Philosopher/psychologist and distinguished man of letters, Daniel N. Robinson, says much about knowledge, wisdom, and education in the citizenry and the founders at the time of the Declaration of Independence and the crafting of the U.S. Constitution. It is very enlightening, and he takes pains to connect the state of affairs then with our horrible political, social, and educational predicament that is so clearly exemplified by corporations, Donald Trump as President, and social media bickering today. It’s not a pretty picture, but one worth taking a long, hard look at. I then follow up his incisive commentary on knowledge in colonial America with quotes about knowledge, quotations about wisdom, and thoughts on education in modern America. Education is not just about keeping the economy rolling: “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,” wrote the main architect of the Constitution,And this is very important; as the modern progressive author, Thom Hartmann puts it, “We need to begin paying attention to the wisdom of the Founders and Framers [of the United States] if our country is to survive.”
This, then, is the wonderful paean to knowledge, wisdom, and education that Dan Robinson sees when he reflects admiringly on the framers of the Constitution of the United States of America (from a lecture on the Constitution in a “Great Courses” series on virtue in the founding fathers and the American republic:
It’s late in the 18th century. The salons of Paris have been chirping for the better part of seventy-five or eighty years. Wonderful treatises are being written by the French philosophes: Condorcet, Helvetius, D’Lambert, Voltaire.
Our people are reading these works; Jefferson of course never saw anything French he didn’t like and admire…. He was voracious in his reading of works in political philosophy. Of course, the Baron de Montesquieu was a household word.
…At the level of intellectual life, the great British writers in politics and morals, the great Scottish writers in moral philosophy, and the capable French philosophes in France constituted the community of thought from which the American founders drew inspiration and ideas.
The men who assembled in that room (many of them farmers) were not “rustics”, and when [English politician and philosopher Edmund] Burke will address Parliament and say, “Look, these are well-read people; booksellers in London sell more books there than in all of England; these people read and know the law”, he knew whereof he spoke.
So for all the divisions, for all the argumentation, [with the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that long, hot summer], you had an assemby of the thoughtful, a group of instructed minds.
Jefferson’s writings outside of politics make abundantly clear that you cannot have this kind of government EXCEPT with an educated and instructed people; that the core of republican virtue is knowledge and is education itself.
If I might reflect briefly on our own times, I would say that the deplorable state of education (particularly in the primary and secondary schools), and the rather trite nature of what we are pleased to call “higher education” has to be worrisome. A self-governing individual must be particularly adept at weighing arguments and comprehending them, and in comparing their own ideas with the best that history could produce. The men assembled in Philadelphia, by and large, could do that. And they did it with great agility – though not that many of them had college degrees of any sort.
This all raises the question of whether facts, opinions, and information are all one can find in books – or are knowledge and wisdom also possibilities? Click here to go to that blog, or read the quotes about knowledge and wisdom below:
As promised, below are a few dozen diverse takes on knowledge, wisdom, and education from a panoply of pundits. I will kick it off with the estimable lyricist from the rock group, Rush:
“When they turn the pages of history/ When these days have passed long ago/ Will they think of us with sadness/ For the seeds that we let grow?” ~ Neil Peart
“Although they disagreed about many important political issues, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson saw eye to eye on the necessity of education as a foundation for maintaining freedom. ‘Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people,’ Adams wrote, ‘arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.'”
“It is incumbent upon all Americans who believe in [the] system, bequeathed to us by the founders, to defeat it when it is under assault and in jeopardy. And today it is.”
“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”
“All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magical preservation in the pages of books.”
“If the Ancients found themselves transported to the modern world, they would have much to learn about science, technology, and human thinking. But is there something the Ancients can still teach us about how to live a good life? What relevance do the virtues – wisdom, courage, prudence, justice, and so on – have for our modern times? Could these ancient values help solve some of the most challenging problems of contemporary life?”
“America’s future will be determined by the home and the school. The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach and how we live.” ~ Jane Addams
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
“To deliberate well about the common good requires more than the capacity to choose one’s ends and to respect others’ rights to do the same. It requires a knowledge of public affairs, a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, and a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake.”
