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David Lyle Jeffrey

The Groves of Academe

The Beginning of Wisdom

There are people for whom news that evangelicals are reading The Chronicle of Higher Education might well be taken as a bona fide sign of the end times. For reasons of charitable deference therefore, some of us sneak our peek after hours at the online version. In June there appeared an article by Robert J. Sternberg, director of Yale's Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise, entitled "Teaching for Wisdom." Unaccustomed to that particular noun in the Chronicle, I read on. All too soon, alas, I began to recognize the familiar and usually well-intended confusion which results when a sermon embraces too warmly the character of the folly it presumes to denounce. As anyone routinely subjected to rhetorical sabbaths can attest, the "rousements" which attend such enthusiasm tend less to resemble those of the biblical Dame Wisdom (Proverbs) than those of another Dame (same book).

The necessity which appears to have mothered invention in Prof. Sternberg's case is a sharp decline in the authority of "Abilities, Competencies and Expertise" as he and others have been peddling it. Since market value tends to rise and fall with credibility in these matters also, the crisis occasioned for such a curriculum by the felonious demise of Enron (et al.) is as real as that which attacks the professorial pension plan. Perhaps considering this entailment, Sternberg's observation is tart: "traditional education, and the intellectual and academic skills it provides, furnishes little protection against evil-doing, or, for that matter, plain foolishness."

Pressed as we evangelicals are to overcome our well-earned reputation for anti-intellectualism, carrion comfort like this is hard to pass up. Here, it seems, is an Ivy League professor offering pronouncements more or less equivalent with those of a red-neck rural preacher of the 1950s. To be sure, the preacher might have said it more colorfully (e.g., "show me an educated Baptist and I'll show you a backslider"), but the point of the criticism is surprisingly harmonious.

The learned Dr. Sternberg is a little more nuanced. Ardently advertising à la mode a book he has edited—Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (Yale, 2002)—our author claims to have discovered four reasons for this pathology. Concisely, these are: (1) that smart [i.e., educated] people are self-centered; (2) they think themselves "omniscient"; (3) they act as if they are "omnipotent"; (4) they think they have overcome the problem of consequences. But this, too, sounds familiar—almost like plagiarism from an old-fashioned sermon on Romans 1. Until, that is, the altar call. No unpleasant denunciations of pride or "playing God" ensue here, and nothing quite so gauche as a call to repentance. The call is rather for a more general teaching of ethics—not in any such way as to suggest a hierarchy of values, mind you, or virtue (a similarly embarrassing term), but a dialogical approach to values clarification. Sternberg believes this exercise will produce the "wisdom" of "a socially desirable use of. … knowledge."

Thoughtful readers of the Bible are unlikely to disagree with Sternberg that wisdom is to be sought after, and that much good comes of it, personal as well as social. On the biblical account, wisdom always has ethical implications. Respective conclusions about how to find wisdom, however, are sharply divergent. Christian educators should carefully consider that the biblical prescription (when followed according to the Manufacturer's directions) depends upon forthright acknowledgment that there is a God, and that all our usurpations of his prerogatives are at best unworkable.

That "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps. 111:10) and also "the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7) is indicative of a necessary and ongoing reciprocity, moreover, between our acquisition of knowledge and the getting of wisdom. It is irrational, on this account, to blame universities for the moral blindness of some they have "educated." Every educational project, including Christian ones, should declare a truth about its own limits: that no education will of itself preserve us from carnality, greed, and fraud. Moral intelligence does not follow from analytical intelligence; it precedes it, and, when married to it wittingly, as the second chapter of Proverbs is at pains to teach, the student is far likelier in the end "to understand righteousness and justice, equity and every good path." But even then it requires an act of the will to fear God and keep his commandments such that this understanding is put into reliable practice. Kierkegaard was not wide of the mark when he quipped that it just isn't the same thing to say to someone, "You should live accountably" as to say, "You should live accountably; there is a Last Judgment coming."

Many are the educational theories that have imagined learning to be the sufficient condition of virtue. Hegel was not the first to assert that "education is the art of making men ethical" or to think that it "shows men the way to a second birth." Even when the experimental results have been repeatedly disconfirming, there have been eager apologists for this wobbly hypothesis. Bertrand Russell thought that poor education makes us "lazy, cowardly, hard-hearted and stupid," and that better methods "must give us the opposite virtues." Thoughtfully diagnostic educational critics of the late 20th century (e.g., Allan Bloom, George Steiner) have clung to similar wan hopes.

The time is ripe for Christian educators to draw more directly upon the perdurable strengths of biblical tradition as we take up our own part in addressing both a problem and a diagnosis with which we do not in fact dissent—and of which we also remain susceptible. We need to practice a learning that is deep, and dedicated to wisdom as its goal, but discerning enough to know where wisdom and knowledge alike must begin if right action is to follow.

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