Friday, January 14, 2011

A Wisdom System

The following is a post that I submitted to a mailing list I participate in.  I hoped it might fit well here:

Higher Education is currently highly interconnected with capitalist values, methods and systems.  Some of these include: The recognition of the importance for preparing students for jobs markets if universities are to continue to function; Partnerships with for-profit corporations which provide research funding; The very basic principle that those individuals who comprise Universities have been reared and exist in an environment influenced and structured by capitalism.

It seems improbable that humanity will create a new system to totally replace capitalism within the next hundred years.  Perhaps not impossible, just improbable, given the number of stakeholders dependant on capitalism for their daily survival.  A replacement system would be so complex and so all-encompassing that its evolution, even in the age of technology, would require substantial lengths of time.  Additionally, it would need to not only offer new benefits, but also replace the substantial benefits that capitalism provides to society today - free exchange, choice, leisure, convenience, etc.  It would also require many new values and beliefs be adopted by individuals – a process that would probably only be accomplished on generational time-scales.  All of this is simply to say that if universities hope to substantially increase wisdom in the world within current lifetimes, they will have to do so within the context of capitalism.  This presents unique considerations, some of which I will attempt to address below.

One consequence of the interconnections between capitalism and universities, is the adoption of certain practices and values from the capitalist culture into the Education system.  Currently, we find conditions in our universities that may be largely explained by pressures of society.  One such condition is the narrow focus of degree programs in universities.  (universities have partially resisted this pressure at the bachelor’s level of education, but this is not the case in Masters levels and above.  I speak here of the US education system with which I am familiar)  Such specialization may be one of the prime hindrances to acquiring general wisdom.

During the early 1900’s, influential figures, including John D. Rockefeller and future president Woodrow Wilson, expressed the view that the United States needed a two-track education system.  One, for future leaders, that focused on a traditional liberal arts education in the ancient Greek tradition, the other educating workers to perform tasks.  This may have happened, not necessarily from any conspiracy, or pressure from elites, but rather from pressures contained within the system of capitalist society itself.  For the sake of simplicity, however, let us first consider what the results of that policy might have been, had it been enacted, and then consider how these conditions may have occurred even in the absence of such a policy:

If society had followed a specialized, two track, path, instruction, in all but a very few institutions (for how many leaders does one nation need) would have minimized focus on interconnections between disciplines and would be more inclined to focus on specific proficiencies.  Subject specialization would be seen as a good thing, with the highest paying positions being awarded to the students at universities that regularly produced the highest mastery in specific fields.

Had this been the case, it is important to realize, there may have been other repercussions as well:  Those who were reared under expectations of leadership would find themselves released into a vacuum of competition for these prime leadership positions.  This might have introduced some of the structural weaknesses that we find in ecosystems that are artificially held stable, such as the proliferation of species that might otherwise be unfit for an ecological niche.  Additionally, these individuals might find that their education had itself transformed into its own sort of specialization.  Since their only concern would be managing and leading individuals, those who were most successful at this task (those who had achieved high political office or were otherwise granted acclaim), would gain fame for their alma mater. 

As for the second question, how would this situation have come about absent a top-down policy, the answer may already be clear.  This outcome might quite believably be expected to occur as naturally occurring, emergent property of the system as a whole.  The systems of prestige, enrollment counts, job offers, etc. would create feedback mechanisms - the main ingredient in emergence within complex systems.  Since a society affects the Universities within it, and since some of the characteristics of our societies include seeking prestige, “success to the successful” and vast amounts of resources controlled by powerful entities within a society, it is almost a foregone conclusion that these systems might interact to influence the policies of admissions and instruction within Universities.  I included the opinions of J. D. Rockefeller and W. Wilson to add credence to the idea that the University system may already have been moving in that direction by the time these statements were voiced (politicians and businessmen are not known to support fringe positions).  As to whether this is a characteristic of the current educational system I leave for the reader to consider.

The feedback loops that drive the adaptation of “leadership” schools may be slightly different, but recognizable.  The feedback provided by markets and prestige would smooth the way for a multitude of small decisions that, collectively, would result in institutions known for their production of leaders, as well as Universities famed for the quality of their engineers, schools renowned in computer science, schools designed to produce lawyers, or schools dedicated to athletes.

