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How To Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Part VIII)

Writing helps cultivate wisdom in many ways, but one of the most explicit is that it drives us to read more carefully. For example, I am working on speeches for next summer’s conference. This question, “What is man?” is proving to be both invigorating and exhausting.

Once you ask it, it becomes rather obvious that everything else turns on it. That illustrates a central principle of thought and especially of classical rhetoric, which is that questions matter, or, as I like to repeat, “The quality of your life is dependent on the quality of the questions you ask.”

When you ask an important question like that, you have to pay attention to what you read. But keep it simple. When you ask any question and try to get an answer through reading, you are going to pay closer attention to what you read.

When I was younger, I used to fear that asking a specific question would interfere with my reading because it would force me into a perspective, thus causing me to miss what was outside that perspective. The reality is more complicated. Not to take a perspective is not to look. So yes, it does underscore my mortality and finitude when I ask a specific question, but only as one who is mortal and finite can I see at all.

Furthermore, experience has shown me that taking a perspective without dogmatism causes me to see everything more clearly than otherwise. The human mind is a wonder. It does a great deal more than we know or credit it for. When you pay attention to one element of a poem, game, novel, or person, you see a great deal more about that poem, game, novel, or person as a whole. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems to be related to the fact that we humans can never shut down our personal, relational souls. The soul sees things whole if the senses and the mind can be moved to look.

So when we write, we should begin with a question. Your question will cause you to read more closely and attention is the practical foundation of wisdom.

Thus writing cultivates the habit of attentiveness while refining the habit of inquiring.

The most powerful (though by no means the only powerful) questions, I would suggest, are three:

What is it? (definition)
How is it compare to…? (comparison)
Should …?

I conclude with a paragraph of profound insight from David Hicks’ masterwork Norms and Nobility (which you must read at least once/week if you are an educator – one sentence/reading will often do):

I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies. Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.

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