Our Trinity, #3: Wisdom

wilsonwilson Our trinity of goals for our school begins with love and progresses, in middle school, to masteryOur third goal — reaching its apex in the high school curriculum, but present at all grades — is wisdom.

If, by the time our students are entering ninth grade, a majority of them (1) love science and history and literature and math and everything, and (2) are accustomed to pursuing mastery, then we have to ask ourselves: where the hell can we take them next?

One common answer (popular at both public and private schools) is "college prep."

I think this answer, though definitely well-intentioned, is positively daft. At best, this answer kicks the question down the road: what is it about college, specifically, that's worthy of prepping for? Job success? Social status? Philosophical insight? Happiness?

However we answer that, it makes more sense to pursue that goal in high school. (Why wait?)

At worst, though, the "college prep" approach runs the danger of degrading high school — turning the four years that could be a marvelous capstone to a rich K-8 education into a bureaucratic checking of boxes, in which the highest goal becomes obtaining a good GPA and amassing college credits.

Ack: anti-human nonsense. 

Tutoring college entrance tests, I see this attitude all the time, from students and families at even some of the best schools. It's disheartening. Which isn't to say that a lot of good learning doesn't happen along the way, just that the goal itself doesn't help ensure the good learning (and can even get in the way of it).

So what's our answer?

What should we do when working with these crazy-wonderful students, who love knowledge and pursue mastery?

I think the answer is easy: explore deeply how to increase human flourishing, both for themselves and for the world as a whole. I'll use the word wisdom to encapsulate this goal. Pursuing wisdom in this fashion will take us more fully into a vividly intellectual curriculum than any "college prep" ever could.

"Wisdom" has, historically, at least two divergent meanings, which are captured by two Greek words: sophia and phronesis (fro-NEE-sis). We want them both.

Sophia… is the ability to think well about the nature of the world, to discern why the world is the way it is (this is sometimes equated with science); sophia involves reason concerning universal truths.

Phronesis is the capability to consider the mode of action in order to deliver change, especially to enhance the quality of life.

(Borrowed from Viona.)

To re-state:

Sophia is book smarts, intellectual knowledge, an understanding of what the world really is and how it all hangs together.  Phronesis is street smarts, practical knowledge, an understanding of how to achieve the good life. 

We need both of these. The question about how to live well in the world (phronesis) requires understanding what the world is like (sophia).

Delving into both of these will take us into a full liberal arts curriculum in which divergent ideas on how society can work and on how life can be lived will take center stage. Our school can be an invitation — for teachers as well as students — to engage the most diverse, most exciting ideas of humanity: anarcho-Communism and Christian pietism and Theravada Buddhism and GOD KNOWS WHAT ELSE. Ours can be a vividly intellectual school, bringing in more cultural and philosophical perspectives than, perhaps, a single school ever has.

It will also take us into a full science and math curriculum in which the substrata and superstrata of human life are explored — what's "below" and "above" us. To understand human happiness, for example, necessitates comprehending psychology, biology, chemistry, and physics. To understand meaning requires apprehending the shape and history of the universe.

Chasing wisdom is thus an excuse to take part in the Big Questions that the brilliant minds in the humanities and sciences have been exploring for ages.

Some of these Big Questions are civilizational, and even cosmic: "Are we just conglomerations of atoms bumping around an empty void? And if so, what are the implications of that?" "What is evil (and is there evil)?" "Do all peoples share a common human nature?" "How do cultures shape people?" "Where is history going?" "Why is there inequality?" and so on.

Other Big Questions are personal: an invitation to puzzle over our own selves, our own struggles and potentials. They include questions like, "What is this thing called happiness, and how might one find it?" "How deeply should one sacrifice for friends and strangers?" "What does it mean to be 'deep,' and what does it mean to be 'shallow,' and is one really better than the other?" "How is my culture shaping me?" and so on.

There's a stereotype I need to war against here — that thinking about these Big Questions is unserious, the sort of thing 19-year-olds talk about in their dorm hallways late at night. The stereotype that these Big Questions are unserious, unacademic.

Well, yes: some college freshmen do have those conversations. But these are also the some of the academy's most serious questions. Significant work has been done on each of these topics. Pursuing wisdom means more than intellectual self-pleasuring: it means advancing our own answers even as we master the previously-formulated ones.

In sum, then, our high school curriculum will be rigorously academic — but the rigor should flow from the meaning and excitement of the questions we're investigating, and not from some sort of superficial severity.

In pursuing wisdom, we can acculturate students into the life of the mind as we pursue together wisdom.


Oh, a note on the photo — it's of the fictional character Wilson, from the 90's sitcom Home Improvement. I struggled to find an image that denoted "wisdom" without falling into the silly trope of the old man with a long white beard — or Yoda. I think those images actually connote fake wisdom: the sort expressed in statements that no one truly understands or which, when taken literally, are stupid. "Do or do not: there is no try." (Sorry, Yoda!)

The character Wilson (full name: Wilson Wilson, Jr.) is the opposite of that: someone who knows a jaw-dropping wealth of knowledge about the world, and who easily brings it to bear on the problems of daily life. Wilson has both sophia and phronesis. When I was growing up, he was my first vision of the sort of useful intellectual that I wanted to become.

Which is all to say: that's why this post doesn't have a picture of Gandalf!

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA