Knowledge Is Not Wisdom

I love history; just about anyone’s, but especially my own. Sounds a little egotistical, doesn’t it? But the phrase “my own” is not meant to be about me. It is in reference to my predecessors, whether I am talking about family, business, or any endeavor I have recently joined. I like to know about who went before me, what they did, how, when and where, and especially why. Answering the why question I consider to be the most difficult since we reach our conclusions shackled to the unrelenting bias of being human. And that admission about being fallible brings me to the next point I wish to make about a challenging book I have just finished reading entitled Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May.

Near the start of their penultimate chapter they make a statement in which I truly delight. Anyone who loves history, whether they read it casually or study it intently, will recognize an affirmation for their time-traveling passion. Neustadt and May unashamedly declare, being historians themselves:

Vicarious experience acquired from the past, even the remote past, gives such guidance to the present that history becomes more than its own reward. Knowledge conveys wisdom; ignorance courts trouble. Persons of good sense are bound to study history in sheer self-interest, reaching out for reference points of likely future relevance and cramming in vicarious experience from each.

Cool. I am, by their account, a person of good sense. It says so in the last sentence of that quote. The nod to the value of my personal interest is sincerely appreciated, even though I am not one of the people they would include in their sub-title, a decision maker. Unless you consider debating whether or not to get out of bed in the morning a meaningful decision, I am currently not a maker of anything meaningful. I am retired, which makes me a history buff and not a true historian. I am not being paid for my research except in the currency of personal satisfaction in uncovering previous hidden or forgotten people, events and outcomes.

Here’s the rub, though. I respectfully disagree with their other assertion that knowledge conveys wisdom. I have simply had to live with, work with or associate with too many intelligent people, those human repositories of information, to see any direct correlation between knowledge and wisdom. We generally say of them that they lack common sense, although our unstated feelings may go much deeper and harbor more grudge than glory; more contempt than respect. In fact at this stage of my life I am more of an advocate for a quote by Angelo Codevilla, a professor of political science affiliated with the Hoover Institute at Stanford and with the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, who said There is never enough information to make up for weak leadership.

Knowledge will always be tempered by the weaknesses of our humanity. It does not automatically convey anything, which ironically makes the case for reading Neustadt and May’s book. Their methodology is designed to help make the transition from knowing things to understanding them and subsequently to make sound decisions based on that information. As a person of good sense, I can honestly recommend their work to anyone in any decision making capacity. But also being human with my own limitless supply of fallibility, I would counsel you to apply their own method against their writings, to analyze and evaluate their conclusions. It would be the wise thing to do.

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