Of course, no well-educated person should simply dismiss a notion
because it is novel or seemingly implausible. Our expectations, prejudices and habits of mind can make us suspicious of valuable new concepts.
Truth lies open to all, not just to us. But when an idea is dropped before
us that does not ring true, we should retain a healthy skepticism until
more is known.
If it is bold to shamelessly defend the notion of truth, it is bolder still
to unabashedly endorse wisdom, as does the University of New Brunswick with its motto, Sapere Aude (“Dare to be wise”). The idea of wisdom,
too, often provokes either suspicion or resentment. Faced with one who
aspires to be wise, we often imagine that the pretender must be a fool who
underestimates the complexities of the world. If not that, he must be a
snob who disdains those less educated than himself.
But we have more to fear from the haters of wisdom than its admirers.
One of the greatest barriers to “daring” wisdom is the fear of reprisals
from those who cannot fathom a mind that is dedicated to a better understanding. Many people are so caught up in their own narratives that
they cannot genuinely engage with a contrary opinion, particularly if it
is vigorously expressed. The response to an unexpected argument is too
often not a counter-argument, but mere outrage. Too often we hear “How
dare you!” rather than “I disagree.” Once, in response to a satirical article I
wrote, a reader – and a university student at that – threatened to kill my cats.
It is, for this reason, I think, that so few public figures today even
attempt daring wisdom. We have become wary of causing offence or fac-
ing backlash, especially when it can now strike so quickly and with such
force. Politicians and bureaucrats make statements on the news that are
so vague that they seem calculated to lull the listener to sleep. Even so-
cial activists rarely offer bold positions. Instead they call for “awareness,”
“more funding” or any number of similarly bloodless suggestions. On all
sides, counter-arguments are left unanswered, nuances are ignored and,
often, whole issues are brushed aside – we don’t want to get dragged down
into that debate. Such strategies keep office holders in office and board
members on their boards, but they are not especially wise. And they are
certainly not daring.
for still another inspiring motto, consider that of Scotland’s
University of St Andrews, Aien aristeuein (“Ever to excel”). It is
particularly germane these days, I would argue: the word “
excellence” has been so poorly treated as to be largely meaningless, and we shy
away from the notion that university education should lead us to focus on
really improving ourselves, on genuine excellence.
One underappreciated way that education makes us better is the cultivation of a sense of humour. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of getting
more jokes. I fondly remember a promising literature student showing up
at my door, excited that she had just seen an episode of The Simpsons that
made a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” a story
we had just covered. She got a joke she wouldn’t have the week before and
it was exhilarating – to her and to me.
And it should be. It’s good to be in on the jokes. And nothing ruins a
joke like having to look up why it’s funny. But not just jokes. Writers and
artists are constantly making references to our cultural history and one
needs a knowledge of that cultural history to understand – or understand
more fully – what is being said. As I like to tell my students, you can know
the things that smart, creative people know, or you can not know them.
Personally, I’d rather know.
Education can make us better by cultivating a sense of shame, too.
Many have complained that today’s students are entitled, but in my view the
larger concern is that too many of them are shameless. When students come
“EVER TO EXCEL”