Wisdom Before Information


By THE VERY REVEREND ROBERT I. GANNON, S.J., President of Fordham University

Delivered at the final ceremony of the three-day celebration of Fordham's Centenary, September 17, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 27-29.

WE take for granted, after all these years, the growing spirit of fellowship and understanding amongst educators that has brought felicitations from so many and such great institutions of learning. We take for granted too, the fact that you have come in your wedding garments "In vestitu deaurato circumdati varietate" and rejoice especially in this latter fact because it is your splendor rather than your graciousness that opens up the following train of thought.

Here in the U. S., side by side with the youthful, bounding spirit of research, we are all aware of a certain nostalgic hoarding of older glories. Prior to the Civil War, this hoarding was rather of substantial things, of educational ideas and traditional curricula. All our American institutions of learning were still within striking distance of the trivium and the quadrivium, so that every college student in the city of New York knew silver from golden Latin and could recognize the Attic spirit in literature. He was even held responsible for the elements of logic and was never allowed, even in debate, to derive conclusions through an illicit process of the major. On the other hand, academic robes had not appeared as yet on this side of the Atlantic. Old Sir J. J. Thompson, the physicist and Master of Trinity, frequently enjoyed telling us that he had himself witnessed the American premiere of caps and gowns at the opening of the Johns Hopkins University, and used to add good-natured but typical British comment at our expense.

With the rise, however, of a secular and scientific spirit, with the growing predominance of German influence on our leading institutions, extraordinary changes of opinion occurred with regard to the essential subject matter of an education. So that now if one of our first graduates, Bishop Rosecrans, for example, were to examine the mental content of a modern college student who had majored, let us say, in traffic problems or in hotel management, he might in his simplicity, mistake an arts man for an apprentice. But as though in compensation for the change of what our forebears would have called essentials, there has been a decided growth of interest in mediaeval pageantry. Bachelor's gowns are now being worn in Freshman, high school, grammar school. Specially tinted hoods have been devised for the most unexpected branches of learning. Long processions, led by a mace, wind their way across campuses where not a word of Latin is spoken, to amphitheatres where not a word of Greek is understood. Schools of Methodology where credits are amassed by future creditors are being housed in arched and groined Gothic dreams that would have inspired a Jowett or a Newman. Cynics may derive what conclusion they will. To us simpler folk, this wistful glancing backward is a heartening sign. It means that more people than we realize are still aware that education, especially higher education, has a two-fold function; that its aim is not only to increase knowledge, but to preserve it; that it must, therefore, always be not only progressive but conservative, in the original meaning of the words progredi and conservare; that where in isolated cases, familiar to us all, it is merely forging ahead and has lost all contact with the precious past, it must risk a Liberal damnation and become (some courage isrequired to use the awful word) reactionary. It must, that is, double back on its tracks until it can pick up the golden thread once more.

As if to echo this two-fold function of increase and preservation, someone endowed this University many years ago with our only endowment, an excellent motto for the official seal: "Sapientia et Doctrina", wisdom and information. The "Veritas" on Harvard's seal is simpler and embraces just as much. The "Yahveh" of Yale is simpler still and all-embracing. But "Sapientia et Doctrina" carries with it a suggestion of analysis and emphasis that makes it a specific thing, a definite educational ideal. For it stresses Wisdom before Information and helps to answer the ageless question: "How much information is it wise for one generation to have?"

Now everyone knows, in a general way, what is meant by Wisdom, even though he may not be able to give the Scholastic definition straight from the treatise on the speculative intellectual virtues. He may never have thought of it as a "knowledge of conclusions through first causes", involving as that does, the First Cause of first causes, but he does know that there are thoughtful people here and there who have lived long and unselfishly, who have been through danger and suffering, who have had their little moments of triumph, their hours of disillusionment, their days and nights of silence and spiritual growth. He knows of harassed men who can pause in their incredibly busy lives to say, with the simplicity of children, "I believe that character, not wealth or power or position, is of supreme worth. I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world". He knows that such people have a quality that enables them to realize values, to weigh motives and to understand how God works through His creatures. Although this quality in greater or less degree may sometimes glow in the mind of a self-taught man, or even in the mind of a man who cannot read or write, he knows that there are shortcuts in its acquisition. There is much that a wise and loving father can give to an admiring son. There is much that one generation can hand down to another through that great, deep, wide channel of tradition, the Liberal Arts, especially through the wisdom studies: theology, philosophy, history and literature. For these are the studies that bring us closest to the ideal of knowing conclusions through first causes, of understanding how God works through His creatures.

