25 The Wisdom Singularity: On Schoolmasters’ Learning

Sarah Bakewell, in her 2010 Montaigne biography “How to Live,” detailed the unusual child rearing experiment that his parents attempted on him.  Montaigne was separated from his parents until he had weaned himself from his nursemaid, because his father wanted Michel to live among peasants and learn a common touch.  Then, when he returned home between the age of one and two, Michel was immersed in a Latin-speaking household.  Since neither his father nor mother spoke the language fluently, a tutor was engaged and everyone else in the household was banned from speaking to him in any language other than Latin.  What a strange atmosphere it must have been, for French to be spoken throughout the house until Michel walks into the room, at which point everyone must either switch to Latin or turn mute.

Not surprisingly, Montaigne grew up to have many opinions about education and their impact on how children are raised.  “On Schoolmasters’ learning” was the first — and for me, his thoughts remain highly relevant to pedagogical issues of our day.

One of the spectacles of 2011 was the showdown between Watson, the IBM-created, trivia-obsessed supercomputer and various carbon-based, trivia-obsessed supercomputers, better known as Jeopardy Grand Champions. The inevitable victory of the silicon geek has led to renewed fears of computer intelligence soon overtaking human intelligence.

That’s not quite accurate, because there are corporations and plenty of university research dollars devoted to just such the idea, and Ray Kurzweil is an institution onto himself promoting the Singularity Utopia. One of the most thorough examinations of the Technology Singularity movement was in the New York Times last June. If you want to read an entirely positive view of Watson’s triumph, you can find Kurzweil’s take here. For a more skeptical view, you can read a Hubert Dreyfus-inspired take.

Others are far better qualified to carry on the artificial intelligence debate. I’m more interested in the human intelligence angle, because I find it completely unsurprising that a computational machine would inevitably defeat a human at rote memorization, recall of facts and rapid deprogramming of linguistic syntax. Yet, we continue to consider this kind of machine-like recall “intelligence.” From day one in school, children are taught to memorize and regurgitate … and the better that they do so as a group, the more highly esteemed the school and the more sought-after the students become for higher education institutions. Turn yourself into a thinking machine, become a success; that’s the basic method of our educational system. It was that way in Montaigne’s age as well:

“In truth the care and fees of our parents aim only at furnishing our heads with knowledge: nobody talks about judgement or virtue…. We ought to find out not who understands most but who understands best. We work merely to fill the memory, leaving the understanding and the sense of right and wrong empty. Just as birds sometimes go in search of grain, carrying it in their beaks without tasting it to stuff it down the beaks of their young, so too do our schoolmasters go foraging for learning in their books and merely lodge it on the tip of their lips, only to spew it out and scatter it on the wind.”

To Montaigne, this form of education not only leaves out wisdom, it also turns creativity into a niche skill, rather than the apex of human intelligence.

“We know how to say, ‘This is what Cicero said’; ‘This is morality for Plato’; ‘These are the ipsissima verba of Aristotle.’ But what have we got to say? What judgements do we make? What are we doing? A parrot could talk as well as we do …. Whenever I ask a certain acquaintance of mine to tell me what he knows about anything, he wants to show me a book: he would not venture to tell me that he has scabs on his arse without studying his lexicon to find out the meanings of scab and of arse.”

Which, incidentally, is exactly what Watson does before it answers a question on Jeopardy! The fact that it can process the information quickly only disguises the fact that it’s a dumb piece of machinery, not a sentient “spiritual” being. But like I said before, I don’t want to pick a fight with Kurzweil here. I also do not want to pick a fight with the American education system. Critics on the right and left do far too much of that already, in my view; a little respect for people who have devoted their lives to pedagogy is in order.

