How many of you are presented with an unexpected New Year’s challenge, should you wish to accept it? This was my year. On January 5th a fellow blogger at Aging Capriciously, John Persico, challenged me to write 3 blog posts, at any time during 2022, on topics of his choice. In exchange he would write posts on three topics of my choice. Always intrigued by a challenge, as long as it’s not physically dangerous, I of course accepted. This blog post is my effort at responding to his topic #1: What is the difference between Wisdom and Knowledge?
According to dictionary.com:
The word knowledge is defined first as the “acquaintance with facts, truths or principles, as from study or investigation; general erudition.” … Knowledge is typically gained through books, research, and delving into facts.
Wisdom is defined as “the state of being wise,” which means “having the power of discernment and judging properly as to what is true or right: possessing discernment, judgement, or discretion.” …. Wisdom is typically gained from experiences and acquired over time.
The primary difference between the two words is that wisdom involves a healthy dose of perspective and the ability to make sound judgments about a subject while knowledge is simply knowing. Anyone can become knowledgeable about a subject by reading, researching, and memorizing facts.
Let’s start with Knowledge. This so-called definition in dictionary.com makes knowledge sound so straightforward. You read, research, and memorize facts. No biggie, anyone can do it. Wrong! Ironically, in my young years – a very long time ago – I would have bought into that definition of knowledge. Some of the knowledge/facts we were asked to acquire in school were difficult, one might say obscure, but in my school years I never questioned whether the facts I was expected to memorize or the understanding I was expected to achieve was anything but the truth, or at least the truth as was known at that time. Sadly, I’m afraid I’m not as confident that this is true as I once was.
There are two main subject areas that arise with regard to this lack of confidence. One is Science. In case you aren’t aware of my background, I am a very, very strong believer in science and the diligent work of scientists in their search for understanding. But recently it’s become clear to me that many people don’t understand how science works. Science is a work in progress. It’s about finding out the facts/truth as best we can in the context in which we find ourselves and then building on that knowledge as techniques improve or new evidence or theories emerge that allow us to understand more fully. That’s what science is. That doesn’t it make it wrong when answers change as understanding increases. That doesn’t mean that the scientific facts presented by the world’s best scientists aren’t the best facts we have at the time and shouldn’t be listened to. That definitely doesn’t mean that people should select the facts they like and discard – or even demean – the facts they don’t like. Just to cite a few examples:
- The theory of evolution and natural selection was first published in 1859 and has never been disproved or even modified. Yet Darwin’s theory remains discounted and even vilified in many segments of society, all because it goes against what they want to believe.
- The scientific evidence of tobacco smoking was dismissed for decades by the tobacco industry, thanks to greed, and accepted as bogus by those who smoked, based on wishful thinking.
- And right now, far too many people, including some industries and political leaders, refuse to accept the incontrovertible facts of man-made climate change.
It’s clear that just reading the facts doesn’t equate to knowledge, and certainly doesn’t ensure wisdom.
The other subject area that comes to mind in this discussion, the one that most of us considered the main “memorize the facts” subject in school, is History. An excellent recent blog post by New Zealand historian and author Matthew Wright reminds us that history has always been written by the “winners”; we only get their side of the story. We were never told that in school, and I doubt that our teachers thought of it either. But just take a very quick look at some of the “facts” that we used to be taught (I know things have changed, but not enough) and you’ll see what I mean.
Christopher Columbus and 1492. When I was a kid growing up in the U.S. we always had Columbus Day off to honour the fact that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Nowadays, some States no longer call it a holiday and some are actually changing it to Indigenous Peoples Day, which is appropriate and awesome. But the interesting thing is that most Americans continue to believe that Columbus “discovered” their continent.
In fact, Columbus never set foot on the continent of North America. He landed on the inhabited island of what is now part of the Bahamas, and then spent some time on the island of what’s now called Hispaniola (Haiti and the DR). He also set foot on parts of Central and South America, but never North America. So why do so many people still believe this? How did it even start?
The Vikings actually had settlements in Newfoundland, in what is now the eastern part of Canada, way back in 1021, nearly 500 years before Columbus. The remains of 8 buildings plus artifacts of the settlement can be found at L’Anse aux Meadow in northern Newfoundland, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. That actually is part of North America, but for some reason was never mentioned in any history I was taught. (Image at L’Anse aux Meadows, source: NY Times)
There is now more definitive evidence emerging that a very large fleet of ships, sponsored by Malian ruler Mansa Musa, sailed to the coast of what’s now Brazil from Mali in Africa in 1311. This has been disputed and ignored forever by non-Africans, but new evidence may show the world that Europeans were not the first people to cross the Atlantic and find a whole new world, which was already populated by literally millions of people and therefore only “new” to Europeans.
Who’s in charge of the curriculum? Matthew Wright reminded us that history is written by the winners. We are now increasingly being reminded that what history is taught is in the hands of the governments and policy implementers who dictate what shall – and shall not – be taught. Hence so many places where the theory of evolution is not allowed to be taught. Where children are not taught about a scientific theory that has been accepted as reality since shortly after Charles Darwin published his theory in 1859. Their parents and politicians just block out knowledge that they don’t like.
As the world has finally awakened to the many, many injustices perpetrated on minority groups, actions have been proposed to expand people’s knowledge of these injustices in the hopes that societal improvements may follow. That we can become a more mutually respectful society. Hence the inclusion of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in some aspects of education, with history seeming to be a good starting point. But now, government officials, educators, and parents in some jurisdiction have determined that learning the truth about slavery, segregation, and indigenous genocide is “destructive” to students and therefore CRT is being banned in those places. Not only that, but an increasing number of books are being banned in public schools in some regions. Banning books in 2022! 😦
These are just a few examples of how subjective knowledge can be in our “real” world. What to believe. Who to trust. As Kellyanne Conway reminded us, there are facts and then there are “alternative facts”! If you don’t like the real facts, just substitute your own; apparently, that’s a reasonable approach. But wouldn’t it be nice if we had the option of knowing what we were choosing: the most valid available facts or “alternative” facts? I thought that’s what solid public school education was supposed to be all about, to make us informed citizens.
We can’t acquire Wisdom without knowledge. Some say that ‘ignorance is bliss’ or ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you.’ But you can’t make informed decisions for yourself or for others based on ignorance, regardless of innate perception or empathy.
Some say that knowledge is power. Judging by the way the world is working at the moment, it appears that power comes more from convincing others that you have the knowledge they want to hear than from actually having credible knowledge. That’s manipulating facts and knowing how to market your message. It’s power, sadly, but there’s nothing to suggest that factual knowledge has to have anything to do with it.
The definition of knowledge above included truth, which is an important part of the definition. The problem is that in the times in which we find ourselves, it’s clear that our truths are often subjective; my truth may be the opposite of your truth. How sad is that. It’s hard to trust each other if we can’t trust each other’s view of the truth.
In the end, stable democracies need to have citizens who trust their leaders. That trust is based on believing that your leaders have the knowledge they need to make tough decisions on your behalf and the wisdom to apply that knowledge well in their decision making. Our responsibility is to ensure we have the knowledge we need to choose wisely at the ballot box.