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Book Learning vs. Wisdom – Where to Place One’s Emphasis

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education – Mark Twain.

Our new, wired world has brought forth many positives. One of the simplest, yet powerful, of the new tools available is the ability to bookmark worthy Internet materials for future use.

Even more powerful is the ability to share those materials indirectly through the use of sites like Delicious. We subscribe so as to have the most popular education bookmarks forwarded to us on a daily basis.

iStock_000002953485XSmallOver the last few days, two noteworthy pieces have proven most popular. The first is a copy of a speech given by a teenager at her graduation. The class valedictorian’s address essentially articulated that famous quote from one of America’s most celebrated writers, Mark Twain.

The second piece drawing extensive attention involved a visual representation of what it means to study for a Ph.D. While far less incendiary, it nonetheless gave this reader some very negative vibes.

But the two in total offer a very important lesson for those who work with young people.

The Speech

The valedictory address from Erica Goldson begins with this simple little story:

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years ” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.”

“But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student.

“Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

Offering rare insight for one so young, Goldson acknowledges that book learning is not the same as wisdom. The valedictorian notes that her position at the top of the class is not as meaningful as most would have it.

“…in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. … I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it.”

Of course, what makes the speech so impressive is how unassuming this young thinker is. Yes it is a scathing rebuke, but it is clear that this young lady is someone of merit, even if she wants to toss her class ranking on the scrap heap. She clearly did more than learn how to regurgitate facts, developing some incredible thinking skills along the way.

iStock_000003015755XSmallIn mid-stream, she further displays wisdom beyond her years as she turns to those who helped shape her education over the last few years:

”For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.”

And most notably, she in turn gives thanks to her classmates for the role they played in who she has become to date:

“So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.”

Everyone involved in the field of education should read and contemplate the content put forward in this magnificent speech.

The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

Biased to a fault, I think educators are a special breed of people. One of the strengths the best teachers display is the ability to break down sophisticated ideas into easy to assemble chunks.

Such is the case with the second piece earning so much attention, Matt Might’s post. In it the assistant professor in the School of Computing at the University of Utah shares with readers a presentation he uses each fall to explain to first-year Ph.D. students just what a Ph.D. is.

Given the challenges of articulating such a concept in words, Might uses a great set of visuals to express the concept concretely. The visuals represent another element that great teachers consistently employ, the concept of modeling.

The model in fact may do the job too well. By the time his concentric circles and protruding radii reach the outer point where the Ph.D. appears, the bump that forms represents yet another analogy we have heard all too often (something about the pimple on the behind of…).

PhDKnowledge.010Indeed, while the presentation completely expresses what it means to earn a Ph.D., it does not conjure up positive educational thoughts for this writer. Instead, it reeks of what the young lady so artfully railed against, book-learning versus what we might call wisdom.

Even the bachelor’s degree imagery is less than flattering to this reader. My guess is it would reinforce the notion of those who see a college degree as a waste of time for so many students.

And the final image? Well it articulates that pimple analogy far too well.

The Educational Challenge

In a nutshell, these two pieces represent the challenge teachers and professors face as they seek to motivate the next generation. There is little doubt that pure knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing – not for individuals and certainly not for society as a whole.

But the world will move forward only when knowledge is combined with that element we have come to call wisdom. As educators, our task is to understand this critical difference, to be certain that we instill in our charges an understanding that there is a difference between these two concepts.

Perhaps our system does promote one without the other – after all we do seem to place so much emphasis on the accomplishment (high school graduation, earning a Ph.D., or becoming class valedictorian) that we have little opportunity to recognize the process. But that is where individuals can and should make a difference.

The question is – what do you place the greatest emphasis on with the students in your classroom?


1 crudbasher { 08.16.10 at 10:29 am }

I had read the speech last week. I had not yet seen the illustrated guide. Nice job tying those two together. A good question for universities is to ask, why would students want to attend here?
Nice post thanks!

2 alisa jones { 09.12.10 at 10:16 pm }

“You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it,” This is perhaps the most powerful statements in this article. It is amazing that students see through the cookie cut education so many teachers, professors and administrators are forced to feed students. Understanding how students view the education they are receiving is valuable in making needed changes.

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