Making the case

Making the Case for Simple Wisdoms

The case is this: Superior character educators struggle with how to bring about the good character they wish to see. A handful of what I call “Simple Wisdoms” help make character more accessible. They differ from other character education programs because they develop a dynamic process rather than teach fixed specific virtues.

Even at a very early age we can empower kids to reach for a larger understanding. A class of second graders visited our newspaper:
Us: Do you know why people lift weights?
Kids: Yeah! To build strong muscles!
Us: Yes! What is weightlifting for the brain?
Kids: [Uncertainty.] Us: Reading, writing, and conversation.
Kids: Ooh.
Us: Why do you want to have a strong brain?
Kids: [Inquiring looks.] Us: Because that is the only tool you’ve got to plan your very best future.

As the kids connect language and thought, they are empowered and motivated by Simple Wisdoms that underlie their conversation:

  • A sense of time and their place in it
  • A sense that the map of reality in their mind could be better.
  • A sense that they might sometimes be wrong.
  • A sense that they are responsible for themselves
  • The process of thinking about thinking

These are processes kids understand, admire and wish to emulate in a deeper way.

Simple Wisdoms are not new. Great thinkers over 2500 years have refined them to deal with the simple daily problems of living. Today, new metaphors make such simple wisdoms more accessible — and just in time, because we’re in a race for civilization with no guarantee it will win.

Across grade levels and subjects, courses already contain teachable moments to which simple wisdoms easily attach. They instill how one thinks about decisions. Simple wisdoms are tied to process. Process matters because, as Robert Heilbronner pointed out, when you master logic, logic masters you. It is at once compelling and unavoidable. It’s the same as when you understand that two plus two equals four, nothing will allow you to believe it equals five.

Traditional character education emphasizes what to do, not why. Specific virtues like trustworthiness, honesty, respect, responsibility and so on are more like static rules. Traditional approaches typically avoid dynamic process that is perceived to lead down the slippery slope of relativism.

Not true. When you can think about thinking, when you can project consequences over time, when you have simple wisdoms encouraging thoughtful processes, sound process leads to honorable decisions. Across cultures, across ages, across religions, reasonable process invariably leads to sound virtues.

This is critically important now because Simple Wisdoms are a cozy fit into the character education programs called for by many education systems today.

  1. Simple wisdoms cut across cultural boundaries. They are borne from common experience — specifically the recollection of personal past instances when one was wrong. Each brain contains a map of reality from which one can recall instances when that map has been wrong. In other words, we sometimes think we are right, not because we are right, but simply because we think we are right. Faulty maps lead to painful experience. Accordingly, one’s best future requires the most accurate map of reality possible.
  2. If we think we are right and are not, how can we know? You can’t know, but you can test. This is the foundation not simply of character education, but all education. We write down ideas. We read what others have thought. We discuss thoughts. We respect the interchange of ideas. We develop thinking skills. We are open. This understanding leads to simple wisdoms, which, in turn lead to the result people call character.
  3. The Wisdoms [such as the map of reality, sense of otherness, Confucian Golden Rule, Help others who might help you, possibility just might be wrong, sense of time and one’s place in it] are used to deduce trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness/justice, caring, citizenship, honesty, courage, diligence, integrity, etc.

Our first goal is to help people recognize patterns of thought. Human beings excel in pattern recognition. If we can identify both constructive and destructive patterns in others and ourselves we can respond appropriately.

Our second goal is to use these newˆfound tools to manufacture shared interests — things like a framework for peaceful problem resolution.

This may not seem necessary to some people who assume everyone shares the same consciousness or that they share that consciousness most of the time. Suppose someone with a flashlight was asked to determine if a room was lit. Shining the light around, every corner pointed to would appear lit. It would be easy to mistakenly conclude that the room was lit. Similarly, we look at literature and assume, since the authors seem aware, that other people of the time were equally aware.

Seneca, 2000 years ago, pointed out that while people will concede greater strength to others, they will never concede better judgment. Today it is dangerous to be ignorant about judgment in an age when, as Jacob Bronowski advised, that since science has put power in the hands of anyone who cares to learn, an iron box will no longer protect your valuables nor an iron door protect your family.

We are in a race that there is no guarantee civilization will win. Happily, civilization has a better chance today than ever before, because all it takes is a change of mind. In the fable, all it took for the villagers to see that the emperor has no clothes, was a change of mind.

Recall the change of mind called perspective that occurred in the Middle Ages. Mapping three dimensional space on two dimensional canvas brought changes to thought and literature. Similarly, with Marxian dialectic, Edison’s motion pictures and Einstein’s work, mapping the dimension of time sets the stage to break loose from a static Newtonian framework to allow dynamic metaphors in thought and literature.

Until philosophy drifted elsewhere, it used to deal with the simple daily problems of living. We can reclaim its focus to manufacture a lifeboat and a way to raft them together both to deal with the simple daily problems of living, and to develop a process to evaluate the quality of our thoughts and to help manage our relationships.

Confucius, some 2500 years ago, saw that not everyone would understand the processes he called “the way”. He divided people into three groups:
1. Those who intuitively understood “the way”.
(These were the saints.)
2. Those who could learn “the way”.
(He considered himself in this group.)
3. Those who will never understand “the way”.
For this group there is Ritual ˆ fixed rules and law.

Our aim is to help lift more people into the second group, and to understand how to deal wisely with the third group.

Intertwined with standard school curricula, these wisdoms attach easily in parallel. All it takes is a change of mind. Mastery brings the results that superior character educators try to convince students are worthwhile.

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