western Africa. By calling together an open group of women and men from many diverse cultural, spiritual, and professional backgrounds, the APESS hopes to initiate new forums and processes that will revitalise wisdom for all humanity.

Wisdom in the “modern” age.

To be a scholar or expert is most prestigious in today’s society. But rarely does a person accept to be designated as a wise person. In fact, the institution of the sage is only recognised in the context of indigenous, non-western societies studied by ethnologists.

We do not want to let sages into our modern society. The image of a manager, technician, or businesswoman is incompatible with our image of a wise person. Even academics don’t correspond well to this image. They are knowledgeable and well-schooled, of course, but wise? That’s something different.

How is it that today being wise is outdated? We aren’t even interested in wisdom. The proof is the discomfort expressed by many when invited to this “Council of the Wise” forum: “But I’m not a wise person.”

Now, we recognise without difficulty the merits of the ancient “lovers of wisdom” or philosophers. We still admire the Greek tradition of interconnecting continuous thinking on human nature and the sense of human existence with scientific research as well as political and social commitment. How about the great interest in books categorised as “new age” or mystic? Doesn’t all this point to a resurgence in questions about the origin and sense of our existence, or about God?

People are also increasingly concerned with the absence of ethics in the natural sciences, which is perfectly understandable considering the effects of atomic energy or the scientists’ announcement that we will soon be cloning human beings.

We are realising more and more that current mentalities and ways of teaching are not capable of advancing a harmonious and beneficial development for humanity. We interpret the current unsatisfactory evolution in our societies as a dis-equilibrium or a dis-functioning due to:

– Education models that separate knowledge from wisdom, and
– Teaching models that have no consideration for the principle of harmony or for the wholeness of human nature.

We all have a gift for wisdom.

The rehabilitation of wisdom begins by allowing that we are all more or less wise or potentially wise and that this is a gift to be valued, not hidden. We suggest that there are approximately four degrees of wise persons:

Confirmed (by others) sages. They have fulfilled their wisdom potential.

Budding sages. They have good potential, have chosen to follow the path of their potential, and have begun to evolve this potential.

Sages in intention. They have definite potential for wisdom and have only just murmured their intention to follow the path of wisdom.

Everyday sages. They have wisdom potential like all beings but are dominated by other considerations.

As with all things, human beings exhibit a range of these degrees. Thus, there is no shame or pretension in aligning oneself with the wise.

To each degree of wisdom falls a responsibility and a role with respect to others. As with musicians, physicists, athletes, etc., sages of every degree have the duty to realise and manifest their talent (gift) to its greatest extent and quality. The wise and potentially wise further have the function and mission to bring clarity to the notion of universal wisdom and its implications and to propagate it.

Wisdom in Theory

What then is wisdom? Anatomically or structurally, wisdom is a harmonising and protective repository. It is the repository for knowing without which knowledge would burst forth and blind rather than enlighten.

To be wise is to understand and practice the right, useful, and harmonising relation in all things. It is to know and establish the appropriate distance in our relationships so that all neighbouring things may live fully without feeling rejected, attacked, or oppressed. Whence the saying, “The sage has distance with respect to facts, events, and phenomena.”

At the same time, wisdom can be understood as the compassionate intent to link oneself with other living beings. It is to feel, know, and conform to the principles and laws of nature.

Contextually, we have both universal wisdom and specific/particular wisdom, the two being present in each being. Everyone must understand and connect these two wisdoms within him/herself.

The Council of the Wise

Any person, no matter how wise s/he is at present, who is deeply committed to rehabilitating wisdom in all cultures, is invited to become a Council of the Wise member. The first two annual meetings in Dori, Burkina Faso were attended by 10-15 participants, including spiritual leaders, university professors and students, educationists, engineers, development professionals, writers, and farmers from Burkina Faso, Egypt, France, Germany, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

The Council’s function is to debate and retain those universal principles that should be known and integrated in our education systems (formal, non-formal, and informal) in order to favour the whole world’s development. It will consider possible principles and give an explanation, meaning, and function to those principles.

At the past two meetings, the Council worked to elaborate on the meanings of wisdom and refine processes for reconnecting wisdom to traditional and modern institutions and knowledge systems. The Council also began to give shape and form to the Academy of Wisdoms and to consider a number of principles for the Academy to take up and further develop with respect to today’s world context.

The Academy of Wisdoms

It is envisioned that the Academy will be made up of persons elected at the annual Council of the Wise Meeting. Some elected members will work as a core team in Burkina Faso while others will contribute from their different locations. The Academy’s function is to refine the concept-principles identified by the Council of the Wise. The Academy will determine the conditions and processes that should allow for the wise usage of these concept-principles of life. All knowledge will thus be re-wrapped and re-impregnated in its original wisdom.

