Where’s the Wisdom?

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

I was really impressed with Dennis Prager’s book, Still the Best Hope — which I interview him about here. I frankly have so many books on my desk . . .  and I often expect not much more than an expanded magazine article out of a lot of them. Prager’s is not that — it’s a distillation of a lifetime’s thought and wisdom. It’s the sort of book I wish everyone who has lived an examined life would write, to help keep anyone from trying to figure it all out on his own. There are probably no real new insights under the sun, but we can clarify them to one another in fresh and relevant and timely ways. And it’s the figuring it out all on one’s own, in the midst of the emotions and passions of life that Prager focuses on in one particularly important section on the importance of wisdom. It’s a fairly obvious point but one we probably don’t reflect on enough. It gets to the heart of a lot of what we’re grappling with today:

Because the Left relies heavily on feelings and intentions, wisdom and preexisting moral value systems do not count for much. This attitude was encapsulated in the famous Left- wing baby boomer admonition, “Never trust anyone over thirty.” With that sentence, the 1960s and ’70s youth announced that there was nothing to be learned about leading a good life — the purpose of all wisdom teaching since Athens and Jerusalem — from anyone older than the baby boomers, let alone anyone who lived long ago. It was enough to rely on one’s own feelings for such insights.

The Left- wing adulation of youth was part of this rejection of wisdom. One can revere youth or wisdom, but not both. Thus, the 1960s and ’70s in America saw the end of required courses at universities: Eighteen- and nineteen- year- olds would choose what to study.

Western universities have an abundance of professors with intellect, men and women who possess a vast repository of knowledge (though often in increasingly narrow areas of study), who are certain that they mean well and that they know better than others. Yet the Western university has been morally wrong on nearly every disputed great moral issue — support for Marxist ideas and causes, nuclear disarmament during the Cold War, belief that America was as responsible as the Soviet Union for the Cold War, sympathetic views of Communist tyrants such as Mao, Ho, and Castro, the portrayal of the United States and Israel as international villains, support for pacifism, and so forth.

Why? One reason is that it lacks wisdom. The university relies on the good, the “progressive,” intentions of its professors, not on the accumulated wisdom of the ages, for solutions to society’s problems. That is why, in the Left’s view, the American Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and in particular the Bible have little or nothing to teach people today. The Bible is deemed completely out of touch — its being rooted in belief in God is enough to invalidate it; the Constitution is antiquated, written by slaveholding, affluent white males who were therefore morally flawed, men of their time who could not have anticipated the complex world of the twentieth and twenty- first centuries. In order to be relevant to today’s America, the Constitution means whatever the contemporary progressive says it means.

Those of us who grew up in religious Jewish and Christian schools were taught early in life that our heart is an awful guide to doing what is right, that the human being is essentially flawed, that human nature needs to be constantly controlled, and that the greatest moral insights preceded our birth. For this reason many Americans who studied at traditional Jewish and Christian high schools have more wisdom (though, of course, less knowledge) than many professors, artists, and editorial page writers.

For example, unlike the Left, those who value wisdom know that when you give people something for nothing, you produce ungrateful people; that when you obscure the differences between men and women, you end up with many aimless men and angry women; that when you give children “self- esteem” without their earning it, you produce narcissists who enter adulthood often incapable of empathy and of handling life; that if you do not destroy evil, it will proliferate; and that if you are kind to the cruel, you will end up being cruel to the kind.

If you really want goodness to prevail, wisdom is a key to unlocking it. The heart is not. That’s why we have a minimum voting age and a minimum age for running for public office. As good as a young person may be, personal goodness is not enough to be competent to choose society’s leaders or to be one.

So, why do otherwise good people do bad things? In large part, because they lack wisdom.

(From STILL THE BEST HOPE by Dennis Prager Copyright © 2012 by Dennis Prager. Reprinted courtesy of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.)

Read my interview with Dennis Prager about the book here

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