As with individual man, so with groups of men, whole generations of men. Some we find who lay more store on Sapientia, some who find Doctrina more important. In the past millenium, for instance, we can discern a kind of watershed somewhere in the middle of the 15th and 16th centuries. On one side the stream of inspiration seems to be flowing from the past. On the other, strangely enough, from the unseen future. The latter of course, appeals to us as obviously preferable, because we are of the 19th and 20th Centuries. We have been brought up in an evolutionary atmosphere that leads us to expect, contrary to human experience, always better and better things. We are still hypnotized by the charm of the very latest, the most advanced, convinced as we are that to march forward is always to improve our condition, even though we march from a fertile field into a tract-less waste, even though we march straight over a cliff. This modern tendency has of course produced great changes in the lives of men. We are fond of boasting that there has been more progress in the fifty years just passed than in the previous five hundred. But progress toward what? We have undoubtedly been rocketing toward some part of space with terrific and accelerated speed, but when we get there, are we sure that we shall find it worth the journey? We are progressing undeniably, but with every step we grow more conscious of increasing instability.

Even those very ends for which we have sacrificed so much health, culture and comfort, are being blown from the face of the earth. It is true that killing people off is a more complicated business than it used to be, but are we not cleverly solving all the complications?

When we come, at length, to examine the cause of our unprofitable speed, it seems to lie partly at least in our graceless and unseasonable youth fulness. It may be embarrassing to admit that 2400 years after the age of Pericles we are suffering from a dangerous and recurrent adolescence, but the sad truth is that when the intellectuals of the last few centuries successfully cut off our past, they cut off, to a great extent, our only source of maturity, wisdom, and condemned us to play the role of brash and ignorant children who despise the yesterdays of which they know so little.

For seeking inspiration from the past is not peculiar to a primitive people, nor does it normally mean that a generation lacks confidence in itself because of small achievement. Rather, it indicates a degree of disillusionment which belongs to years of discretion. Like older men, maturer civilizations have a haunting suspicion that there were heroes before Agamemnon. Rome was in her prime, already showing her wrinkles in fact, when the poet wrote of her the line once at the top of every schoolboy's copybook: "Veribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque". And Troy was all but finished when the warning came from Apollo: "Antiquas expuirite mattes." Greek philosophers and scientists built upon the wisdom of the East. The Romans built upon the Greeks. In the high noon of the Middle Ages, Sentences and Summas organized, enriched and modernized Plato and Aristotle and the early Fathers of the Church. And even in the proud, self-conscious Renaissance, when Doctrina began to surge ahead exuberantly, Wisdom studies and veneration for tradition were long in dying.

In fact they are not quite dead even now, though information at the expense of Wisdom has become the earmark of our modern schooling. We realize with concern that too many of our Principals and Supervisors and University Faculties have been false to their high trust. They have become infected with a dangerous—because exaggerated—expermentalism that seeks, like communism, its real parent, to begin a new world, not by building on, but by obliterating the old. Worse still, the people as a whole, educators, parents and students, have yielded little by little to the insidious kind of pragmatism which applies the yardstick of immediate utility to every subject in the curriculum. As a result, the wisdom subjects are giving way all along the line to the merely informational. Theology went overboard many years ago. Philosophy flourishes in outline form as a species of cultural history. Metaphysics has become a Roman Catholic aberration. Literature, while still conspicuous in the catalogs, has become in practice more and more the science, or the bones of literature. Of all the Wisdom subjects which linger today, waging a losing fight with practicality, History alone seems to hold its ancient place. But even here, it is not the more important philosophy of history that is regarded with such favor but the enormous mass of information which constitutes its material cause.

