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Reading and Wisdom

The Introduction to Great Books series was originally intended for use in high schools, though a visit to its web site suggests that its main readership is now adults in reading groups. It is excellent to find people of any age reading Kafka, Conrad, Dinesen, O’Connor, and Tocqueville, but sad to think that the joys and rigors of such encounters may not be a part of many high-school English curricula any more.

If students have been properly trained in reading, study, and discussion for a number of years (maybe having read the Junior Great Books series), they will be able to handle these authors and others even more difficult: William James, Thomas Kuhn, Sir Karl Popper. It is not just their vocab­ulary that will grow, but also their range of expression and thinking.

The vocabulary and understanding grow in a healthy and productive way because the students encounter words alive in the reading and not dead on a test-prep list. The health is threefold. It assures them that the words they are learning are used by real writers and so worth learning as part of a real and not a fake landscape of language that they are exploring. It sets up oppor­tunities for emulation or trying-on in writing and discussion, during which they can explore and test good usage and fit words to thoughts. And it gives them a chance to learn how to be rigorous and to increase their intellectual stamina.

William James reports that H. P. Bowditch, “who translated and annotated La­place’s Mécanique céleste, said that whenever his author prefaced a proposition by the words ‘it is evident,’ he knew that many hours of hard study lay before him.” He had enough humility and eagerness and a strong enough sense of obligation to the masterpiece he was encountering to be ready to tangle with it hard and long. Even­tually what had been evident to Laplace became evident to Bowditch too. The same process, on a less exalted but no less important level, occurs or can occur in high school with students who have effectively met a series of demanding but rewarding readings with study and careful conversation.

The sense that something is evident becomes stronger and more confident as it is tested, proved, probed, and exercised. And here we come to a benefit of a good course of reading and discussion that will escape capture by checklists of little skills and attainments, which embody the reductive fallacy in their pedagogical assumption (in this case the fallacy is that high-school reading is nothing but a string of discrete “competencies”). At some point, often but not always foreseeable, the student passes into an intellectual terrain to which James refers when he says that “the art of reading (after a certain stage in one’s education) is the art of skipping.”

But he makes that observation in an analogy whose second part is that “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Here we have something diffi­cult or impossible to manage in a pedagogy aimed entirely at taking baby steps even on the verge of adulthood through a course of explicit, identifiable minor achieve­ments: how do we cultivate wisdom and understanding when they cannot be handled reductively? We come back to the problem Gilbert Ryle noted in his essay “On Forgetting the Difference between Right and Wrong.” It is that we are talking about something different from knowledge and skill.

If we don’t talk about it, we risk educating not a “mind of a high order” but someone like Funes the Memorious, the title character of a story by Borges. Poor Funes! He couldn’t skip or overlook anything. “My memory…is like a garbage heap,” he tells the narrator of the story. He could remember tens of thousands of futile details but had almost no ideas. James would say that he lacked the power of reasoning because he had learning but not sagacity. Of course, Funes would have been able to ace the kind of test that treasures the quick manipulation of learned detail. Of Funes and people like him one is tempted to ask, with T. S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

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