They (those mythical experts), say with age comes wisdom. I am not convinced this is true, but for now let’s assume it is. My question then is, at what age does the younger generation have enough wisdom to determine which values of their elders they should cast aside and which they should retain?
It seems obvious the answer must recognize that wisdom and knowledge are not synonymous and one may have knowledge without wisdom. But can one have wisdom, without knowledge? That question seems to be harder to answer. It also seems obvious that knowledge must come from the world, learned from parents and family, teachers, friends, trusted public personalities, books (or now the world-wide web), and observation. Wisdom, though is something beyond knowledge.
“Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one, have oft-times no connection. Knowledge dwells in heads replete with thoughts of other men; wisdom, in minds attentive to their own. Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass, the mere materials with which wisdom builds, till smooth’d and squar’d and fitted to its place, does but encumber whom it seems t’enrich. Knowledge is proud that he has learn’d so much; wisdom is humble that he knows no more.”
William Cowper (1731-1800) The Task, 6.88, 1785[i]
Aldous Huxley, in his essay Censorship and Spoken Literature, published in 1956, wrote “Ours is a world in which knowledge accumulates and wisdom decays.”[ii] The events of the past 20 years have, for me, solidified the accuracy of Huxley’s statement.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, when my generation was coming of age, we were full of knowledge and ideas on how to make the world better. We were inspired by the science that sought to take us to the stars, embarrassed by the racism that existed in America, and alienated by a war that seemed to have no end, yet sought to send our young off to die in a war with no clear road to victory. Yet here we are some forty years later, with my generation in charge and surrounded by the same problems we had as young men and women. Where did we fail to translate knowledge into wisdom?
For eight years, we had a President who was extremely popular with his supporters, the press, and the liberal establishment. He was 47 when elected, yet he was surrounded by people my age and older. In the course of his administration what did he and his party accomplish? Was he, and his party, able to translate their vision of a more equitable America into a reality? Was he personally able to translate his knowledge into the wisdom necessary to unite the country and end our wars? Did he and his administration show the wisdom to consider all the social implications of casting aside the bias and concerns of a large portion of society, as they rushed to appease the vocal minorities?
The unfortunate reality of the past administration was the creation of conditions that led directly to the current administration. As much as his supporters would deny this, the facts are inescapable. We, the people of the United States, when asked to cast our ballot in November, cast enough of them in enough different places to bring in an outsider who refused to conform to the political expectations of either party.
The other unfortunate reality is the current President, his administration, and all his opponents seem no more capable of translating knowledge into wisdom than the previous one. Bringing me back to my original question. When do we have the wisdom to know what is right for the whole, or when the rights of the one outweigh the rights of the many?