Largely as a by-product of this worship of utility, we are faced by the problem of over-specialization. The same processes which have met with such success in modern American industry have now been applied of late with strange results to the intellectual world. A kind of assembly line has been introduced into our universities, where each of our busy educators, like a factory hand, knows only one operation. One cuts, one fits, one pads, one makes the buttonholes. A Dean, a Registrar, a Department Head, a struggling Instructor. A strange life that, making intellectual buttonholes for the clothing of the mind! Of course in education as in industry, the result of our efficiency is a very much cheaper suit. But the method has distinct advantages. It certainly increases the sum total of information in the world and simplifies considerably the staffing of an intellectual factory. It is so much easier to find a thousand brand new, shiny minds that know all about some particular fragment of knowledge than to find one great, mellow mind, broad and deep, the kind of mind that was once regarded as the normal goal of a liberal education, the kind of mind still sought by Christian Humanism as it strives, in the felicitous phrase of the distinguished Editor of THOUGHT, "to develop the intellect, the conscience and the taste in the light of both reason and revelation; with the force of both passion and grace". There is consequently every sign that Doctrina is on the increase. Soon we shall have the universe completely tabulated, and no one will know what it means.

In the midst of our Celebration today, therefore, surrounded by distinguished representatives of all that is best in modern thought, we cannot banish the formless fear that this glory of ours is a touch of autumn coloring, reminding us that another winter is at hand. Some pessimistic observers look rather for another ice age that will end our particular cycle of civilization. Would that we could blame some individual tyrant for its approach. Would that we could say "There is only one enemy to destroy, one 'Rattlesnake' to scotch. If Democracy but attacks him now, with so many super-tanks and flying fortresses, vigor will return to our Christian principles. Our Churches will be holy and our homes will be chaste again. There will be respect for marriage vows and love for children. Prosperity, hand in hand with social justice, will enter on the scene and educational institutions will return to educational pursuits". But no one so deludes himself except for political purposes. We all know that the present crop of dictators in the world is a symptom, not a cause. We all know that poor old Europe was already sick unto death long before she decided to end it all with an overdose of modernity. Sometimes we read in Sunday supplements that we are sinking back again into the Middle Ages. Shades of Canterbury and of Chartres! For years past we have been sinking forward into a thoroughly modern chaos, a scholarly and documented chaos, worthy of our most Liberal and Progressive thinkers. For years past our universities of Europe and America have been hacking away at the twin foundation of their own house. Like men gone mad with pride they have recklessly attacked Christianity and Hellenism as though they could by some legerdemain preserve Western Civilization and still destroy the two great traditions on which it rests. For years past wise men have been warning them that if they did not desist from their crazy undermining operations they would bring the roof down on all our heads. Now they have done it. Let us then put the blame exactly where it belongs. This annihilating war of ideas which is closing our hectic chapter of history comes to us straight from the lecture halls of Europe and America. It would have come sooner or later in any event. Our brilliant professors who are long on Doctrina and shorton Sapientia would surely have found some method of destroying us, even though the rulers of the modern world had happily died in their baptismal innocence. As it is, our educators prepared the way for intellectual slavery by giving us, in place of education—bewilderment. In place of Wisdom, and at the expense of the sources of Wisdom, they spread before their students more undigested information than the human race has ever had before; much more than the human race knows how to use at the present time. They produced a glut of facts to which we are not at this time entitled, for no age is entitled to more facts than it has wisdom to assimilate.

Now that the harm is done, however, no one would have us declare a moratorium on information. But as Universities our role must be the gradual restoration of Wisdom to the world. We must push forward in every line of modern research with continued and breathless devotion, but like the athletes in the old Athenian torch race of Pan, let us not run so fast that we put out the light. For the new worldthat will be born of all this pain must be "a brave new world", but not brave with the bravery of a dehumanized machine. We want no heroes of the Soviet type to shape our futures for us; reckless heroes who are ready to throw away their lives in defense of indefensible principles which they never understood in the first place. We want the enlightened bravery of Christian Humanism. Our children's children, in this brave new world which we may never see, must realize that they are men, angels, as well as animals; men with powers of imagination, reason, will and capacities for unselfishness that verge on the sublime; men whose fathers often reached the heights before them and left inspiring records for them to read, in Philosophy, in History and in Literature; men who are above all, God's own children, to whom theology should be an alphabet. Far from despairing then, in the growing darkness, the universities of the world should be inspired by the glorious realization that they were never more needed than today because the Liberal Arts were never more necessary, Wisdom never more precious.