Can Wisdom Be Taught?

Posted: October 10, 2014 in Books, Integral Studies, Pedagogy & Education, Philosophical Debris

Recently a friend and colleague made an interesting comment when saying, “You can’t teach wisdom.” We were talking about the idea that parents and teachers who are concerned with the developmental evolution of young people, had a responsibility to seek the same kind of evolution and development for themselves. They needed to both work on the rough edges that they themselves might have as a result of their own past development, and also should embrace the idea of personal development by recognizing that it continues throughout life. But when I suggested that this be a required part of teacher training and ongoing professional development, that’s when the “You can’t teach wisdom” comment came up.

I don’t agree. I think there are at least three methods available for “teaching wisdom”, specifically in so far as it applies to personal development and understanding the development of others.


1. While lecturing and instructing about wisdom may not be effective, it is generally understood that life experience is the main way that life wisdom develops. Such experience can be random events, or can be directed by carefully considered events. When a young troubled person is sent to a demanding program like Outward Bound, which forces them to confront personal challenges in a controlled environment, it is the experience that does the teaching as that person grows new insights. This is why corporate training activities including everything from laser tag to teambuilding games are persued by companies. It is why the social climate and day to day process of interaction should be carefully considered in schools.

Authors such as Jon Young and Mark Morey have done a lot of work concerning Rites Of Passage and their importance as people progress through the stages of life. They have identified several through childhood and adolescence, but have also pointed to many others spanning lifelong development. Each important life stage, they say, should be accompanied by a rite of passage that symbolizes and celebrates the new skills and responsibilities achieved. We often think of the adolescent rites of passage, with some cultures having maintained them, like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, but often these are anchored in religious responsibilities rather than societal ones. For many adolescents, the only rite of passage that they experience is getting a driver’s license, getting drunk or losing their virginity, -of which only one comes anywhere near the defining requirements of symbolizing and celebrating new skills and responsibilities.

I am speaking about adolescent rites of passage because it is the one we are most familiar considering, but there are many achievements both earlier and later in life that equally demand such recognition.


2. Related to the engineering of experience is the role of the mentor. A mentor is a person who has already achieved some of the qualities of development which may still be lacking or weak in the person being mentored. A mentor not only engineers experiences which might assist a person in their development, but also can be a sounding board and feedback system in day to day life. It is generally accepted by psychologists and sociologists that people develop more effectively if they have good feedback that encourages them to reflect on their progress. In many arenas of life we call this a coach.

Mentors are used a little in the teaching profession, although my experience is that they are not used effectively or deliberately. They are sometimes introduced in situations where a teacher is experiencing difficulty. The idea that all teachers, even the best ones, might benefit from mentors (and may act as mentors) is dealt with very superficially. The idea that parenting might benefit from mentors is all but absent, except maybe for the sometimes good, sometimes bad advice that might come from grandparents. It’s basically a crap shoot.

Both teachers and parents would benefit from formal mentoring programs with established standards and goals.


3. Those standards and goals could come from a variety of sources, but there are a few that I’ve come across in my own development which I think are extremely valuable.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, there has been a lot of brain and neurological research and discovery done in the past two decades. In addition, and in a way that compliments that work, there has also been a surge in the consideration of mindfulness and meditation, largely spearheaded by Jon Kabat-Zinn. His book, Wherever You Go there You Are is a foundational block in this work. Over the past few years I have been researching a lot of material on these two subjects, most notabley Eagleson’s Incognito and some of the work done by the Integral Life people. Also, I’ve been strongly influenced by the work of Hal and Sidra Stone on multiple self theory.

So it was a delight to find a psychological writer and theorist who combined all of these different facets into one main model. Dr. Dan Siegel has written a several books over the past decade on an approach that he labels “Mindsight”, including The Mindful Brain, Brainstorm and Mindsight. In this model Siegel combines recent advances in brain theory and neurology with theories about the mind and how we experience influences and impulses from different parts of our brain. To that he applies the practices of mindfulness and meditation, noting their relationship to the idea of neuroplasticity, which is the ability for conscious intention to have an impact on the neural connections in the brain. Reading this material was like a vindication of so many of the ideas that have guided my own teaching over the past decades. It seems to be a distant cousin of NLP theory, although Siegel never mentions it.

The application of this model and its well laid out techniques and practices, would be a formidable tool for self development and evolution. It is also a demonstrated method of encouraging empathy. I would easily argue that these kinds of personal advancements qualify as a way of “teaching wisdom”.


Ken Wilber’s Integral Life theories and techniques are also relevant here. Integral Theory, based on Spiral Dynamics, is a road map for personal evolution. Siegel’s work actually dovetails excellently with Integral Life Theory, although he doesn’t mention it at all in his writing. Integral Theory lays out stages of personal development in a hierarchical fashion (which some people find hard to accept) and describes ways in which to advance through those stages. Here, mindfulness and meditation are also important to the process, although Siegel does a better job (for me at least) in providing the specifics of the means for doing this. An advantage that Integral Theory has is that the larger model can be applied to almost anything imaginable. It is relevant to personal development and world economics, equally. In addition, another facet of Integral Theory is the 4 Quadrant view of epistemology and reality, which Siegel uses extensively, although never really describes it.

Here, then, are the maps and means of “teaching wisdom”. It is perhaps the most important thing to teach, and it is seldom given the priority that it deserves. School curricula pay lip service to it if they don’t outright ignore it. Parents are expected to absorb these kinds of parenting skills as if they were genetically implanted, which we all know they are not. For the most part, random experiences rule, when deliberate consciousness is what is needed.

I think any 21st Century initiatives in education have to seriously consider these issues and practices.


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