In fact, I think we’re probably asking our schools to do too much already. I think Montaigne takes matters too far in this essay by suggesting that some people are better off receiving no education:

“Take a peasant or a cobbler: you can see them going simply and innocently about their business, talking only of what they know: whereas these fellows, who want to rise up and fight armed with knowledge which is merely floating about on the surface of their brains, are for ever getting snarled up and entangled. Fine words break loose from them: but let somebody else apply them! They know their Galen but not their patient. They stuff your head full of prescriptions before they even understand what the case is about. They have learned the theory of everything: try and find one who can put it into practice.”

Now we are not merely to stick knowledge on to the soul: we must incorporate it into her; the soul should not be sprinkled with knowledge but steeped in it. And if knowledge does not change her and make her imperfect state better then it is preferable just to leave it alone. Knowledge is a dangerous sword; in a weak hand which does not know how to wield it it gets in its master’s way and wounds him, so that it would have been better not to have studied at all.

In Montaigne’s day, perhaps that was possible. But we live in a technological democracy. Good luck finding employment as a farm peasant or cobbler; without a certain level of knowledge, people are doomed to become wards of the state (and an increasingly stingy state at that.) These know-nothings also have just as much right to vote as a PhD … so do we really want to risk our democracy to a populace unable to understand it?

But I do agree with the crux of Montaigne’s argument — facts are fine, but making use of them is the true value of education. And mere knowledge is not enough; the more valuable cultural asset is wisdom. Given the limitations of our schools, where will that wisdom come from? The first possibility is higher educational institutions. In his 2010 book “Wisdom,” Steven Hall highlights recent efforts by Tufts University to focus on applied knowledge:

“Robert J. Sternberg, current dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at (Tufts University) and a former president of the American Psychological Association, has put a three-decade academic career on the line and decided to test the idea that wisdom can be cultivated in young minds—indeed, needs to be cultivated—if the world has any hope of changing. ‘We have constructed an educational system,”’Sternberg says, ‘to produce people with skills to lead us in exactly the direction we don’t want to go.’”

In the Tufts system, teachers are asked to do something that hearkens back to the original Academy of Plato and Lyceum of Aristotle: serve as role models of wisdom. In a Socratic, show-rather-than-tell approach, teachers try to elicit new habits of thoughts in their students: how to balance competing interests in everyday decision-making tasks, how to incorporate one’s moral and ethical values into one’s thought processes, how to think “dialogically” (taking an other-centered approach that attempts to understand multiple viewpoints), how to think “dialectically” (understanding that a solution that is right at one time and place may well be wrong when circumstances change), and how to become self-conscious in a positive and enlightening way, monitoring one’s own thought processes and decisions through a lens of wisdom. In a wisdom-based approach to teaching, Sternberg has written, teachers “will take a much more Socratic approach to teaching than teachers customarily do” and “students will need to take a more active role in constructing their learning.”

I believe that, inevitably, these kinds of role models are essential. Most will not have the opportunity to take advantage of an expensive university and it’s wisdom-based approach to education. But as a dedicated autodidact, I do believe that all parents and grandparents are fully capable of committing themselves to lifelong learning, to finding a greater, deeper understanding of the world long after formal education is complete. Also in “Wisdom,” Hall gives the example of Benjamin Franklin’s father as the kind of sage our democracy sorely needs, in every family:

“As Franklin pointed out in his Autobiography, his father never engaged in public affairs, and yet a steady stream of Colonial movers and shakers came to his Boston home, dined at his table, and solicited the elder’s judgment in matters related to church, state, and life in general (“he was also much consulted by private persons about their affairs when any difficulty occurred, and frequently chosen an arbitrator between contending parties”). Indeed, the Franklin dinner table was an incubator of wisdom, crackling with edifying conversations leading to “some ingenious or useful topic for discourse” for the benefit of the children. The quality of the conversation was so exceptional that, in a phrase that would prick the ears of modern cognitive scientists, the Franklin children were brought up with a “perfect inattention” to the quality of the food set before them; attention, after all, is the brain’s way of setting priorities and deciding what is most important. Josiah Franklin was, in short, a wise man, although no one other than his son seems to have taken public note of the fact.”

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