It is further envisioned that relations between the Council of the Wise and the Academy of Wisdoms will not simply flow in one direction, but will be based on mutual exchange and stimulation. The Academy of Wisdoms will take on the continuous in-depth work through persons elected for their competence and life experience. The Academy will present and discuss its work at the annual meetings of the Council of the Wise. The Council’s meetings will be events to re-nourish and re-orient the work of the Academy.

Education Centres affiliated with the Academy of Wisdoms

Once the Council of the Wise has set forth the concept-principles necessary for life (the perfect symbol of harmony) and the Academy of Wisdoms has worked through their generalised usage, Education Centres from all over the world may become affiliated with the Academy.

Each Centre will receive support to contextualise these concept-principles according to its own cultural and territorial conditions. Ultimately, education systems throughout the world may draw from this web of knowledge resituated in its original wisdom.j

For further information or to find out how to contribute to this initiative, contact the authors at:

APESS, BP 291 Dori, Burkina Faso Tel: 226-66-0202 / Fax: 226-66-0125 / e-mail: apess@fasonet.bf

Reflections on Wisdom and Education

Susanne Schnuttgen is an Education Specialist with UNESCO <s.schnuttgen@unesco.org>. While located in Burkina Faso, she attended the 1998 meeting of the Council of the Wise. She shares her personal thoughts on the implications of the Academy of Wisdom for those working in education:

Wisdom cannot be acquired like knowledge. It is not solely a cognitive process, but one that involves all senses and a “readiness” (whether conscious or unconscious) on the part of the learner to get involved in discovery and struggle. The Council of the Wise reflected on the question of how we could help facilitate this unfolding of wisdom in society today. There was a consensus that an understanding of the principles underlying wisdom would be helpful in this process. It was also felt that there is a need to conceptualize and create learning spaces and events where the elaboration of these principles can take place. Reflection and (guided) interaction were identified as being important in this process. The Council of the Wise entrusted the Academy of Wisdom to continue the reflection, and “prepare” and “re-work” the principles underlying wisdom in such a way that they can be used in concrete learning contexts and educational activities.

One example discussed at the Council of the Wise was the principle of harmony. It was underlined that today’s world, and particularly the world of education, is strongly knowledge oriented. Whether in formal schooling through tests, in games, or in the work place, the modern world is a knowledge-based society. There is plenty of knowledge available, but all too often it is not serving humankind in a fruitful way because the knowledge — unlike in most traditional cultures — is separated from its meaning.

The modern world has become so analytic, rational, pragmatic. . . . Many people adhering to its principles have lost a sense of the whole, a larger sense of meaning or purpose. It seems that our present education systems are largely promoting the “meaningless” accumulation of facts. They also tend to overemphasize the acquisition of disconnected skills, which are all too often applied in non-constructive ways. Furthermore, our education systems largely ignore the creative and spiritual dimensions that allow us to deal with the inherent uncertainty and messiness of life (and death). Not everything can be concrete, categorized, or explained. Today’s dominant educational culture often nurtures feelings of discontent, loss and emptiness, fear, not being “good enough”, or not “succeeding”. Moreover there are increasing numbers of people who are not able to trust others, to feel deeply, and to take risks. Many of our children do not learn to discover and develop their specific creative potential and, more importantly, they do not learn how to use it to contribute to the good of society.

The idea here is not to condemn the concern with knowledge, analysis, the rational, and the visible, but to create an awareness for the limitations of accepting and following these concepts while ignoring those complementary to them. Knowledge without meaning and ethics; the visible without the invisible; and analysis without synthesis have all resulted in imbalances that have been destructive to people, to nature, and to the world at large. These have disrupted or prevented us from moving towards principles of harmony, which are conducive to wisdom revealing itself in its various manifestations. A real understanding of harmony is essential to developing learning processes and spaces that genuinely contribute to the well-being of people and nature.

Only when people start believing that a grain of wisdom exists in every one of us — and that we must respect and value this wisdom in ourselves, our learners and our learning institutions — will be able to (re-)integrate and (re-)cultivate wisdom in our cultures.

Apprenticeship Learning and Wisdom

The following article has been adapted from several papers developed by the 21st Century Learning Initiative <21learn@mnsinc.com> including, The Synthesis (1996) and The Policy Paper (1998). In calling for new models of learning (not only schooling) which incorporate the best understandings from cognitive apprenticeship, they clarify that this should not be misinterpreted as a form of narrow vocational skill training, a way of limiting options for or exploiting certain groups, or even as a way of promoting child labour.

At all levels society is undergoing massive economic, technological, social and political changes. In the face of these, we are realizing that as never before, the human race needs all the wisdom that it can muster.

