by Jerry Pattengale
Wisdom often peeks into our lives unannounced, while at other times we plan curricula to transmit its tenets. Participants in Baylor University’s recent conference on wisdom (more than 400 registrants) experienced both aspects of the journey to a wiser academy—and wiser alumni. Entitled “Educating for Wisdom in the 21st-Century University” and held under the auspices of Baylor’s Institute for Faith & Learning, this symposium engaged a diverse audience in which many academic disciplines were represented. The sessions also evoked reflection on our own intersection with lessons on wisdom.
While helping to direct the Scriptorium initiatives in the 1990s, I had gathered our board members in our Hampton Court offices near Herefordshire, England. One morning, Walt Kaiser, Edwin Yamauchi, and Bruce Metzger serendipitously joined Scott Carroll, Robert (Bob) Van Kampen, and me for tea and scones. Rather suddenly, and disconnected from our casual conversation, Bob (our patron) asked Dr. Yamauchi a question about Greek grammar, one related to a favorite Ephesians passage Bob claimed was often “misquoted” in defense of Arminian theology. (Bob was on the extreme opposite end from Wesleyan theology.)
Dr. Yamauchi didn’t hesitate in responding. Even though he obviously knew the answer (one found in lessons early in Mounce’s Basics in Greek), he replied, “Mr. Van Kampen, in the presence of the master of Greek studies, I would always defer such a question to Dr. Metzger.” Then he nodded to Dr. Metzger, who gave a stately and clear answer—and also avoided the theological debate.
The difference between knowledge and wisdom manifested itself at that moment. Dr. Metzger relayed knowledge and exercised wise restraint. The sagacious Dr. Yamauchi seemed to represent both qualities without thinking! Sounds oxymoronish, but throughout the Baylor conference there was an element of mystery about the highest manifestations of wisdom, about “natural” abilities and “learned” qualities, and the convergence of multiple data demanding a response. Candace Vogler (University of Chicago) set the tone for the conference with her intense transparency in her opening plenary lecture, “Keeping Track of What Matters.” Vogler described her experience designing and leading (with a colleague) an innovative and profoundly countercultural master’s degree program in humanities—countercultural, that is, in the context of an élite research university. It is difficult to get a good education, Volger said, even at the best universities, because “It’s hard to get something when you only have a hazy idea of what it is you’re seeking,” and such is the condition of most students. Like Anthony Kronman, Stanley Hauerwas, Doug Henry, Perry Glanzer and many others, Vogler finds the answer in a humanistic education. She highlighted the irony in her provost’s comment, ” ‘The startup cost in the humanities is very very low.’ In his field [physics] it’s around $2 million.”
Her opening session went deep as her transparency transcended our disciplines and degrees. She recalled that her father, a man given to episodes of violence, nevertheless taught her “that if I had a serious question, I could find a serious answer—through reading, writing, and praying.” She did have questions, beginning with the discordance at home. And those questions led her to the university and to a lifetime of inquiry. All of our students, she reminded us, have fundamental questions growing out of what it means to be human, even if they don’t know how to ask. The master’s program in humanities at the University of Chicago took up such perennial questions, which used to be at the core of moral philosophy. Vogler tried to model lessons, not just talk “about” the readings. “We need to try them on to learn,” she said, not “just write about” them.
It was clear that our opening address was being given by someone who had embraced the true nature of classical philosophy, of living what is learned while learning to live, with a Christian spirit of humility. She was proposing that professors needed to walk the arduous journey with their students. “You don’t even begin to critique unless you owe a debt to the thing you’re studying,” she said, adding: “You have to be prepared to be implicated in the very things you find unsatisfactory.” And so the three-day conference began.
During an engaging session entitled “Models for Moral Formation,” Perry Glanzer (Baylor University) presented a helpful definition of wisdom: “Wisdom involves the skill and knowledge necessary to piece together a good life among disparate identities.” He argued that a key aspect of assembling these various parts is to come to terms for oneself with the meaning of life and, more specifically, one’s purpose. Next was to understand and articulate a working response to our competing identities, such as what we profess and our professions, e.g., a Christian nurse or a Christian educator. Perry’s notions helped to objectify the subjective, or at least to categorize steps in a conceptual journey to gaining wisdom.
The stately John Haldane (University of St Andrews) gave the closing address, and brought to light the wisdom of John Stuart Mill. In an address as rector to the students at St Andrews, Mill noted that being other than wise can simply be due to natural limitations, but it can also be the result of an improper education. Perhaps a sentence from Mill’s essay “Road to Progress” captures the essence of the conference in the light of the academy’s current struggle for significance:
The unwise are those who bring nothing constructive to the process, and who greatly imperil the future of mankind by leaving great questions to be fought out between ignorant change on one hand and ignorant opposition to change on the other.
It is along these lines that another of the conference’s plenary speakers, Anthony Kronman (Yale University), has entered the national spotlight. Perhaps his biggest contribution to the great dialogue is his frank recognition that some questions are indeed weightier than others. Although elsewhere I have challenged some of the key assertions in his provocative book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life (2007), and certainly his governing conviction (the unabashed endorsement of secular humanism), I strongly encourage all who care about higher education to read Education’s End. And kudos to Baylor for recruiting Kronman as a keynoter: he’s a master of the speaker’s art. Perhaps his calculatedly cautious address was an attempt to exercise the very classical definition of wisdom he was parsing before 400 people with worldviews likely at odds with his; most of his listeners unapologetically acknowledge a reality that transcends human understanding.
