A pragmatic approach to the cultivation of wisdom

A few months ago, Giles and I were approached by Phil McDermott of The Story Emporium to collaborate on devising an educational syllabus we've called 'Speech, Sense, Style'. Phil already does very successful work in using storytelling as means of developing literacy through oracy. He knew of the work we do in terms of voice-centred communication skills training including classical rhetoric and rhetorical training – his challenge to us was, could we work together to help young learners not just speak out more clearly, but work on expanding their frames of reference, the quality and depth of their thinking, and enhance the self-expression of their individuality.

In his Essays on Education, Alfred Whitney Griswold wrote, 'The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.'

Over the next few weeks, I plan to outline, in practical and pragmatic terms, what I believe this means in modern terms and why we think putting wisdom at the heart of an integrated liberal arts curriculum focused on logic, grammar and rhetoric is vital and relevant to all of us – whether or not we're educators or parents – to all of us, here and now.


Why do we think logic, grammar and rhetoric are so important?

Well, as Sister Miriam Joseph explains, in her jewel of a book, The Trivium, which is a rare instance of an integrated approach to teaching all three subjects, the reason these three subjects were grouped together and taught before the quadrivium (Geometry, Astronomy, Mathematics and Music) was that logic, which she describes as the study of the thing-as-it-is-known, grammar, the study of the thing-as-it-is-described and rhetoric, the study of the thing-as-it-is-communicated, all being based within the person who engages with them, end up developing that person from within.

Logic, grammar and rhetoric help facilitate clearer thinking and enhance communication. But here's the challenge. Clearer thinking is not necessarily wiser thinking. But how can we cultivate wisdom, a type of thinking that is characteristically deep, connected, empathetic, open-ended and life-sustaining? Is it something that develops naturally over time, or is it something that can be developed in a practical, pragmatic way? If the latter, then how?

Allow me to engage you in a thought experiment.

I want you to imagine you're in a laboratory studying a cut English tea rose in full bloom. You want to know what makes this rose a rose. You take the petals off one by one, studying the size differences between them, the texture, perhaps deviating to paying attention to the perfume, then moving on to the other parts of the flower head, the stem, with its thorns, branches and leaves.

Stop for a moment.

This is like trying to study what makes a home a home by listing every piece of furniture and every knick-knack in it, sending them all into storage and knocking down the walls to try and find the mystery in what is ultimately just a pile of bricks, wood, most probably some copper piping and electric wire.

Now think about a living rose – and open yourself completely to an encounter with what makes a living rose a rose – not what you think makes a rose a rose, but simply what makes a rose a rose. Feel yourself connect with roseness and try and consciously move from one mode of thinking to another in your mind, at will.

Think about what makes a house a home. Open yourself completely to homeness.

Finally, consciously move between roseness and homeness in your mind. They're both similar in that they're abstract concepts, but you should sense a difference – and a sense of surety about when you're moving from one to the other, a sense of recognition and confident knowledge. You know how these 2 things differ – and if you've really engaged, you'll be able to see that this is a deep knowledge, that exists on a similar level, if not the same level, as the knowledge we have that 2 + 2 = 4.

At this level, doubt doesn't enter the picture. It's a useful tool, but it just doesn't belong here.

This level of profound re-cognition, for me, forms a pragmatic foundation for the cultivation of wisdom in my mental engagement with the world around me.

How this relates to and informs language will be the subject of my next blog post.

In the meantime, explore the modes of thinking outlined here – label them if you must, but then go beyond the labels, beyond doubt, into re-cognition, into knowledge.



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