The development of relevant frameworks of wisdom is closely dependent on several different processes of learning and on the environments which support such learning. Wise people for the 21st century will be those who are continuously developing a combination of general competence (specific academic or specialized knowledge); experience-based knowledge; and, most importantly, their ability to reflect on how these understandings and experiences come together in order to deal with new problems or opportunities (this is the essence of transferability). However, the model of industrial-schooling that dominates the world today suppresses and penalizes the dynamic forms of learning that develop such wise abilities and understandings. If we are concerned about generating wisdom, we must be concerned with radically transforming industrial-schooling from its very roots.

The Essence of Apprenticeship

“Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, let me do and I understand.”              
Chinese Proverb

Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the learning systems of every known culture in the world revolved around some form of apprenticeship learning process which played a critical role in building individual and collective wisdom. Traditionally, most young people became apprentices to a craftsperson who had several other apprentices of various ages under his/her direction. From the start, the apprentice was encouraged to see the importance and relevance of each sub-task to the final product and to more holistic contexts and relationships. An interesting story illustrates this aspect of developing wisdom. Two men were working in a rock quarry in Italy and another man walking by stops and asked them what they were doing. One worker answered “what’s it look like. I’m squaring this bloody rock.” The other answered “I am helping to build a Cathedral.”

In many ways, apprenticeship learning modelled the natural biological processes involved in weaning. The learner started out needing a great deal of support from an expert to accomplish difficult tasks. Gradually over time, through interactive learning — including endless feedback, discussion, and observation involving community members of different generations — the apprentice slowly acquired mastery or expertise in his/her field.

Such expertise meant much more than simply memorising information, having a few functional skills or even acquiring some specialized knowledge. Expertise was built on a foundation of deep learning (as opposed to surface learning) which emphasized the development of inquisitiveness, creativity, intrinsic motivation, collaboration, and personal responsibility. It involved being part of a wider ‘community of practice’ which entailed having a complex understanding and sensitivity for the field including its history and customs, social roles and responsibilities, aesthetics and values, and its place and meaning within the functioning of the larger society. Above all, expertise was about being able to synthesize, that is, to construct and apply several very different forms of knowledge to a new problem or situation.

The apprenticeship process blended the development of practical and social skills so that the learner was well-prepared to participate in all aspects of community life. In effect, it brought learning, working and living together into a seamless whole.

The Emergence of Industrial-Schooling

The organismic/synthetic worldview that nurtured apprenticeship learning and wisdom was pushed out by the mechanistic/analytic worldview. The formation of this “modern’ worldview was strongly influenced over the past 300 years by three concepts which were taken from the natural sciences: (1) Newtonian physics and the supremacy of reductionism, determinism, and universal truths in the scientific enterprise; (2) Darwin’s theory of evolution, predicated on the survival of the fittest and the pre-imminence of (ruthlessly) aggressive competition over collaboration; and (3) the behaviourist nature of incentives and rewards which saw the brain as an empty and blank slate waiting for external inputs to shape it.

The American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor applied these ‘scientific’ concepts towards assembly-line management to improve the efficiency of factory workers. ‘Scientific management’ spread rapidly across different social institutions. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, it proudly proclaimed, “Science finds/ Industry applies/ Man conforms.” This was a complete turnabout — the day of the thinking, reflective, self-motivated, imaginative (and wise) craftsperson was dead.

The link between Taylor’s scientific management, behaviourism, competition, and the subdivision of knowledge into specialised disciplines was most influential on the system of schooling. Education became limited to only that which could be ‘quantified’ within the four walls of the classroom; and, it became characterised by the hierarchical and routinized language of instruction, supervision, grades, tasks, marks, intelligence measurement, certification, etc. Scientific management certainly led to vastly increased productivity, but it effectively shattered the earlier seamless web of sustainable living, working and learning.

Learning Environments for the 21st Century

“The highest wisdom is not founded on reason alone, nor on those worldly sciences of physics, chemistry, and the like, into which intellectual knowledge is divided. . . The highest wisdom has but one science – the science of all, the science explaining all creation and man’s place in it.”
L. Tolstoy

There is a growing understanding of the severe limitations of the mechanistic/ analytic worldview and industrial-schooling in solving the complex problems that we face in the world —- and of the deeper damage that these systems have wrought on the human spirit. Knowing what we know today, we simply can no longer continue to do what we are currently doing.

Ironically, cutting-edge research on the brain and human learning from across several disciplines (Neurological and Cognitive Sciences, Cultural Anthropology, Pedagogy, and Evolutionary Psychology) indicates that there is much we can learn from the principles underlying traditional models of apprenticeship learning when seeking to radically transform industrial-schooling and to open up new learning contexts that nurture wise individuals and communities. This research calls for schools, families and communities to work together to create and connect meaningful learning environments in which young people are progressively weaned from their dependence on teachers and institutions; and, given the confidence to take responsibility for the management of their own lifelong learning — which would involve being able to think about one’s own thinking and learning processes, to be consciously aware of oneself as a problem-solver, to creatively synthesize and apply knowledge across domains, and to flexibly collaborate with own’s colleagues.