“Books are seductive things. All are worth a look and a touch; some, a kiss; others, an affair; the best: marriage and lifelong devotion.”
“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
“The Federalist Papers – put together by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay chiefly to win New York over to the ratification of the Constitution – are among the great contributions to political philosophy. Though not intended as such, the essays constitute a work of original practical philosophy in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle.”
“Let him be taught above all to surrender and throw down his arms before Truth as soon as he perceives it, whether it be found in the hands of his opponents, or in himself through reconsideration.” ~ Michel De Montaigne
“One opinion from which there is hardly a dissenting voice in the great books [written throughout the history of the Western world] is that education should aim to make men good as men and as citizens. …William James stresses the need for ‘a perfectly-rounded development.'” ~ Robert Maynard Hutchins
“The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life-by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past – and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.”
“There are no easy answers to the problems that plague us. They are difficult to understand and solve in part because of their complexity and intractability. I don’t have a solution that no one else has thought of. But I do believe there are solutions that many persons have thought of. They can be described simply as values. They are the antidote to human problems. Can we learn to listen to the whispers over the din? Can we turn down the reality T.V. program and listen to the quiet voices of reason and optimism found in books?”
“There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.”
“What the masters of the Western canon, and those of other high cultures, possessed in common was a combination of exceptional knowledge, technical skill, originality, sensitivity to detail, ambition, boldness, and drive. They were obsessed; they burned within. But they also had and intuitive grasp of inborn human nature accurate enough to select commanding images from the mostly inferior thoughts that stream through the minds of us all. The talent they wielded may have been only incrementally greater, but their creations appeared to others to be qualitatively new.”
“Liberal education – an education that builds human capability – is, and has been since America’s founding, the kind of education best suited to a free people and an open economy. And in a turbulent world, the new hands-on designs for liberal education are our best investment in America’s long-term promise and continued prosperity.”
“The process of learning is the process by which we acquire all the modifications of our emotional or moral or intellectual behavior. John Dewey has said this more expertly than anybody else when he said that the process of learning is identical with the process of growth, leaving out, of course, the physical growth of the body. In his view of learning, the extent to which a man has learned something in the course of his lifetime is measured by the amount of emotional, intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth he has accomplished.”
“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that they do not really need a college. Students can learn that from books. The value of an education is not in the learning of many facts but in exploring issues that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
“We lionize the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, while forgetting just how much of the underlying technological knowledge and infrastructure behind the profits they have generated stems from a shared scientific tradition and direct public investment.”
“If there is a crisis in education in the United States today, it is less that test scores have declined than it is that we have failed to provide the education for citizenship that is still the most significant responsibility of the nation’s schools and colleges.” ~ Frank Newman
“No one mistakes [the University of Pennsylvania] for an ivory tower. And no one ever will. Through our collaborative engagement with communities all over the world, Penn is poised to advance the central values of democracy: life, liberty, opportunity, and mutual respect. Effective engagement begins right here at home.” ~ Amy Gutmann
“Among the most significant and pressing challenges facing American higher education in the early decades of the twenty-first century is how can it powerfully and effectively contribute to radically reducing the pervasive, ongoing, seemingly intractable problems of our inner cities, as well as to radically reducing, in a poignant phrase from Jonathan Kozol, America’s ‘savage inequalities.’ Meeting that challenge would require a far more comprehensive and powerful form of civic engagement—one that is intent on changing higher education to help change society for the better. To borrow a phrase from the primary source of Franklin’s philosophy, Francis Bacon, the ‘rightly placed’ goal, in our judgment, for American higher education is to help create a genuine participatory democracy so that America (finally) realizes the democratic promise of America for all Americans.” ~ Ira Harkavy and Matthew Hartley
“I think the role of teachers and education, in general, is to help us progress as a society. Not only in our smarts or technology, but to help us progress as a human race: preparing us to tackle the issues that [our predecessors] couldn’t defeat.” ~ Liliana Salcedo
“If this nation is to be wise as well as strong; if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas from more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all – except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors.”
