I recently read an article written earlier this month by Kristina Grob, a professor at South Carolina University, and published in America, the Jesuit Review. In it, she argues for the usefulness of philosophy degrees in the workforce – hence the title “Want a Good Job? Major in Philosophy.” The article comes in the wake of several universities scaling down their philosophy departments, not the least of which Liberty University which dissolved its philosophy program altogether.
A few paragraphs down, Grob speaks from her teaching experience.
Students arrive in my classes believing that if there is not a single “right answer” to a question, then anything goes.”
The article itself is good, but the final paragraph struck me, and I’ve been thinking about it for the past week. Grob argues one of the chief benefits of philosophical training is the ability to recognize wrong answers, not arrive at a singular right answer. It may seem obvious, but this simple maxim is changing the way I think about learning and wisdom.
And this leads me to believe the wisest among us are those who are willing to trade up. Life is too nuanced and complicated to be “right” about much, but not all answers are equal. If we hold the perspective that we are moving towards the truth, or turning towards the light as Socrates says, then we can accept that the answers we have today are better than those we did yesterday and lesser than those we’ll gain. The wise person is always ready to trade a good answer for a better one, and he is compassionate to those fellow travelers as well.
“All technological change is a trade-off.” – Neil Postman
This perspective has further implication: wisdom not is something you amass like a hoard of gold, rather its the product of growth, of trading up. Neil Postman writes about five things we need to know about technological change. and first on the list is “All technological change is a trade-off.” It’s not as if we had 5 technology last year, 7 this year, and will have 10 technology next year. It doesn’t stack on top and grow so much as replace itself. We trade what we have for what we will get, losing some things and gaining others. And not all trades are good ones.
I keep a running list of books I’ve read, and last night I was counting it. Though it seems if this is true, it really doesn’t matter much how many books we’ve read as which ones. Hopefully, by reading good books we’ll make our way to great books and so on, but I think the wisdom of a person is not how much knowledge they’ve amassed as how able (and willing) they are to recognize better answers to the right questions and move towards them. As Billy Collins writes in his poem “Forgetfulness,” we end up forgetting most of the old books we read anyway. Still, they were necessary at the time and helped us along.
The name of the author is first to go,
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel . . .
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones,“Forgetfulness” – Billy Collins (Sailing Alone Around the Room)
Might we say the same about belief systems themselves? Most everyone goes to summer camp and ingests a rather shallow, emotionally charged theology, or we’ve basked in the glow of sermons we later realized were quite heretical, sat around campfires solving the world’s problems with answers we are later secretly grateful no one got around to using.
Should we outlaw summer camps? Only let people with a master’s degree teach Sunday school class? Make sure no one at the campfire gets it wrong? Maybe the better answer is to realize we’re all on the same ocean paddling toward the same thing. Instead of being right, clinging tightly to “absolute truth,” it’d be better if we focused on trading up for better answers. The absolute truth is a person, not a canon of beliefs about his life or teachings. True sight emits from the Word, not denominations erected in its honor.
The battles we’ll wage about which answers are better are inevitable. Yet I hope, for myself at least, these negotiations can be done from a place of respect. I’m leaning into the path Christ is taking me down, and hopefully I can believe the same about you. I don’t expect, or want, to be holding all the same beliefs in ten years – I’ll look back and see the stepping stones. I’ll leave behind what I didn’t need and laugh at most of it. And with love for those around, ahead, and behind me, I’ll keep trading up.