A word to the wise
Lawrence R. Samuel, PhD :
People who feel they are making strides up their personal evolution ladder are often not just healthy and happy but wise, or at least in the general vicinity of "wise." For centuries, the extremely wise have tried to decipher what constitutes wisdom, but there is still no consensus on exactly what it is, how it's acquired, and how it can be best put to use. Despite differing views on the subject, wisdom is usually seen as the result of a collection of experiences that culminates in the most advanced stage of life that a person can reach. The continual development (intellectually, socially, emotionally, and morally) needed to attain this ultimate phase of life implies that wisdom keeps building throughout one's years. Wisdom is believed to result in more fulfillment, gratification, and a sense of well-being, and can be beneficial to others and society at large. For all these very good reasons, many people are striving for wisdom, a clear sign that it will represent a major pursuit in the future.
The value of wisdom is not going unnoticed by researchers. One institution in particular-The University of Chicago's Center for Practical Wisdom-is leading the way in learning more about wisdom and seeing how it can be applied in real, everyday situations. Long ago, wisdom was considered a topic limited to arduous academic investigation in the noble pursuit of comprehending its makeup and value, making the Center a throwback of sorts to the musings of the best and brightest of the ancients and Renaissance. It is indeed hard to conceive a topic that can better indicate what humans are capable of, with the Center's leadership perceiving that a fuller exploration of wisdom promises to spark new ideas regarding how our species can flourish.
The Center for Practical Wisdom serves as a beacon of the future because it understands the critical role that wisdom can play in society. The mission of the Center is to "deepen the scientific understanding of wisdom and its role in the decisions and choices that affect everyday life," an admittedly ambitious undertaking. "We want to understand how an individual develops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are most likely to make wise decisions," these modern-day Platos declare, "hoping that, by deepening our scientific understanding of wisdom, we will also begin to understand how to gain, reinforce, and apply wisdom and, in turn, become wiser as a society."
The Center's researchers are asking specific questions. "What is the relationship between expertise and wisdom?" "How does experience increase wisdom?" "What is the relationship between cognitive, social, and emotional processes in mediating wisdom?"
Rather than simply ponder such big questions of life, The Center for Practical Wisdom is putting its money where its mouth is. The Center is connecting scientists, scholars, educators, and students at the University with researchers and scholars internationally who are interested in studying and understanding wisdom, and it is leading the way in knowing more about the dynamics of wisdom, commissioning fresh research in the area, and publishing key discoveries. The Center is also working to increase public interest in wisdom, raising the level of personal wisdom, and promoting the idea that our institutions could become wiser. "It is difficult to imagine a subject more central to the highest aspirations of being human," The Center correctly states, adding that, "the study of wisdom holds great promise for shedding light on and opening up new insights for human flourishing." Wise words indeed as we look to a hopefully wiser future.
(Lawrence R. Samuel, Ph.D., is an American cultural historian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and was a Smithsonian Institution Fellow).