Who has wisdom? At what age is it likeliest? How can one develop it? What does it look like? Here are some practical characteristics of this challenging concept grounded in the idea that it takes more than just age to develop; it is based more on skill and perception than accumulation of years. If the 60s is the decade wisdom is likeliest, that makes the 20s and 30s virtually impossible to really grasp the nature of and importance of learning (beyond technique, such as how to repair a car or how to administer the law, which is more easily attained at younger ages). As well, a person in their 80s is probably too subject to cognitive decline to be the wisest among us. Though it can be heard “from the mouths of babes,” usually babes just cry, gossip, and whine. Read on to hear what some experts think is likely to result in not just knowledge, but wisdom.
I was reading public intellectual Mortimer J. Adler’s old-timey book, The Great Ideas: from the Great Books of Western Civilization*. In case you don’t know about him or that idea, head down to the bottom of the blog and I will offer a bit of a footnote. He was writing about how to read a book (yes, really). He spoke of wisdom when he noted that “Adult learning is endless, and must go on interminably throughout a whole life. One reason for this is that it aims at wisdom. And wisdom is hard to come by; not much of it can be acquired short of a whole lifetime of pursuing it. …the other reason is that to live is to grow. As soon as we stop growing, we begin to die” (.
He essentially takes the approach that one must study great works of literature, philosophy, science and the like in order to cultivate one’s thinking – to approach wisdom, I would say. This is something that one can do on one’s own – though interaction with like-minded seekers of wisdom can certainly help. He critiques modern American public education when he writes: “The teacher is like the farmer or the physician. The farmer doesn’t produce the grains of the field; he merely helps them grow. The physician does not produce the health of the body; he merely helps the body maintain its health or regain its health. And the teacher does not produce knowledge in the mind; he merely helps the mind discover it for itself” (In the case of great books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you” (
Teach the young people how to think, not what to think (
From the artist we must learn not what to compose, but how to compose; from the philosopher we must learn not what to think but how to think; only then can we make our own contribution. (
One of Mortimer J. Adler‘s main points is that it is difficult or impossible for the young to successfully be taught wisdom. He noted that “adults are more educable than children, just as children are more trainable than adults.” He certainly thinks that there is a place for education among the young: “The first thing a good school should do is to give the child the skills of learning. If learning is to go on for a lifetime after school, one should learn how to learn.” Indeed, he and another true man of letters, Robert Maynard Hutchins, edited the ambitious series Great Books of the Western World. I think he would suggest that children need to be reared to know how to write, read, communicate, think and so on, and that then their education truly begins. He noted:
“It is difficult to teach moral philosophy, to deal with moral and political questions. It is very difficult, for example, to read great novels and plays that deal with life’s most serious problems with young people. I’ve read and discussed novels and plays with young people in college and with adults and the difference is night and day.”
He adds, modestly: “When I left college I was pretty sure I understood some of the great books I had the good fortune to read there. But I was more fortunate in my teaching career to have to reread some of them many times. I know now that I didn’t understand those books at all when I was in college. In fact, I know now that I didn’t understand them very well even ten years ago. It’s not that I’m any brighter now; I’m just older” (Mortimer J. Adler).
What this says to me is that wisdom is elusive, and that it appears to improve with age. But I would be wrong drawing that conclusion. It has more to do with age + a certain skill set + a particular attitude + a requisite amount of work. Adler goes so far as to say that “…youth itself is the great and insurmountable obstacle to getting an education.” Take a look at an 18-year-old living with his mom, playing video games, working below his potential, and you get the impression that not only is his brain not fully developed yet (which it won’t be for 6-9 more years) but that he is woefully unprepared to take a knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, mathematics, critical thinking, and politics, and to become an educated and enlightened citizen. In Adler’s words: “One might almost say their minds or souls are too shallow soil for basic ideas to take root in.”
