Jewish World Review July 18, 2012/ 28 Tamuz, 5772
This way to wisdom
By Paul Greenberg
It felt like home, coming back to
The official label for such students may be "gifted and talented," but I've always been suspicious of such tags, and I suspect the staff and students are, too. They're not the sort to take labels at face value. Which is another thing in their favor.
Let's just say they're interesting kids who get a chance to spend part of the summer delving into their choice of various fields from music to history, the natural sciences to the visual arts. They're also nice, and this year's crop seemed the nicest yet. Although I seem to think that every year.
I've been coming here since circa 1979, when I drove my son to the very first session, and a few years later my daughter. Both are parents themselves now.
The boy is on the program this evening as part of a panel discussion about -- what else in 2012? -- this year's presidential election. He caught the political bug early and never grew out of it. He wound up a lawyer and, for a time, a state legislator. And he'd shown such promise, too. Ah, well, what can you do? It happens in the best of families.
This year, looking around the packed auditorium, I sensed that something strange was going on here:
I seem to have grown so old since I started visiting
What a pity age does not guarantee wisdom, any more than youth guarantees openness to new ideas. Even sadder, and perhaps more dangerous, it doesn't guarantee openness to old ideas. Instead, those old lessons may have to be learned through experience, which can be the costliest of teachers. Maybe it's the stubborn nature of the species homo sapiens, man the supposedly rational.
During the Q-and-A, one of the students asked me what the difference was between being smart and being wise. "Oh, about 40 years," I estimated. And even then, there's certainly no guarantee wisdom will take. For there's no fool like an old fool. That didn't become folk wisdom for nothing.
Consider all the distractions on offer in place of age-old wisdom. Like the flood of electronic static on our latest gizmos, our iPhones, tablets,
Confusing? Never mind. Computer Science has come up with a handy-dandy way to organize and discern what we know into ascending categories:
Neat. Each division contains the germ of the next category within it. Just waiting to be developed, or maybe filtered out. Like gold from ore. Or wheat from chaff. Never mind that somehow, after we've carefully, methodically, scientifically separated the wheat from the chaff, we'll find a way to throw away the wheat and keep the chaff.
There's something wrong with this step-by-step guide to wisdom, isn't there? As anyone who has known someone truly wise would suspect. Where is judgment listed in this outline? Or faith, hope and charity? Choose your own favorite omission from this neat guide to wisdom.
There's something missing in the whole approach, isn't there? And that's it: wholeness. That may be why all our attempts to break wisdom apart, isolate its elements, and even quantify them, fail in the end. We shatter wisdom when we try to separate it. And all our gizmos and gadgets, our neat outlines and PowerPoint presentations, can't put it back together again. They only displace wisdom, not lead to it.
Where shall we look for that wholeness? For we do seem to know it when we encounter it. Or read it in Shakespeare, or Ecclesiastes. Sometimes that shock of recognition is called insight, although poetry might be the better word.
Wisdom won't be found by sticking to a neat outline. It is anything but simple, though the wise seem to have a simplicity about them. But simple they are not. Wisdom is no simple matter. And neither is life.
. . .
We know experience is essential to wisdom. And the only way to acquire experience is to go through it. There is no shortcut, no royal road to wisdom any more than there is one to mathematics or science.
We may understand something in a blinding flash -- call it insight, or revelation -- but attaining wisdom may require a lifetime. Yes, there is something known as being wise beyond one's years, but it is rare. No wonder it is commented on, like the marvel it is.
Early in the last century, which would turn out to be the most scientifically advanced yet, the most brutal in man's history, José Ortega y Gasset spoke of the sea of mediocrity that surrounds modern man. The more we know, the less we seem to understand. Ortega had a shorthand phrase for it: the barbarism of specialization.
Data spills out by the ream. Information abounds. Knowledge seems to be an offer at every website. Yet wisdom is as rare as ever. And nothing may sum up the limits of modern man better than his ignorance of that paradox.
These young people at
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