My attention was captured by two articles I came across in the Washington Post this past week.
One was by Katherine Kam, “Scientists study the wise brain,” April 23, 2023. The other, printed in the April 26 edition, was by Christopher L. Gruber, “A college degree is worth the cost and then some.”
On the surface these two articles have little to do with one another.
Mr. Gruber, correctly, disputes the growing sentiment that a college education is not worth the price. Statistics that show the huge lifetime financial payoff of a degree form the basis of his argument. How quintessentially American. Go to college to earn more money to buy more stuff.
Ms. Kam makes no mention of the economic value of an education. In fact she does not concern herself much with education at all. She addresses the traits that comprise “wisdom” and their probable genetic and anatomic components.
One cogent point made by Kan is that general intelligence and wisdom are not mediated by the same part of the brain. A person can be highly intelligent and academically and professionally successful whether or not they possess the traits that comprise wisdom. Still, my personal bias is that if an education is viewed primarily as a means to financial ends, the value of that education is greatly diminished.
Wisdom enhances the quality of life and relationships. It is, in itself, a goal worthy of pursuing. And while it’s possible to cultivate wisdom without the benefit of a good education, by providing centuries’ worth of the experiences of wise people, a college education supercharges the journey toward wisdom.
The college experience provides life lessons beyond didactics. If everything it has to offer is made use of, it can carry us beyond vocational training and its financial rewards into the realm of living an evolved and meaningful life.
When I entered a highly rated small liberal arts college, I was not prepared for the academic and interpersonal quantum leap it demanded of me. For the first year or so, I struggled to achieve mediocre grades.
These improved as I learned how to study, but grades weren’t the main impetus behind my efforts to learn. Besides motivating me to appreciate learning for its own sake, my gifted instructors were quietly helping me round out my identity and attitudes toward life. Though I was obliged as a pre-med to devote the bulk of my studies to the sciences, what really excited me were literature, poetry, philosophy and religion, subjects that had not been well taught, or taught at all, at my high school.
These subjects containing the body of knowledge that lends depth and context to the human experience, were, relative to the hard sciences, effortless and joyful. They set me upon a path that would last a lifetime, a path that would encourage me to moderate my worldly desires in the service of cultivating an attitude and a lifestyle dedicated to the acquisition of wisdom.
Even my chosen career track was a choice to pursue wisdom over wealth. While psychiatry is by normal standards a very good paying job, it is by far less lucrative than most medical specialties. It also commands the least respect from fellow physicians and people in general. I have no regrets. Working in that field utilized and enhanced the innate proclivities that, I had come to realize, nature had bestowed on me. Since retirement from medical practice, I have tried to continue that process on these pages.
Wisdom, Ms. Kan, tells us, is comprised of a constellation of elements that include:
-Prosocial behaviors (empathy, compassion, and altruism)
-Acceptance of diverse perspectives
-Decisiveness in the face of an awareness of the uncertainty of outcomes
– Being in a position to be an advisor to others
-The ability to learn from experience
-Spirituality (not necessarily religion, but the equanimity and humility that come from an awed appreciation of the miracle of life and of our insignificant role in a vast and powerful universe.)
As it happens, such intellectual and emotional traits are essential to the task of becoming a competent psychotherapist.
Looking at the list, it may appear that college is not a pre-requisite to the development of wisdom, but, without doubt, a good education works in tandem with these traits to maximize the level of wisdom one can achieve.
I was unsurprised to read in Kan’s article that the personality traits that define wisdom have a significant genetic basis, one that enhances the development of the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that mediates reasoning, judgement and behavioral control. The pre-frontal cortex acts in synchrony with the amygdala, the primitive emotion center, wherein resides our basic animal instincts and appetites. The pre-frontal cortex modulates those instincts to foster mature attitudes, decisions and behaviors.
Thus, the pre-frontal cortex is what makes us truly “human.”
If I am at all wise, I strongly suspect that, like many of my readers, I owe it to a genetic predisposition to develop a high functioning pre-frontal cortex. This was instrumental in molding our personalities. I’m certain it attracted me to a career and a modus vivendi that would serve to further develop that raw potential. Our college educations no doubt greatly facilitated the development of those predisposed traits. How unwise it would have been to have missed college or to have approached it as though it were merely a trade school.
Given our materialistic society, it’s natural for people to view college primarily as a means to financial ends. My degrees surely enhanced my financial success. I am not one to demean the importance of that aspect of life.
The economic return on an investment in education, however, pales in comparison to the intangible payoff garnered along the path upon which an education can place us.
A lifelong journey in pursuit of that most priceless of commodities,