Richard Trowbridge did a doctoral thesis entitled Wisdom As Skill: Forming and Living By a Wisdom Perspective. In it he notes: “In almost every aspect, wisdom can be improved through conscious effort. The behaviors, attitudes, and questions important for a wisdom perspective can be learned; proficiency and expertise require practice. It involves the cultivation of abilities such as self-control, reflection, caring, and clear thinking – all of which can be developed by effort.” I think it is fair to say that effort is only expended by the young when a) they see a clear benefit (e.g., “I am studying because I have to get into a good college”) or b) an adult forces them (e.g., playing a musical instrument or learning a second language). The young just don’t have the motivation to study wisdom when, almost by definition, time seems unlimited, they perceive themselves as invulnerable, and issues such as self-esteem, peer relations, and developing a career and finding a life partner are, for most, center-stage. Have you heard the idea that “knowledge of one’s mortality tends to concentrate the mind?” The nuances of existence, the perils of popular culture, the lessons of history usually come slowly and with adequate life experience. “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment,” wrote
The following is definitely true, but it is clear that Adler wasn’t saying that one need only remain alive into one’s fifties until wisdom finally comes. Instead, one must do the work to instill wisdom.
“Adult learning is endless, and must go on interminably throughout a whole life. One reason for this is that it aims at wisdom. And wisdom is hard to come by; not much of it can be acquired short of a whole lifetime of pursuing it. …the other reason is that to live is to grow. As soon as we stop growing, we begin to die.”
The idea that wisdom is not automatic is borne out by psychological research. Note first that psychological science is somewhat but not convincingly capable of grasping, studying, explaining, and predicting – conceptualizing – wisdom. Experts Paul B. Baltes and Ursula M. Staudinger write: “Because of the culturally rich meaning and heritage of wisdom, defining and operationalizing the concept of wisdom as a scientifically grounded psychological construct is not easy. Wisdom may be beyond what psychological methods and concepts can achieve.” I appreciate their recognition that it is complex and “multidisciplinary” and includes “an integrative feature of linking mind to virtue” and is a “key factor in the construction of ‘a good life.'” They go on to note that “because of the integrative aspects of wisdom in linking knowledge with virtue, it is likely that the antecedents of wisdom are grounded in the orchestration of several characteristics: cognitive, motivational, social, interpersonal, and spiritual.”
I apologize, I went a bit afield of my original topic sentence, so I will repeat it: The idea that wisdom is not automatic is borne out by psychological research. That is, a 30-year-old is not more or less wise than a 50-year-old, and a 70-year-old is not the wisest among us. Necessarily. I believe it is fair to say that few young people will have much wisdom, but age is a necessary but insufficient precursor to developing wisdom. In a study, Baltes and Staudinger found that there were more older people in the top 20% of performers (performance meaning in “wisdom-related tasks”) as compared to younger study participants, and that “the world record in wisdom may be held by someone in his or her 60s” (before age-related decline in cognitive mechanics that sets in in one’s 70s and 80s and is typically crippling in the 90s). Here is the summary about age in regard to wisdom in the Baltes and Staudinger 2013 study:
“…the finding of no major age differences during middle adulthood offers support for two of our key assumptions. First, when contrasting findings on the cognitive pragmatics (for which wisdom is a prototype) to research on the fluid mechanics, results indicate wisdom-related knowledge and judgment are facets of human development that do not show signs of deterioration beginning in earlier stages of adulthood. Second, as we suggested in our developmental causal model of wisdom (Figure 1), having lived longer in itself is not sufficient for acquiring more knowledge and judgment capacity in the wisdom domain. Other factors need to enter into a coalition that, as an ensemble, is generative of wisdom.”
This rings true, right? Haven’t you seen a “curmudgeon” or a stubborn old person who is slightly racist, fairly angry, and last educated in the 1950s? Often they point to “That’s not the way we did it back in my day.” Check out this hilarious sketch starring Dana Carvey in the early 1990s (fast-forward to the 20 or 30-second mark). It lampoons the fact that often a person who passes the 30s gets settled into a niche that eventually becomes a rut. We tend to get political candidates for president who are middle-aged to very old, with the assumption being that they have learned a thing or two and are not brash, immature, underdeveloped, or impulsive.
