On Cleverness and Wisdom
Cleverness and wisdom are two very different types of knowledge. Cleverness is knowing the quickest route between two points. It’s the shortcut, the “trick,” the “fastest” way. Cleverness is knowledge that must also be efficient. Wisdom, on the other hand, is knowing the entire system within which two points exist and every route between them. It is knowledge for its own sake, without an agenda. It’s comprehensive, demanding, and runs on its own time; it connotes fullness, completeness, or totality.
Right now, a war is being waged in academia. At every site, cleverness is combatting the forces of wisdom. While cleverness will always have its place, a college education should require exhaustive knowledge; it should require knowing one’s way around a topic, concept, idea, object, field, discipline.
And yet, college increasingly demands cleverness. Students are saddled with learning, growing, and finding themselves on a tight schedule. To be attractive candidates on the job market, it is often necessary to take on extra tasks, join clubs, intern, network, market one’s “brand.” With all the additional requirements we force on students, class just gets in the way. But all this takes time away from the primary task of being in college: receiving an education. As a compromise, students often find cleverness the best alternative to thoroughly studying and gaining wisdom. Why read the textbooks when the professor’s powerpoint slides can be printed out and memorized? Why bother attending lectures when you can buy the notes from a note-taking service (often with the added value of being printed in flash card form)? This is hardly a surprise, considering most students endure thirteen years of institutionalized cleverness before getting to college. Under these conditions, knowledge of the right answers is often times conflated with knowledge in general. “I got an ‘A’” quite often suggests “I am wise about such-and-such topics” but really it means “I crammed.”
Graduate school exists in a liminal space between wise and clever that offers a unique perspective of academia. On one hand, there are the wise and educated professors I study, esteem, and aspire to be like. Wisdom is currency in this group. These people are quite literally the smartest and most educated people in their fields. They are their fields. They are both the producers and guardians of wisdom. On the other hand, there are undergraduate students who are steeped in the ways of cleverness, and in whose ranks I (sort of recently) found myself.
The most precipitous climb of my graduate school learning curve was learning how to think differently by pursuing wisdom rather than cleverness. I had to lose the “what’s going to be on the test” attitude, which mistakes rapid-fire judgment for masterful decision-making done quickly. (This is perhaps a lifelong goal.) Instead, I am learning that a firm grip on the small bit of knowledge I obtain in my lifetime is worth infinitely more than the efficiency that cleverness offers.
My chosen field is political theory. Despite the waxing influence of cleverness, wisdom is still an asset here. What you know and what you do with it are the hammer and nails of this profession. But as an instructor, I see the tendencies toward cleverness every day. The problem with cleverness is not that it’s bad, but that it prevents students from developing critical faculties. The “quickest routes” it provides have their uses but provide flimsy support as the foundation for one’s career. As a pedagogy, “teaching to the test” requires rote memorization; it promotes uncritical rule-following in students and (what’s worse) uncritical rule-spewing in teachers. In political theory, this model doesn’t work.
Here’s one example this model yields: In almost every Intro-style political theory course, Plato’s Republic is assigned reading. In it, Plato depicts the ideal polity, one in which there is a right place for everything, and everything is in its place. Following Socrates, Plato says misery and evil exist in the world because people are ignorant of true happiness. He castigates freedom, equality, liberty, and democracy, arguing that it lets everyone steer the ship rather than the most skilled navigators. His solution is a stratified and hierarchical society in which “Philosopher Kings” rule using their superior rational faculties to perfect society by arranging it into a rigid class-based state. At the center of his work is the assumption that happiness is a state of being impossible to achieve outside of this perfectionist framework.
From the perspective of a late-teens Clinton-baby living in 2014 America, these remarks should be shocking and incendiary, and they should spark some kind of critical evaluation and response.
But they don’t.
Instead, students generally respond with one of two remarks, and both reek of cleverness. The first is of the dismissive “Plato’s argument is flawed” type. Often it takes this form: “The Republic is too authoritarian to ever work, so why read it?” Usually this is followed by some kind of historical statement: “Maybe people believed this back then, but now we know that freedom is part of happiness.” (These comments, of course, generally fail to acknowledge that concepts like “freedom” change in meaning over time). Behind this response is the assumption that logical infallibility is the only thing that could possibly be of value in a 2400-year-old text; as if rigorous logical truth is the sole reason we are reading it. It implies, problematically, that because Plato is “wrong” to challenge the inherent goodness of democracy and freedom, there is nothing further to be gained from reflection on the text. From this perspective, he has failed to provide a working and logically coherent framework for collective life. He can now be dismissed.
But what’s really happening is the cleverness model urging students to find the fastest way to move on, and often times this takes the form of finding any reason to judge a text unworthy of further serious consideration. This response is common among students unfamiliar with critical thinking and reading. It is a reaction to our attempts to push them beyond the comfort of the intuitive response.
The second type of remark might be called the legacy of the liberal arts education: “Well, maybe that’s what Plato thinks, but that’s just his opinion.” This response is the most incensing to hear. Often I’d like to respond: “Yes, it is opinion. Thank you for exercising your spoon-sharp mind to produce this painfully obvious and trite and unnecessary piece of conversational detritus.” Luckily, I value my job and bite my tongue. This type of response omits the dismissiveness of the first, but substitutes laziness and/or stubbornness in its place. The fact of differing opinions becomes an excuse, a reason to end the conversation when really it should be the very beginning of it. One could ask any number of questions and produce a fantastic conversation that opens the text and avails it of insight and knowledge and—gasp!—wisdom. “Why does he feel that way?” “How did he form that opinion?” “When did [any number of historical events] occur that have shifted the relationship between these two concepts?” “Where does this kind of thinking make sense?” “Who offers traces of this thinking in contemporary political discourse?” The options, really, are endless, and yet rarely do students think to ask them.
These responses illustrate the wrong way to do political theory (or any discipline based on critical evaluation), because they come at it from the perspective of cleverness. Questions of evaluation and judgment can and should be demanded of any text. But I dare say that in an introductory course these kinds of questions are irrelevant. This means we shouldn’t read a foundational text looking for that quick, clever loophole that justifies rejecting it and uncritically holding steady to what we already believe. Rather, it means genuinely reflecting on the questions it asks us. Plato, e.g., gives an intriguing argument against the contemporary assumption that freedom of choice leads to happiness. Is he wrong? Do you disagree? Well, think about why. Look at the world from his perspective. Don’t reject his argument because it’s “just his opinion.” Don’t look for the excuse. Don’t be intellectually lazy. In other words, move beyond the intuitive reaction that cleverness engenders; build an intelligent and critical knowledge of the subject at hand. As educators, it is our job to encourage this kind of evaluation.
In reality, differing opinions should invite us—should beg us—to attempt the heaviest of intellectual heavy lifting, precisely because they provide the opportunity to look at the world from another perspective; to stop looking for the quickest route from A to B, from one essay to the next, from semester’s start to semester’s end. Instead, we should assume an implicit value in knowledge and encourage the pursuit of it, regardless of where it leads us or how long it takes.
Wisdom requires both the recognition and the pursuit of this heavy lifting. Like literal heavy lifting, the pursuit of wisdom isn’t easy. It takes its toll, challenges you, tests your resolve, requires lots of time, leaves you drained, rarely produces quick results, and will always leave you in the shadow of someone who has done more. Perhaps this is why, after being called the wisest man in Athens, Socrates declared the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.