Monday, December 12, 2005

The Difference between Wisdom and Ignorance

A short piece by Anna Bernasek in the New York Times yesterday asks "What's the Return on Education?" The piece investigates the economic return on an investment in education, both for the individual and for society as a whole, and comes to the stunning conclusion that we don't really know.

Now let's be clear - concluding "I don't know," when you don't actually know, is worlds better than concluding "I don't know, so I better just make it up as I go." After all, as Socrates pointed out, there is wisdom in the recognition of one's ignorance. Or was that George Bush? I always get them confused.
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Actually, Ms. Bernasek refers to Socrates in explaining the merit of an article that asks an important question - What sort of results is our investment in education producing? - and fails to come up with much of an answer. And she was correct to do so - she just needs a little work on the details.

Bernasek writes that "Socrates once said that the more he learned, the more he became convinced of his own ignorance." That's a nice but rather inaccurate summary of Socrates' description of his own wisdom, set forth in the Apology, Plato's account of the trial and sentencing of Socrates.

Without being overly dogmatic, I think it's important to point out that Socrates disclaimed any knowledge from the beginning. He was, he admits, baffled by the Delphic oracle's assertion that no man in Athens was wiser than Socrates. What happened next was not Socrates embarking on a quest for knowledge and coming to the realization, as he learned more and more, that he was indeed supremely ignorant. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Socrates set out to disprove the oracle by engaging in coversation those reputed to possess knowledge. In this process what Socrates discovered was that neither he nor the prominent men of Athens - the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen - possessed any real knowledge. The only difference was that Socrates realized he was ignorant, whereas the rest believed themselves to be possessed of knowledge.
So I withdrew and thought to myself: "I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than eh to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know." (21d)

So Bernasek, unfortunately, has Socrates backwards. In reality, the more Socrates learned (if we confine "learned" to the very narrow description of uncovering the beliefs held by others) the more he became convinced of his own, albeit limited, wisdom - not of his own ignorance.

So what? Bernasek got the basic point right, more or less, so why do we care if she's playing a little fast and loose with the details of perhaps the most important speech in Western legal history? Maybe we don't. But if Bernasek is to be believed when she says, "Taking our cue from Socrates, the first step may be to recognize what we don't know," that recognition has to start with what Socrates himself actually said.

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