Many countries around the world have begun to experiment with new forms of apprenticeship learning. For example, in a town in Sweden, a Work Orientation program was formulated so that children and adolescents could periodically take a day off from school to ‘shadow’ their parents or substitute parents at their places of work. So successful is the scheme that the number of days has been increased to five at the age of 10; ten days at the age of 13; and fifteen days at the age of 16. Such orientation is always one-on-one and with an ever-increasing array of adults. The adults admit that they themselves have learnt from the interactions and sometimes have changed their work practices as a direct result of a young person’s questions. More importantly, the adults in this community have begun to realize that the education of young people is too important to be left solely in the hands of schoolteachers and isolated classrooms.

A wise society of the future will certainly not be a heaven in which all our problems have disappeared, but a realistic utopia in which endless reflection and problem-solving will be a highly valued part of life for all human beings. With this in mind, there are many immediate steps that we can take to start to transform industrial-schooling, including:

– nurturing more multi-generational interactions and encouraging elder students to take on responsibilities related to supporting the learning of younger children;

– developing collaborative, project-based learning exercises that encourage teams of students to research real world issues with the help of external resource persons;;

– working with students and parents to identify positive role models in the community and creating opportunities for students to purposefully interact with such people;

– encouraging students to take on internships in real work settings for academic credit (and train adults to help students link their theoretical work with their practical experiences).

And Closer to Home…

Among the South Asian organizations consciously and creatively trying to evolve wisdom in different learning contexts are:

The Honey Bee Network “pursues collective goals to document, disseminate, and reward grassroots creativity” in part through regional network meetings and publication of a quarterly newsletter.

‘Honey Bee’ is a metaphor for certain ethical and professional values. A honey bee does two things which development professionals usually do not do: it collects pollen from the flowers in a way that does not cause them to complain; and it connects flower to flower through pollination.

The Honey Bee Network aims to conserve biodiversity through documentation, experimentation and value addition, and dissemination of local innovations by creative farmers, pastoralists, artisans, horticulturalists and other grassroots innovators. It stands for people to people networking in local languages, assurance to knowledge providers that they will not be impoverished by their sharing, and overall concern, respect, and [rapport] with natural environments.

Honey Bee, c/o Anil K. Gupta, IIM Vastrapur, Ahmedabad, Gujarat 380 015, India

(Tel: 079-640-7241 / Fax:079-642-7896 e-mail: honeybee@iimahd.ernet.in)

* * *

The Aastha Foundation for Human Learning and Growth hosts an annual Confluence conference. The topic chosen for November ’98 was Indian Knowledge Systems – Awareness Building and Integration in Education. As Seetha Ananthasivan states in the conference journal, “While many great western and Indian scholars and thinkers have valued [Indian wisdom, spirituality, knowledge systems, and learning processes] very highly, it is ironical that they find no place in our education system. (…) Fifty years ago, with a mind colonized by the British, we could not appreciate them enough to legitimize their inclusion in the education system.” Confluence ’98 aimed to explore some of the basic principles underlying Indian civilization – holism, synthesis, pluralism, ecological wisdom, spiritual search – and how these principles may become reintegrated in formal education systems.

Aastha, 177/8, 15th Main, Vasanthnagar, Bangalore, Karnataka 560 052, India

(TeleFax: 080-220-3879 / e-mail:prakriya@giasbg01.vsnl.net.in)

VIMUKT SHIKSHA (LIBERATING EDUCATION) Understanding Wisdom February, 1999 – Issue 2

Articles and Books

Apffel-Marglin, F. (ed.) The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development. London: Zed Books, 1998.

Bruner J. The Culture of Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Erikson, J.M.Wisdom and the Senses: The Way of Creativity. New York: Norton, 1988.

Frodsham, J.D. The Crisis of the Modern World and Traditional Wisdom. Singapore: The Institute of East Asian Philosophies, 1990.

Gandhi, M.K. Hind Swaraj. Ahmedabad: Navjivan, 1938.

Lehrer, K. et al. (eds.,) Knowledge, Teaching, and Wisdom. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1996.

McFadden, S. (ed.) Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth. Bear & Co, 1991.

Norberg-Hodge, H. Ancient Future: Learning From Ladakh. Delhi: Oxford India Paperback, O.U.P., 1992.

Sachs, W. (ed.) The Development Dictionary. London: Zed Books, 1992.

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