Eating Knowledge

The story By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet shows a civilization that has been decimated by “eating knowledge too fast,” as John the Son of a Priest says as he explores the ruins of modern day New York City. John observes that there must be a balance between wisdom and knowledge or a civilization isn’t safe.

I could rant and point fingers about the educational reformers, creating a culture of accountability while neither employing or espousing wisdom. And some other day, I might. But this week at my school, the value of having teachers with wisdom as well as knowledge was made clear.

A young, healthy teacher died suddenly. One day, he was lecturing, badgering kids to complete assignments, interviewing to become principal, even. The next, we were explaining to his students that he died that morning as he was getting ready for school.

Testing can be mandated; work hours can be mandated. Even the content of the classes and the knowledge the teachers possess and impart can be mandated. And knowledge is important–no argument about that.

But students are not widgets or cogs in the education machine. Students are not merely “stakeholders” in the process, either. They are people, with all the weaknesses, issues, emotions, and baggage that our reality shows parade across America’s television screens daily. We can make the acquisition of knowledge more efficient and effective,  but there’s a tipping point where the educational system will become so weighted towards “knowledge” than the human element will be gone–the ability to bring school to a standstill to hold sobbing students, when needed even–and there will be no wisdom left to find in our classrooms. That’s what was most clearly illustrated this week as my school dealt with that teacher’s sudden death.

There is little wisdom in our statehouses and our leaders; our churches and holy places are too often focused on big screen projectors and growing their market share. If we do not want John the Son of a Priest’s tale to be prophetic, schools may be our last hope for finding the balance between knowledge and wisdom.

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