“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Attributed to British journalist and humorist Miles Kington (1941–2008), that aphorism nicely sums up the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.
Unlike knowledge, wisdom is one of the four cardinal virtues, which are acquired by practice and habit rather than from the pages of a textbook or the words of a teacher.
Most commentators agree that, unlike calculus or geography, wisdom can’t be taught in a classroom. However, it can be encouraged to grow and thrive. Two of history’s greatest teachers, for example, Socrates and Jesus, sought to inspire wisdom seekers among their followers—Socrates by his questions and Jesus by his parables. Closer to our time, 19th-century American writers aimed at this same target by including a heavy dose of traditional moral teachings and stories in their textbooks.
Given the often-reported confusion and mental distress among our children and youth today, we might do well to follow the examples of these ancestors and work to nurture in the young their capacity for discernment and wisdom.
Literature and HistoryAesop’s fables; Lucy Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” stories; the age-appropriate biographies of figures such as George Washington, Amelia Earhart, and Theodore Roosevelt; the novels of Jane Austen; and the plays of Shakespeare: These and thousands of other stories offer a wealth of lessons that help sharpen judgment.
Words of the WiseFor the past 60 years, our society has seen the breakdown of marriage and family, the rise of a youth culture, and rapid technological advances, especially in communication and social media. The consequence? The mentors of our young people are frequently their peers, adolescents, teens, and 20-somethings just like themselves.
The Art of the PauseOne common sign of wisdom is the ability, when confronted by a problem, to step back and consider choices and outcomes before acting on a decision. Many adults, from some of our politicians to our next-door neighbors, lack this talent for weighing consequences. They remain stuck in adolescence, mistaking glitter for gold and jumping into situations with little regard for consequences.
Guided FailureNo parent wants to see a child fail. Some parents nag their 10th graders to put away their phones and study for the next day’s biology exam. Others reinforce with sympathy a teenager’s excuses for quitting a summer job after only two days. Some even call a college professor to protest a child’s grade of C on an exam.
Standards for a Good LifeEarly training in virtues such as honesty, kindness, persistence, and courage breeds wisdom. By teaching these character strengths to our children and by living them out ourselves, we help on the arduous climb toward wisdom. For instance, kindness teaches an understanding of others. To bravely face up to trouble rather than run away will someday make them wise counselors in a marriage or the workplace.
A Humble SpiritThe serenity prayer encapsulates the humility that accompanies wisdom: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Recognizing our limitations is a mark of the wise and will allow us to enjoy the serenity mentioned in the prayer, another tool in the practice of good judgment.
Tales and even jokes are told of sages living on top of mountains. The mountain represents an arduous and even dangerous climb; the sage is wisdom.
When we encourage our young people to become seekers of wisdom from an early age, we’re giving them a boost up that mountain.