“Benjamin Franklin likely wanted others to obtain a more general education then he himself had received, because he realized his own success was a result of an intense and broad-ranging curiosity. He was fascinated by everything he saw around him, from dolphins to lunar eclipses, and he experimented with ideas from electricity to refrigeration.”
“When, at the end of my first three years at Cambridge, I emerged from my last mathematical examination I swore that I would never look at mathematics again and sold all my books. In this mood, a survey of philosophy gave me all the delight of a new landscape on emerging from a valley.”
“Central to the claims on behalf of the liberal arts is a presumed link between higher education and the practice of democracy. The expansion of access to higher education since the 1960s has resulted in more citizens graduating from college, many with liberal arts degrees. Yet despite that increase, the quality of civic and political life has never sunk so low. Apathy and passivity thrive alongside intolerance and rabid partisanship. This itself is an indictment of the way we practice the liberal arts.” ~ Leon Botstein
“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
“Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds – justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on.”
“Just as, to keep our bodies healthy and strong we must feed them regularly and exercise them, just as we can’t keep them healthy and strong on last year’s feeding and exercise, so we can’t keep our minds alive and growing on last year’s reading and learning.”
“Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”
“A man who has learned to think can live a good life – a life based on reason.”
“For Kant, Enlightenment is the capacity and courage to think for ourselves, and to resist tradition, convention or authority as sources of wisdom and knowledge. This idea has been, and continues to be, one of the most inspiring and also controversial in the history of philosophy. At its foundation is the notion that the world is comprehensible to the human mind. It also heralded a new understanding of the significance of the individual, who could now be seen as equipped to decide matters of both empirical fact and moral value for himself (herself came a bit later).” ~ Phil Badger
“The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it.”
“Wisdom is a state of the human mind characterized by profound understanding and deep insight. It is often, but not necessarily, accompanied by extensive formal knowledge. Unschooled people can acquire wisdom, and wise people can be found among carpenters, fishermen, or housewives. Where it exists, wisdom shows itself as a perception of the relativity and relationships among things. It is an awareness of wholeness that does not lose sight of particularity or concreteness, or of the intricacies of interrelationships.”
“Knowledge takes man out of servitude, into freedom.”
“Virtue or excellence is one of two distinguishable forms — the intellectual and the moral. The end of the intellectual virtues is knowledge of one sort or another, whereas the and of the moral virtues is the formation of character, or self-perfection. The intellectual virtues are the result of teaching and learning. The moral virtues arise from habit.”
“My Alma Mater was books at a good library. I could spend the rest of my life reading and just satisfying my curiosity.”
“I view education as not just simply K through 12, I view it as beginning at birth, extending through every life stage and for everybody.”
“All the children, according to [influential education philosopher John Dewey], are destined for leisure, learning, and labor. All have the same three elements in their futures: the demands of work, the duties of citizenship, and the obligation of each individual to make the most of him/herself that his/her capacities allow – to lead rich and fulfilling lives. Their treatment in school should be such that it serves these three fundamental purposes for all.” ~ Mortimer J. Adler
“None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.”
“In the end, education has to do with fashioning certain kinds of individuals—the kinds of persons I (and others) desire the young of the world to become. I crave human beings who understand the world, who gain sustenance from such understanding, and who want…to alter it for the better.”
“Let us compare Jesus with Socrates: Jesus teaches by proclaiming the glad tidings, Socrates by compelling men to think. Jesus demands faith, Socrates an exchange of thought. Jesus speaks with earnestness, Socrates indirectly, even by irony. Jesus knows the kingdom of heaven and eternal life, Socrates has no definite knowledge of these matters and leaves the question open. But neither will let men rest. Jesus proclaims the only way; Socrates leaves man free, but keeps reminding him of his responsibility rooted in freedom. Both raise supreme claims. Jesus confers salvation. Socrates provokes men to look for it.”
