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Jerry Pattengale

Educating for Wisdom

An agenda-setting conference at Baylor.

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Wisdom often peeks into our lives unannounced, while at other times we plan curricula to transmit its tenets. Participants in Baylor University's recent conference on wisdom (more than 400 registrants) experienced both aspects of the journey to a wiser academy—and wiser alumni. Entitled "Educating for Wisdom in the 21st-Century University" and held under the auspices of Baylor's Institute for Faith & Learning, this symposium engaged a diverse audience in which many academic disciplines were represented. The sessions also evoked reflection on our own intersection with lessons on wisdom.

While helping to direct the Scriptorium initiatives in the 1990s, I had gathered our board members in our Hampton Court offices near Herefordshire, England. One morning, Walt Kaiser, Edwin Yamauchi, and Bruce Metzger serendipitously joined Scott Carroll, Robert (Bob) Van Kampen, and me for tea and scones. Rather suddenly, and disconnected from our casual conversation, Bob (our patron) asked Dr. Yamauchi a question about Greek grammar, one related to a favorite Ephesians passage Bob claimed was often "misquoted" in defense of Arminian theology. (Bob was on the extreme opposite end from Wesleyan theology.)

Dr. Yamauchi didn't hesitate in responding. Even though he obviously knew the answer (one found in lessons early in Mounce's Basics in Greek), he replied, "Mr. Van Kampen, in the presence of the master of Greek studies, I would always defer such a question to Dr. Metzger." Then he nodded to Dr. Metzger, who gave a stately and clear answer—and also avoided the theological debate.

The difference between knowledge and wisdom manifested itself at that moment. Dr. Metzger relayed knowledge and exercised wise restraint. The sagacious Dr. Yamauchi seemed to represent both qualities without thinking! Sounds oxymoronish, but throughout the Baylor conference there was an element of mystery about the highest manifestations of wisdom, about "natural" abilities and "learned" qualities, and the convergence of multiple data demanding a response. Candace Vogler (University of Chicago) set the tone for the conference with her intense transparency in her opening plenary lecture, "Keeping Track of What Matters." Vogler described her experience designing and leading (with a colleague) an innovative and profoundly countercultural master's degree program in humanities—countercultural, that is, in the context of an élite research university. It is difficult to get a good education, Volger said, even at the best universities, because "It's hard to get something when you only have a hazy idea of what it is you're seeking," and such is the condition of most students. Like Anthony Kronman, Stanley Hauerwas, Doug Henry, Perry Glanzer and many others, Vogler finds the answer in a humanistic education. She highlighted the irony in her provost's comment, " 'The startup cost in the humanities is very very low.' In his field [physics] it's around $2 million."

Her opening session went deep as her transparency transcended our disciplines and degrees. She recalled that her father, a man given to episodes of violence, nevertheless taught her "that if I had a serious question, I could find a serious answer—through reading, writing, and praying." She did have questions, beginning with the discordance at home. And those questions led her to the university and to a lifetime of inquiry. All of our students, she reminded us, have fundamental questions growing out of what it means to be human, even if they don't know how to ask. The master's program in humanities at the University of Chicago took up such perennial questions, which used to be at the core of moral philosophy. Vogler tried to model lessons, not just talk "about" the readings. "We need to try them on to learn," she said, not "just write about" them.

It was clear that our opening address was being given by someone who had embraced the true nature of classical philosophy, of living what is learned while learning to live, with a Christian spirit of humility. She was proposing that professors needed to walk the arduous journey with their students. "You don't even begin to critique unless you owe a debt to the thing you're studying," she said, adding: "You have to be prepared to be implicated in the very things you find unsatisfactory." And so the three-day conference began.

During an engaging session entitled "Models for Moral Formation," Perry Glanzer (Baylor University) presented a helpful definition of wisdom: "Wisdom involves the skill and knowledge necessary to piece together a good life among disparate identities." He argued that a key aspect of assembling these various parts is to come to terms for oneself with the meaning of life and, more specifically, one's purpose. Next was to understand and articulate a working response to our competing identities, such as what we profess and our professions, e.g., a Christian nurse or a Christian educator. Perry's notions helped to objectify the subjective, or at least to categorize steps in a conceptual journey to gaining wisdom.

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