True, perhaps; but much of the reason America is a center-right country has something to do with our relative lack of trust of new ideas by … you guessed it – those with more money, experience, and power. Such persons don’t particularly trust youth and claim it is because of the vulnerabilities – e.g., the lack of wisdom. However, I would put a Bernie Sanders (in his 70s) up against a Marco Rubio or Rand Paul any day of the week. Wisdom cannot flourish in the mind of a young person very easily (prodigies aside), but it doesn’t grow like hair, either.
Finally, let me not fail to note why I have a picture of the fictional Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise (in Gene Roddenberry’s world of Star Trek) of all things. Well, I find his character, which I have been exposed to for decades now, to be concerned with wisdom. He clearly notes that he used to be a “puerile adolescent” and “green,” but through the years, and by working under great teachers (captains), he has honed his craft. He can think and act quickly; he knows what a mental trap looks like. He is careful to trust those he doesn’t know well, and he had “been around the block enough times” to recognize when he needs to slow down and think it through. It may be silly, I know. But one could do worse than study the character of Picard if one were trying to understand what wisdom really is!
*FOOTNOTE ON MEN OF LETTERS: Persons such as Mortimer J. Adler, Phillipa Foot, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Daniel N. Robinson, Gore Vidal, and others – the type of intellectual/scholar traditionally described as “a man of letters” – have an angle that I would (off the cuff) describe as the following. There is a certain intellectual tradition coursing through both Western and Eastern (certainly Arabia at times as well) civilization that treasures learning, teaching, science, philosophy, critical thinking, literature, the humanities, and so on. The things that Greeks and scholastic writers wrote is very important and should not be relegated to the dustbin of history. As well, the Tolstoys, Dickinsons, Forsters, and Voltaires of the world – of which there are many – should be read generation after generation because what they have ahold of is more like wisdom than something constrained by time and culture. Thus, a straight line can be drawn from Aristotle and Aurelius through Aquinas and Al-Farabi and continuing through Matthew Arnold, either Bronte sister, Lord Chesterfield, Darwin, and Erasmus. The Marquis de Condorcet didn’t come out of nowhere, and he was thoroughly critiqued and judged by all manner of contemporaries and descendants. Think of Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin; Charles William Eliot or E. O. Wilson or G. Stanley Hall or Fareed Zakaria or Lewis Latham – they studied the past in a liberal way (liberal meaning education, not politics) in order to better understand the present and better predict the future. That is practical wisdom. The type of person who would claim that one can self-educate simply by reading the Harvard Classics (vs. going through a long process of public-school-administered indoctrination and training)(Eliot claimed that if one spent fifteen minutes a day reading his stack of Harvard Classics five feet tall, one would eventually “get there” (by which I assume he meant wisdom, liberal education, and true learning).
FOOTNOTE ON THIS FOOTNOTE: Clearly, this is not the be-all and end-all of education. Some would even say: “Do you think a Bill Gates spent countless hours reading about software, computers, and entrepreneurialism before he began?” Clearly no, since Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and so on are iconoclasts in the sense that they felt they were paving new ground, and to go over material that had been digested for centuries would not help them to create, to innovate, to succeed. Also, this approach can be criticized due to the fact that few women are thought of as writers of “the greatest books ever” – see, I almost wrote “the greatest books man ever produced.” This tradition-based, classical approach to wisdom and learning is not sacrosanct, but it is fantastic, in my opinion. Adler himself wrote the following: “…tradition or conservation is an indispensable condition of progress. But there is a second, perhaps even more important condition of progress. And that is that we overcome in all human affairs the inertia of custom. Custom is a great enemy of progress”
Find wisdom quotes and other quotes about values in The Wisdom Archive.
I urge you to learn more about Adler and the approach he heralded here.