“We all get socialized once by our parents and teachers, ministers and priests. [Reading great books] is about getting a second chance. It’s not about being born again, but about growing up a second time — this time around as your own educator and guide.”
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
“And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-around [good, liberal] education is a good judge in general.”
“Jefferson’s On the More General Diffusion of Knowledge proposed that citizens should learn the basic skills for preserving their freedom, for conducting their affairs, and for continuing to learn. Literacy and numeracy were key. It was the government’s responsibility to see to this education because only if the people had such instruction could they be counted on to govern themselves.”
“What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the soul.”
“Information is not knowledge.”
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.
“Education has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.”
“…nothing is of more importance to the public weal than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of a state: much more so than riches or arms, which, under the management of Ignorance and Wickedness, often draw on destruction instead of providing for the safety of a people.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
“The conduct of philosophy is the foundation of the liberal arts. The issues of what might constitute truth, beauty, and justice are fundamental. Questions of epistemology, theology, aesthetics, and moral and political values—ethics—concern all students, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, or professional ambitions. Therefore, all liberal arts programs must provide a curricular platform that cuts across interests, identities, and origins and fosters debate and the airing of conflicting views. The skills required to develop empathy, tolerance, and one’s own convictions must be honed through exchanges with peers in and out of the classroom.” ~ Leon Botstein
“I envision a world citizenry that is highly literate, disciplined, capable of thinking critically and creatively, knowledgeable about a range of cultures, able to participate actively in discussions about new discoveries and choices, willing to take risks for what it believes in.”
“For Thomas Jefferson, there was one step crucial to creating a genuine natural aristocracy. The poor and rich had to have equal access to a good education. That’s why, despite being something of a libertarian, he repeatedly proposed that the state pay for universal primary education as well as fund education at later stages.”
“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
“What set Benjamin Franklin’s notion of education apart was his insistence that a college draw students of ability from all social strata and actively and purposefully cultivate civic values in these students and provide them with the practical skills necessary to address the pressing problems of the day. In short, a central purpose of higher education was service to society and to the commonwealth.” ~ Ira Harkavy and Matthew Hartley
“Teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies.”
“If we value independence, if we are disturbed by the growing conformity of knowledge, of values, of attitudes, which our present system induces, then we may wish to set up conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, for self-direction, and for self-initiated learning.”
“One of the worst crimes of our educational system against young people is that principles of critical thinking are not part of every school curriculum.”
“There are few books that set out what a mature person can believe – someone fully grown up, I mean. Aristotle’s Ethics, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Montaigne’s Essays, and the essays of Samuel Johnson come to mind. Even with these, we do not simply accept everything that is said. The author’s voice is never our own, exactly; the author’s life is never our own. It would be disconcerting, anyway, to find that another person holds precisely our views, responds with our particular sensibility, and thinks the same things important. Still, we gain from these books, weighing and pondering ourselves in their light. These books – and also some less evidently grown-up ones, Thoreau’s Walden and Nietzsche’s writings, for example – invite or urge us to think along with them, branching in our own directions. We are not identical with the books we read, but neither would we be the same without them.”
“There was also a sense that our common life was being eroded, a state of affairs powerfully illustrated by political scientist Robert Putnam in the image of Americans Bowling Alone (Putnam 1995). Political engagement dramatically declined. Among college freshmen surveyed by HERI, the percentage who agreed that it is ‘important for me to keep up to date with political affairs’ declined from 58 percent in 1966 to 26 percent in 1998. Electoral turnout among 18–24–year-olds declined from 42 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2000. In 1989, the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Civic Education for the 21st Century concluded: ‘We take as axiomatic that current levels of political knowledge, political engagement, and political enthusiasm are so low as to threaten the vitality and stability of democratic politics in the United States.’”~ Ira Harkavy and Matthew Hartley
“Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.
Find yourself or founder. Here, imagine
A spirit moves; John Harvard walks the yard;
The books stand open, and the gates unbarred.”