In his book “Guide for the Perplexed” EF Schumacher recounted an event that took place on an official visit to Leningrad. He said, “I consulted a map to find out where I was. I couldn’t make it out. From my vantage point I could see several enormous churches but there was no trace of them on my map. Then finally my official guide and interpreter arrived to help me. I asked him about the map pointing out the churches that were missing from it. He then said, “Oh! We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was clearly marked on the map. “Oh! That one isn’t a church it’s a museum. It is only the living churches we don’t show”
To Schumacher this seemed be a metaphor for much of what he’d experienced in his life. He wrote, “It subsequently occurred to me that this was not the first time I’d been given a map that failed to show many of the things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and University I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things I knew personally, and most cared about: Things that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life.”
As we move into the world of information technology we know more and more about the trivial but less about the important; it certainly doesn’t help us in the shaping of our life maps. French psychologist G. Labouvie-Vief wrote, “What makes people wise is not technical knowledge… but… knowledge of issues that are a part of the human condition. Wisdom is one’s ability to see into those structures that relate to us in our common humanity.”
T.S. Eliot asked, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” Currently, the average student leaving high school knows more about the world than Socrates or Plato ever did. It seems we are a generation suffering from an information overload yet also a poverty of wisdom.
The problem is, information does not of itself produce insight. It can be little more than a diversionary statistic, distracting us from stopping, reflecting and asking the important questions. Wisdom on the other hand helps us know our place in the order of things. It conveys lasting meaning and helps us navigate our way to a fruitful life.
There is no doubt our scientists and technologists need to stay on the frontiers so they can face down the physical and material challenges of a new age. There’s no doubt information can guard us against dictators, tyrants and crooks, but more than anything else we need wisdom and knowledge to help us determine what is of value and what isn’t. Wisdom is about values and meaning and of course the moment you begin to quest for purpose and meaning you have begun the quest for the purpose giver and meaning giver. In reference to this a wise man once wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”