2 - Sharing Wisdom

library at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris

library of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris


   The Sharing of Wisdom and the Involvement of Everyone are so interrelated that we could have lumped them into a single item, but they’re so important that it made more sense to tell two stories rather than one so as to cover them more thoroughly. Here’s how they fit together: The Sharing of Wisdom is essential if we hope to involve everyone in a sustainable future... and if we don’t involve everyone, we likely won’t have a sustainable future. Let’s look first at the most common ways that wisdom is already shared. Next, we’ll think about how we can do it better.

   The three most common current ways of spreading wisdom, from the broadest to the highest, are public education’s way, higher education’s way, and the specialists’ way. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, those weaknesses prevent each of these ways from solving the problems of sustainability on their own. Fortunately, there’s a fourth and far more capable way that has been around since the dawn of time; we simply need to learn how to tap into it.


Public Education’s Way

entablature over front door of public library in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Portsmouth public library

   Public education in most countries spreads wisdom very broadly, but not so high. It begins formally with pre-school, although parents almost always engage in some form of home-based learning before children enter their formal education. Often, it’s as simple as story-telling or reading with their children. Next comes elementary and then middle school. Formal public education in most places ends with the high school diploma.

   Public education after graduation is mostly self-directed. Once, it consisted primarily of visits to the public library or to the bookstore. Today, the Internet has firmly replaced both of these as the primary resource for self-directed learning.

   Public education in developed countries intends to reach all children, so it is very broad, normally having the force of law behind it to ensure that all children attend school. And while you can theoretically learn almost anything on the Internet, the fact is that people who have only a public education most often use their education for basic social and economic competencies. In other words, a public education by itself is much more likely to be used to balance a checkbook or text a message to a friend than to find a cure for cancer... or to find a solution to the mysteries of real sustainability.


Higher Education’s Way

two students walking across quad at University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana

University of Notre Dame

   Higher education begins with undergraduate education. It can continue with graduate degrees, and occasionally culminates in a doctorate degree.

   Higher education (undergraduate in particular) can be characterized as years of listening to lectures, working through innumerable problems appropriate to your field of study, showing your work to your professors, getting graded on your work, and eventually getting a degree for all your efforts. Higher education intends to elevate students to levels of wisdom far above those which they usually obtain from public education. But it’s not very broad. If you doubt that, count the number of people in almost any crowd, then ask how many of them have at least one PhD. Normally, it’s a very small %.


the Specialists’ Way

stainless steel whisks kitchen equipment store in New York City

only the chef knows

   A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about only one thing. Some disagree, saying that the ultimate specialist is someone who knows absolutely everything about nothing at all. Let’s use the first, less offensive definition, and use it to look at how specialists spread wisdom.

   Specialists handle a great deal of information on their chosen specialty. This information is usually more complex than information shared by the general public. In other words, specialists are less likely to discuss things like dogs, cats, and fish with their fellow-specialists, and are more likely to discuss things like Hexadecacarbonylhexarhodium, the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers, or the Positron Emission Tomography Scanner.

telescope equipment in Hart Observatory, Pasadena, California

   Each of these terms is shared only by the specialists that deal with it, and each term has a long story behind it. Learning everything about the Positron Emission Tomography Scanner  might take years, for example. Because of this, specialists have what amounts to their own private language of technical jargon, each term of which is embedded with lots of meaning that goes unspoken most of the time. These private languages aren’t the result of some nefarious scheme, either; they’re the necessary by-product of specializing in something.

   If you tried to read any of the three terms above out loud, you know that they’re each quite a mouthful. The specialists noticed that, too. So in order to save time, they often use acronyms or codes to shorten them. So Hexadecacarbonylhexarhodium becomes Rh6CO16, Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers becomes RED HORSE, and the Positron Emission Tomography Scanner becomes the PET. Any slight chance that someone outside a particular specialty might understand specialist jargon goes to zero when the jargon turns into acronyms.

   This moves the chances of the specialists’ knowledge spreading outside their specialty from “slim” to “none.” So what are we left with? We have one system (public education) that spreads low-level information like reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, broadly. At the other end, we have a system that spreads extremely high-level information, but only to a tiny group of specialists, and to make matters worse, it protects that information with an indecipherable secret language known only to members of the specialty. In the middle, we have a system that spreads mid-level information to a middling degree.

electrical equipment in Hart Observatory, Pasadena, California

   The problem should be clear when we consider the fact that while many of the best minds around the world have been working for years to try to figure out how to live sustainably today, they haven’t figured it out yet. So it’s reasonable to assume that once they do, it’s likely to be some extremely high-level wisdom. But if we’re going to achieve sustainability, that information needs to spread broadly. Clearly, none of the primary methods we’re currently using are up to the task. We need a system capable of the best of all our systems.


Nature’s Way

winding country road through jungle in Panama

   It turns out that there is such a system. And it has been around for a long time. It’s nature’s way. Consider this: the most complex wisdom humans have ever encountered is the human genetic code. Scientists around the world worked for many years just to document the entire human genome, and they’re just now beginning the long process of unlocking what it all means. In all likelihood, the task of unlocking it will still be going on a century from now.

   But stop and think for a moment about how that genetic material spreads. Take humans, for example. As we know, the process begins when two humans are attracted to each other. They mate. They breed. (Not necessarily in that order.) And the genetic material is passed on.

   But almost none of the people replicating genetic material are human genome scientists. Nearly all of them, in fact, are completely unschooled in genetics, and most have only on-the-job training in the replication of genetic material. How is this possible?

two young women having lunch in Paris at a sidewalk cafe on the Rue des Colonnes

lunch at sidewalk cafe in Paris

   Nature’s way involves a nifty trick: nature takes the wisdom of the genetic code and embeds it in beauty. This lowers the bar immensely, so people only have to consider one another attractive; they don’t even need a passing knowledge of genetics in order to pass on some genes.

   Looking at the young woman in this picture having lunch with a friend on the streets of Paris, one might conclude that she has a good chance of passing on her genetic material if she so chooses because she has enough beauty to attract a choice of mates. But if you told her that, she might respond “Yes, but there’s so much more to me than just my appearance,” and she’d be right. Life is that way, too. There’s so much more to life than just the process of passing it on. Architecture can work in a somewhat similar way. Here’s how:

eave of building in Pienza, Italy

eave in Pienza, Italy

   Someone might work for years to work out the best possible eave for their region. They might do sun angle or wind speed calculations, and take all sorts of other things into consideration. But if they hope to spread the design of that eave by asking people to work out the same calculations (like higher education asks us to work the problems of our field of study) then it’s impossible that the eave would spread. If, however, the designer embeds the wisdom they’ve spent years to discover into beauty so that people love that eave, then it can spread all over the region. It helps if the people have a passing knowledge that the design is good for sun and wind, but all the really have to know is “we love this.”


   ~Steve Mouzon


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   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #2 in the top 10 things we can do.


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© The Guild Foundation 2013