The Nature of Wisdom

Wisdom is one those nebulous concepts that everyone hears often enough and thinks they understand, but no one can really give a good definition for it. Is wisdom the result of a successful resolution of integrity vs. despair in Erickson’s psychosocial development model (Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner, 2007) or a socially agreed upon concensus (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011)? Does it result from reflection (Truslow, 2013) or the fear of the Lord (Sowing Circle, 2013)? Is it a binary concept with an on for wise and off for foolish or can someone be wise in only a single subject? The target is in perpetual motion and approachable from many sides.

Emotion and Reason

In many cultures across a large span of history, women have been considered to be both physically and mentally weaker than men. Physically weaker is easier to explain in terms of body construction and other physiological phenomena, but mentally is a little more difficult. As a rule women are more emotional than men, with exceptions on both sides, which has led to the idea that emotion and reason are contrary concepts.

Of the two, reason has often been held in higher esteem. The Greek stoics held that a truly wise person was one who could shun emotional extremes (Baltzy, 2010). Even today, being easily given to emotions is often perceived as a sign of weakness.

Popular science fiction has picked up on this trend. Some authors and screenwriters have designed alien races or cultures proclaimed to be superior to average humans in some regard because the aliens either indulge all emotions or shun them entirely.

Neuroscience has been striving for some time to map out the brain and figure out what segments are responsible for what functions. There do seem to be some consistencies, but there is also variation among individuals. Complicating things further, people with brain injuries can sometimes remap some functions to other brain areas and some studies are considering whether functions originally attributed to the brain might occur anywhere there are nerves (Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner, 2007).

I think the interplay between emotion and reason is important to educators. In my classes, I have seen students struggling with some manner of depression or at the opposite extreme and be bouncing off the walls with excitement. Either way, they were incapable of focusing long enough to learn anything and logical thought processes were lightyears away. This suggests to me that when dealing with students who are experiencing emotional extremes, I may need to change the lesson format or pacing to help the student.

Reflections on Wisdom

The origin of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Sowing Circle, 2013), and wisdom continues from there through the acquisition of knowledge and the experience. In the end, a wise person can use that knowledge and experience for the benefit of others (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011).

When I was younger, I had a lot of knowledge but about half the common sense of a rock. I could spout off all sorts of random trivia about parrots, Renaissance cultures, particular comic book characters, or computer troubleshooting tactics; but give me a problem to solve outside those facts, and I was one stumped kid. I was quick to find fault with others without first recognizing the same problem in myself. Things that went wrong were someone else’s fault because I knew what I was doing. No one could tell me anything.

Time passed, and I picked up some real-world experience. A few of my carefully made decisions blew up in my face when I failed to consider the advice of people around me, particularly in the realm of interpersonal relationships.

I had a couple friends who were a few years older and a whole lot wiser. They challenged all my preconceived notions and pointed out when my decision-making processes were long on brain and short on sense. Just as importantly, these friends were good at pointing out options I had not considered. In a couple cases, they pointed out how some of the advice I had received was just wrong. Over time, my patterns of thinking changed. I learned how to apply what I knew and analyze situations to better figure out a solution. I can now press a virtual fast forward button and figure out the most likely outcome for a choice.

Previously, I was sure I had all the answers because I was one smart kid. Now I realize I have no idea what most of the questions are, let alone what the answers might be. This no longer creates anxiety for me. I do not have answer the answers to the conundrums of life, but that is not a sign of weakness. That simply means that I am merely mortal, which is fine. Being able to accept my own ignorance is a sign that I have grown in wisdom (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011).

Wisdom and Adult Learning

As an adult learner, I find that I am more willing to listen to others’ opinions now. Before, I was so cocky that I had already made up my mind on something before hearing all sides of the discussion. Since I do not have all the answers, I realize that someone else might have an answer I do not.

At the same time, however, I am still terrifically opinionated, especially in some matters. Some subjects have room for a difference of opinion without anyone being on the higher ground, but I do believe very strongly that in some issues there is a definite right and wrong with very little gray in between, if any at all.

Unlike during the foolishness of my youth, I can now state my reasons for my opinions. I can defend my beliefs with something more interesting than, “Because I am right, and you are not.” As a learner, I have also gained another skill that seems to be in short supply, judging from the comments at the end of some online articles and blogs: I can disagree with someone, even on key issues, and still behave like a civilized human being.

As an educator, the discussion of wisdom, learning, and cognitive development has driven home a critical point. Teaching information is not enough. Even if my students can recite the material backwards in two languages, they are not finished with learning, and I am not finished with teaching. Students need to be able to use the information they are learning not only in the context of the lesson, but also in new situations.

Along the way, I may also need to challenge their presuppositions and show them or lead them to a discovery of the ways information is related. Wisdom can be grown in those sorts of situations.

Ultimately, while the concept of wisdom remains a little indistinct around the edges, as an educator, I need to foster growth of wisdom in the ways I teach my students.


Baltzy, D. (2010). Stoicism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Attaining wisdom, part 1 [Video Webcast]. Retrieved from

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sowing Circle. (2013) Blue letter Bible. Retrieved from

Truslow, K. (2013, September 19). RE: Koepp – Week 3 – Response to Joy and Chris [Online discussion group]. Retrieved from


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