Information & Knowledge — Should Literacy End There

It is time to give up on sleep.  I don’t know if its the eight time zones I find myself from home.  Or it may be the six hours of my twelve hour flight that I slept and then the additional eleven hours that I slept after arriving in Doha Sunday night.  It could be the usual jitters that wake me up before an important presentation or workshop.  But it’s time to give it up and start orienting myself to the day at hand.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation in Wadi Rum
Flickr Photo by Chris Booth

But, before I do that, here’s something that I ran across in a quick breeze of my aggregator last night, a Brain, Mind, Conscious and Learning post by Javed Alam entitled, We Need Wisdom.  He says…

We have too much information and knowledge. It is creating a false sense of security that we know enough to deal with any kind of crisis. The current economic crisis prove that knowledge in itself is not enough to anticipate and avert crisis. As a group we seem to act more or less as a reactive mind. We rarely foresee problems and mostly lurch from one crisis to another.

Brain, Mind, Consciousness and Learning: We Need Wisdom

Brenda and I have talked often about this mess, and how we should have seen it coming.  Our leaders should have seen it coming.  The media should have seen it coming.  But until reading Javed’s post, I hadn’t thought about this from the perspective of what I teach and promote.  I celebrate the age of information and although I caution folks of the dangers and try to describe the literacy skills that a networked, digital, and abundant information environment demands, I still imply that all of this free-flowing, dynamic, and glowing information is a good thing.  And I still think that it is.

But Javed continues to quote the SciFi writer, Arthur C. Clark…

The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information— in the sense of raw data— is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.

I think that information and knowledge are very much what we are about in education. But where is the wisdom and with it the foresight?  It’s easy to say that, “Well, it can’t be subjectively tested, and we are pushing the information and knowledge and their accompanying skills at the expense of wisdom.”  But quite frankly, I’m not sure what wisdom instruction would look like.  I feel so far removed from anything but the workforce preparation mode of formal public education to figure out where wisdom fits in with literacy.  I talk a lot about the ethical use of information, but wisdom and foresight seem much bigger than that.

Maybe I’m just too far from home to be making any more sense than this.  Today, I’ll just teach!

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8 thoughts on “Information & Knowledge — Should Literacy End There”

  1. Hi,

    Great post. I too agree that the ability to get at any information can and does create a false sense of enlightenment. I myself have definitely been in this hole at times.

    I have started to realize over the past several years of college how my thinking was stuck in a static mindset. Somehow I got out of high school thinking that the world was predominantly static in terms of “new discoveries” and potential. I didn’t realize that there was anything I could do to change in the world, and now as I’m about to start working on my PhD I have realized that nothing is completely static. It is so dynamic and opportunities are endless as to what we can do.

    I am a C.S. guy, but I took some cool classes on ancient wisdom (stuff from the Aeneid to Herodotus) and wonder if this wisdom can be applicable in our day an age.

  2. As an educator, I don’t think that we can teach wisdom; it is not something that can be found in a classroom at all. Wisdom is developed by experiencing life, its ups and downs, and applying the information that we have learned to those situations. The most important part is subsequently evaluating the results in order to apply one’s newfound knowledge to future situations. In my opinion, it is through this process that we gain wisdom.

    1. I have to agree with you Angie, how can we teach wisdom? To begin with,
      how do we define wisdom? and is wisdom only gained through education?
      My father was full of wisdom as was my mother, and they were uneducated.
      They could not read or write,and they lived in a village of about 700.
      So how did they gain this wisdom? In their words life itself makes one
      wised and full of wisdom.

      1. There is a word that keeps coming up in conversations lately, as we are talking about literacy and helping students to develop not just the skills of literacy, but the habits of literacy. It’s teaching students to care. The economic (not to mention military, political, …) mess that we are in right now came as a result of people who were obviously skills in the use of information and probably fairly well versed in history, science, etc. But they cared only in taking advantage of a current opportunity to gain something that they wanted, caring little for the broader and long-term consequences.

        It’s like my son, when he was young, and didn’t want to stop playing is video games so that he could do is chores or get ready to go out with his family. He’d say, “Just wait a minute.” It like that would make time stop so that he could finish what he wanted. The consequences could be canceled out.

        I agree! I don’t know what this looks like. I don’t know the pedagogies of wisdom instruction. But that doesn’t mean that we should relegate the problem to life.

        Or, and this is what I like about your comment, perhaps we can use life. Perhaps we can invite the world into our classrooms and use life as a teacher, rather than just simulating life through textbooks and whiteboards.