More to the point however, is this:  Some groups may not be incentivized to grow.  One of these seems, perhaps, to be the all-around wise.  For the benefits of wisdom, in our era of specialization, and endless machines of production may not be immediately apparent.  Indeed, wisdom may be all but indistinguishable for the thirty or forty years that individuals require to reach some level of maturity in that quality.  In fact, it may be that wisdom is, by definition, unable to be produced by systems, if wisdom is not able to be formalized or systematized.  Universities may attempt to formalize narrow degrees of wisdom, however, these narrow specialties may lack the broad interconnections that are the hallmark of deep wisdom. 

True wisdom is often the result of very broad knowledge or experience, along with deep specialization, brought to bear on a specific problem, in a unique time and place.  A decision that is wise today in Topeka, Kansas, may not be a wise decision tomorrow in Missoula, Montana.  In fact, wisdom may be very difficult to recognize.  As an analogy, consider the following:  I can watch Kasparov play chess but, being an average player, the depths of his reasoning would certainly escape me.  The decisions made by someone who is informed from insights in Psychology, System Dynamics, History, Ecology and Political Science, will probably be very different from someone whose decisions are informed by Education, Engineering, Literature and Law.  And both of these individuals’ decisions, when considered by others, may be judged foolish, wise, or shortsighted, depending on the person reviewing the decision.  In our society, we have many individuals trained narrowly in one field.  We have Doctors, Lawyers, and Engineers; Teachers, Firemen and Politicians; many of whom have not made the effort to educate themselves outside of their chosen field.

Our system has lots of educational feedback loops as well.  People like to have their existing points of view validated and today they have many avenues through which they can accomplish this.  Scientists can subscribe solely to scientific publications.  Conservatives can watch Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal.  Liberals can listen to NPR and read the New York Times.  Economists can read The Economist.  The list goes on.  One feedback loop that may seems to be missing is that for wise individuals.

Perhaps we find feedback loops for wisdom so rare because wisdom, by definition, draws from all disciplines.  Perhaps it is too broad, perhaps it is too rare, or perhaps it is too unique and various in all of its many guises.  Or, perhaps wise individuals are able to drive their own wisdom through experiencing many sources of information.  It has been interesting to me to realize that those who exhibit wisdom come from all walks of life.  From the scientific tradition of Richard Feynman, to the Spirituality of Gandhi, to the Politics of Abraham Lincoln, to the philosophy and psychology of Victor Frankel, to the Literature of Twain, to the historical and ecological wisdom of Jared Diamond, to the Systems perspectives of Donella Meadows, to the uniqueness of Buckminster Fuller, to the Business partnership of Buffett and Munger.  Not to mention, of course, the wisdom displayed by those who read this blog.  Wisdom is everywhere, but still rare, and it is not easily reproducible.  We have writings, and good advice, but we seem to lack a dependable system of supporting children and young adults in gaining their own wisdom.

The difficulty, it would seem, lies in constructing that feedback system which would:

First, recognize true wisdom.  Nicholas Maxwell's work may be of interest here.

Second, value the individuals, as well as the systems that produced that wisdom.

These two ideas taken together create a reinforcing system.

In doing these first two things, I think it is important also that care is taken to not allow the rewarding of wisdom to distort the individuals or the systems which produced that wisdom in the first place.  This is easily stated, perhaps not so easily accomplished.  Two different factors must be considered in the attempt to create a resilient wisdom system:

In order for the feedback mechanisms to support and reinforce the wisdom system itself, that system must be valued in terms that society values (to allow resources to accrue-to and reinforce the wisdom system)

Additionally, since the “purpose” of this system is to create true wisdom, and this wisdom is a quality of individuals, the feedback mechanism must also reinforce and reward wise individuals in terms that these individuals value,

Finally, potentially wise individuals - those youth who would enter a system of wisdom education - must be incentivized to join the system as well.  This may be difficult since, in the process of gaining wisdom, one's perception of what one values may often change as well.  This may mean that there is a disconnection with the example set by, and rewards that accrue to, the wise, and the motivating desires of the young.  (Perhaps this is a wise argument in favor of rewarding wise individuals both in ways that they value, as well as publicly rewarding them in ways that these individuals would have valued as younger versions of themselves?)

Considering the experiences of other successfully adapted organizations in capitalist society, it is foreseeable that, once established, the temptation may occur to adapt this system to the pressures of society, thereby gaining more influence and resources, but in the process, compromising the wisdom system’s ability to continue producing the highest quality wisdom.  What a conundrum...

I am interested to hear your thoughts on these ideas.

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