26 October 2017, Yarra Valley Grammar School, Melbourne, Australia
This was the headmaster's address to graduating Year 12 students.
We are here to mark the end of thirteen years of formal education. This is cause for considerable celebration and acknowledgement of hard work, contribution and perseverance. Congratulations and well done.
Ought we now to consider our graduates to be educated?
I would hope that none of us in this room would describe ourselves as educated. This may sound a strange thing to say, but let’s consider the term.
To be ‘educated’ suggests that our studies are complete. We have learnt all that there is needed to be known…the process is finished. We have grown enough. Today more than ever, what we need to know and understand can shift in an instant. A better aspiration for us in a racing world is not to be educated but rather to be in the process of educating.
Of course, education is not confined to schools and universities and the process doesn’t stop. It’s continuous and it’s evolving. It’s not a store of knowledge that we rely upon but rather a set of skills to find, capture and use: the right knowledge at the right time and in the right way.
Our graduates are acquiring those skills.
· Our science and mathematics students employ the skills of experimentation, observation, analysis of data and equations to find solutions.
· Our humanities students analyse text, find evidence and propose theories,
· Our artists express themselves in creative and unique ways. They show us an alternate view of the world.
· This is very clever stuff…important skills which will stand them in good stead. But it’s not enough.
I have a greater aspiration for you and it’s bound up in a word which has gone out of fashion. We don’t use it very much anymore because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence of it…but we should. The word is “Wisdom”. Wisdom…or to be wise. It’s good to be clever…but as Euripides once wrote:
“Cleverness is not wisdom”.
Wisdom is more than ability and more than knowledge. It’s more than just being clever.
Wisdom is not just having knowledge or just having access to facts. Google does not bestow wisdom. Google is a shorthand way of finding information, most of it accurate. Michel de Montaigne was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. He invented the essay…Not a popular figure amongst some students.
He wrote that:
“Learned we may be with another man's learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.”
It’s not enough to learn and repeat what other people think, we need to learn to think and understand for ourselves. We can’t and we shouldn’t outsource our thinking. To create an original thought in a world awash with the thoughts of others literally at the push of a button is becoming increasingly difficult.
Wisdom is not just having strong opinions either. The American philosopher William James asserted that:
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
We see this in all aspects of modern commentary, on social media and in political discourse. One side of politics today has a tendency to tell us what we must believe and say whilst the other side will believe and say anything.
There’s not much wiggle room for original thought.
Julius Caesar called it out when he said:
'Libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.”
'Men readily believe what they want to believe”
It’s hard to have an original thought where trolling forces conformity and not just opinion but now facts are subjective. I am a keen observer of US politics. I do this by watching MSNBC, CNN and FOX to try to understand how others with different views see the same events.
The bizarre thing is that we seem to be living in parallel universes where meaning is lost amongst “alternate facts”, “fake news” and political spin. It’s no longer just difference of opinion, it’s become a difference of facts.
The Nazi Minister for Information and Propaganda Josef Goebbels once cynically said that:
“A lie told once remains a lie. A lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”.
I don’t often reference Josef Goebbels. Our world has become a world where we only commune and speak to those who agree with us…the rest of the time we yell formulas at those who don’t.
If cleverness and knowledge are not enough… what is wisdom? How do we become wise?
Wisdom or sapience (from the Latin sapientum: to be wise) is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, self-knowledge and insight. Importantly, wisdom is also associated with virtues such as compassion, ethics and benevolence.
Let’s look at the checklist and ask ourselves if we can tick all the boxes:
· Common sense
· Insight: Socrates: “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
· Self-knowledge: Aristotle said: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
The US President Theodore Roosevelt once wrote:
“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”
Remember when we could quote American Presidents? So wisdom seems to be a combination of the intellectual and the ethical, the mind and the heart. Wisdom is not a factor of age. I have met many wise young people and many unwise older people. Wisdom is attainable, but we need to work on ticking all of the boxes.
It’s quite a confronting question…am I now or will I ever be considered to be a wise person? Do I tick all the boxes? Do I have the energy, the capacity and the will to become wise? Do I even want to be wise? Perhaps asking these questions of ourselves are the early stages of the getting of wisdom?
One considered to be one of the great wise persons of the last century, Albert Einstein once quipped:
“It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
It’s my earnest hope that as you enjoy life after school, continue to learn and to aspire to be wise, and that you like that genius Albert Einstein,
“Stay with the questions much longer.”
Thank you, God bless and good luck with all that you do….