Sharing the plenary platform with Kronman was the literary scholar and cultural critic Andrew Delbanco (Columbia University), and the DVD from their session is worth acquiring (“Does Wisdom Have a Role in the 21st-Century University?”). Delbanco closed with a riveting story of two students attending Shakespeare’s King Lear. As they leave the theater, one flippantly dismisses the outcome: the old king got what he deserved. What a waste of time! The other student is deeply moved, though he can’t fully express what he has experienced. The series of events in the play, the probing of family ties, of justice and injustice, the playwright’s provocative insights into the human condition—all this has touched and changed the student. Perhaps he identifies with Cordelia but recognizes selfish streaks of Regan and Goneril in himself as well. Perhaps he doesn’t want to collapse in grief at life’s end, and seeks the better life. Delbanco’s story suggests the inner critique that Vogler espouses. It prompts the “purpose” questions that Glanzer promotes. In essence, Delbanco reminded us of the mystery of learning, of the amorphous contours of wisdom and the sharp edges of knowledge. As with Yamauchi, knowing the basic knowledge was only part of the equation. To memorize the characters’ names and virtues or vices is to chronicle, to begin that solid base for inquiry. To find their meaning in the context of life is begin to understand the complexities of God’s creation.
So too, John Haldane’s superb closing address demonstrated both wisdom and knowledge in a witty, whimsical style—not only his written text but also his impromptu answers during the Q&A. On one point, however, he failed to persuade. Paraphrasing John Henry Newman’s notion that scholarship and research are not synonymous, Haldane said that scholarship takes one deeper while research produces new knowledge. He added then—and here was the unpersuasive point—that, contrary to current trends in the academy, one need not engage in research to be a better teacher. Indeed, he found that idea risible. Scholarship deepens teaching, he said. Reasearch? No.
Celia Deane-Drummond (University of Notre Dame) would disagree with Haldane’s comments on the disconnection between research and teaching. During her plenary address on “Wisdom Remembered: The Place of Theological Wisdom in the Academy,” she described her arduous journey through heavy teaching loads in England, and the staleness (and tiredness) of the task divorced from research. Later she shared with a couple of us, that personally, and in her observation of others, researching with students is among the most invigorating learning experiences for all involved. Deane-Drummond’s observations resonate with my experiences, not to mention the evidence of the Center for Undergraduate Research and serious “research” on the matter. (Full disclosure here, as head of the Green Scholars Initiative, I’m constantly aligning professors across the nation with the documents of the Green Collection—with the requirement that they mentor students in their research.)
The conference prompted many questions, none larger than “So what?” And in the light of the dominance of Christian institutions among participants, the session “Educating for Wisdom in the Christian University” proved spot-on in suggesting answers. Todd Ream (Indiana Wesleyan University), author and co-editor of recent books on this subject, placed two case studies as bookends of his speech. The first was the role of the late Arthur Holmes in shaping the discussion, especially in the pages of his well-traveled The Idea of a Christian College. Ream called for “a shift from epistemological matters being the primary focus to ontological matters.” He contended that “Christian universities are places that afford community members, and the publics those individuals serve, diverse yet interconnected opportunities for well-practiced theology. The end result [of] well-practiced theology is divine or saving wisdom.” The other bookend was an account of a relative who continues to play a significant part in restructuring struggling K-12 schools (applying hard-won knowledge), and yet whose strongest experience of gaining wisdom came in a personal encounter with an orphan. (More disclosure: Yes, Todd Ream is colleague and friend—but I would be remiss if I failed to report on his contribution to the conversation.)
In the same session, Michael Cartwright (University of Indianapolis) called for more emphasis on the service side of education, that is, the “curriculum beyond the curriculum.” Cartwright countered Stanley Fish: “To pretend that we are not responsible for the [moral] formation of students is to turn a blind eye to our engagements in a world in which engaging students is part of a larger political economy in which education is both a product of consumption and a consuming endeavor for all concerned.”
As I moved between the common areas in Baylor’s Bill Daniel Student Center and the conference’s main lecture hall, the Barfield Drawing Room (a room worthy to stand alongside the great halls at Samford University), I often stopped at the smorgasbord of books displayed by Baylor Press, flanking the hall’s entrance. After buying over thirty books, I thought it wise to take alternate routes to the lecture hall. Many of the Baylor titles, along with those at likeminded presses such as Abilene Christian University Press, reveal serious interest in life’s ultimate questions.
Conferences like “Educating for Wisdom” should remind us that there are hundreds of programs across the nation where strong cohorts of students are indeed challenged by both professors and self-inquiry. The undergraduate and graduate students at the conference, many from Oklahoma Baptist, Union, and the throng from Baylor’s Crain Scholars Program, talked with passion and precision about a mélange of important books. From the casual table conversations to the co-presentations of sessions, these students revealed well-honed intellectual virtues.
But keeping such programs alive, as Vogler ruefully said, can be an enormous challenge. If colleges are to implement sustained programs that educate for wisdom, they will need to be institutionalized. If an institution is indeed a systematic response to a recurring need, and educating for wisdom is an established need, then faculty, administrators, and trustees need to establish the necessary systems.
In time, some aspects of these systems become traditions. David Bebbington (University of Sterling/Baylor University) reminded a conference session that traditions are alive. After a pause, he added: “Wesley is dead. Methodism is alive.” As another generation of wise professors pass, we need to keep the best of their wise counsel alive. And we need to keep returning to the great books that too often have been brushed aside for utilitarian degrees. It’s little wonder that we left Baylor celebrating a conference on educating for wisdom.
Jerry Pattengale is Assistant Provost at Indiana Wesleyan University, Executive Director of National Conversations, and Director of the Green Scholars Initiative. He also serves as Senior Fellow, The Sagamore Institute; Distinguished Senior Fellow, Baylor University’s ISR, and; Research Scholar, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.