  3. We give students the information and knowledge they need and hope that from their experiences with us that they develop some type of wisdom. I am a firm believer that failure (and learning from it) makes us wiser. However, this so-called “information age” can be somewhat of a double-edge sword. Since information is so instantaneous, students these days don’t value the information they are given and quickly forget it. The role of the teacher has become more challenging because not only do we have to transfer information and build knowledge, we also have to make sure that students retain what we teach. Perhaps through these efforts, we are indirectly teaching students how to become wiser. Just my 2 cents.

  4. I love the post….and the quotes you have brought into play…it gets directly to the core of our paradigms and philosophies as educators: why we do what we do in education. It, along with two recent talks at the TED site that my technology coordinator, Cathy Evanoff, shared with me recently (Pattie Maes presentation on sixth sense and Tim Berners-Lee’s presentation on the next web (, also has made me think quite deeply about what we are about as educators. I respectfully disagree with Angie and to a lesser degree with alarconmath. I think modeling and teaching informational and academic wisdom is actually our core stock and trade. Life experience itself does not teach one to think academically, scientifically, or systematically — education (mentored, tutored, or self taught) does.

    Information availability without thought and the application of information without wisdom is what I always took to be the warning from Alexander Pope’s poetical line “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, drink deep or touch not Pierian spring…”

    Without direct care as to how and why a student should take us up on what we are offering, why and how internalize it and connect it to prior knowledge and meaning, how to put it into context with current thought and data, and then apply it to some novel experience — we have given our student nothing more than a fancier 21st century interface to the same old dry catalog of rote information and algorithms.

    In my career as a student, I was fortunate to learn from teachers who directly taught wisdom in the application of the area of learning they taught me. Wisdom in streamlining a proof in Geometry, in designing the variable and control in an experiment, in interpreting data, in turning a supposedly botched experimental plan into a beacon to choosing the next question to ask, in how history informs current events–or doesn’t if one does not understand and apply that history with wisdom. As an educator, I have had the chance to work with colleagues who directly taught though and wisdom. Oh how the students have learned to think under the model of these master teachers.

    I aspire to be one also who actively teaches their students how to deal with the information they find and are asked to assimilate and synthesize in meaningful ways. They actively teach and model aesthetic appreciation of the continuum and history of knowledge, ingenuity and resourcefulness, ethical considerations of one’s actions and the use of the knowledge one has attained.

    The true yin/yang of the art and science of teaching is in this very dichotomy. The art is how to teach a student to think within their own unique situation in life and as a learner so that he/she learn to think wisely for her/himself—How to draw them into the process of learning and applying that learning wisely to create or to solve or to even recognize what needs to be solved in the first place. The methodology of imparting these lessons was once a true science. Recently is seems to have taken on more of the veneer of turning out a product set of students measured by exit testing and score growth. We are seeking as a nation to measure how fast and how well our students can acquire learning — how we can turn out identically proficient students. I ask how can we expect students to retain information if they have no wisdom developed as to its value? How do we measure how well they can apply their knowledge and learning. How do we measure or prove the change in a student’s thinking under our care?

    Perhaps it is my scientific background learned at the front row of such wisdom modeling teachers of science that brought me to this realization. They took the time to teach how the thought evolved in their disciplines over time and was still developing — how to develop the insight into their fields and how to gain this academic wisdom tempered their subjects, their lectures, and their own work. Science at my high school and at Bucknell University was always taught as wisdom in tackling experiments and the search for new knowledge and context for that learning. I think students are most successful who not only learn from life experience but who also gain academic wisdom in their pursuit of knowledge. Those who broker the two together are those who have changed the world–the real core of “necessity is the mother of invention.”

  5. I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem over the past couple of years, which is actually the problem. I’m just constantly collecting and digesting information and find myself too full and at the end of the “day” to act on my new found “understanding” of situations. We’ve all become observers that are just happy to be looking into different worlds and learning about them, but we don’t interact with them.

  6. Mr. Warlick –
    Thanks for the provocative post. My initial reaction to the Alam post is to say that I imagine that the peoples of every historical age probably thought they had it all figured out, especially in relationship to previous generations, and this confidence was their false sense of security until the next crisis hit. (e.g. “the war to end all wars.” Hitler predicted that his Third Reich would last 1000 years, etc). Certainly this information age makes us feel like the smartest humans ever, but I don’t think we are unique in feeling this sense of security because most of us know (maybe because of the economic crisis) that it is false. Perhaps we teach wisdom through humility. (To what extent will the humbling nature of this current crisis create more wisdom and better policies because we have less confidence in our ability to make a perfect system.) Perhaps we teach wisdom by instilling a sense of dissatisfaction in our students – that no matter what, there’s always something that needs fixing.

    Bertrand sums up my feelings on the relationship between knowledge and wisdom in the preface to his autobiography:

    With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
    Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
    This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

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