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In their haste to prepare students for a career, universities have lost sight of the true meaning of education, argues Steven Schwartz

“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while – just once in a while – there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”

– J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

Let’s face it, wisdom has an image problem. As far as the popular media are concerned, it is the province of ghost whisperers, extraterrestrials – think Mr Spock, the Vulcan – and wizened kung fu sages (“The body is the arrow, the spirit is the bow, Grasshopper”).

Wise people are not only portrayed as old, alien and weird but also bookish, risk averse and unemotional. No wonder their pearls of wisdom are routinely ignored by the impetuous young. Young people thirst for new experiences; it’s in their nature to take chances and follow their hearts. Wisdom just gets in the way. “Fools rush in, where wise men never go,” sang Elvis. “But wise men never fall in love, so how are they to know?”

You might think that universities would hold a different view; after all, they are in the wisdom business. Well, you might think this but you would be wrong. Every type of knowledge – massage therapy, homeopathy and circus-performing – is represented on campus, but the word “wisdom”, as Salinger has Franny say, is rarely mentioned.

It was not always like this. Wisdom, at least in its religious version, was central to the medieval university, and its importance persisted right down to John Henry Newman’s day. But wisdom is no longer on the curriculum; it has been replaced with skills. Today’s universities are mainly concerned with preparing students for a career. Newman called such practical learning “a deal of trash”, but surely he was wrong. There is nothing wrong with vocational training; a fulfilling career is an important part of a good life.

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