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Liveblogging CAIS 2008: Pursuing Wisdom: An Investigation of the Relationship Between the Ancient Religious Concept of Wisdom and the Current Information Literacy Ideal of Critical Thinking June 7, 2008

Posted by JR Dixey in events@UBC.
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Eric S. Nyrose, MLIS University of Alberta; Alberta Bible College

[Please note: These are merely my notes on the presentation, taken live while the presentation was in progress and edited for sense afterwards. They are not a verbatim transcription of the presentation, and any errors are mine. Please contact the researchers directly for more information on their work. — JRD]

Notes on the presentation:

Interdisciplinarity is very interesting to me, because I’ve been to conferences in Biblical scholarship, so I’m going to be really crossing boundaries here. I am going to be talking about the Bible. That probably doesn’t happen in these conferences very often and might not have ever happened before.

I did a research project on the research practices of first-year college students at Alberta Bible College, asking the students whether they used ‘wisdom’ in their searching. That wasn’t an unusual question for these students, because we use wisdom as a term regularly. But in LIS, ‘wisdom’ is not a recognized term.

What’s wisdom got to do with it?

If you look at the etymology of the word ‘philosophy’, there are two roots: “philos” (light) and “love”, so the  meaning of philosophy is “the love of wisdom”. The love of wisdom is so respected that a PhD is the highest degree we convey. So why is ‘wisdom’ not in our vocabulary? Perhaps it is because of the fear of mixing religious with non-religious scholarship. But we do use wisdom as a part of everyday life. Wisdom is all around us (Chicken Soup for the Soul and other “bathroom readers”). But, in formal education, the concept of ‘wisdom’ seems absent.

Wisdom is commonly discussed in a faith-based context. “Wisdom” and “foolishness” come into our discussions with our children; with my own children, I prefer to talk in terms of wisdom and foolishness instead of saying “that was smart” or “that was stupid”. In faith-based education, the idea of wisdom from ancient philosophy, and the idea of critical thinking from contemporary education, seem to be similar.

As I said, my background is Biblical studies. I started with Proverbs, because I call it the “bathroom reader” of the ancient Israelites. Solomon was said to have written more than 3,000 proverbs, or wise sayings. Solomon is said to have promoted a strong tradition of wisdom. A little later, confucius wrote his Analects. Both materialized in the context of faith and addressed morality. But they also addressed life and learning.

First I looked at conceptualized ‘critical thinking’ in LIS and other disciplines, and found that the word ‘wisdom’ wasn’t used anywhere. So I decided to look for synonyms for the concept of wisdom. Then I looked for concepts of critical thinking in both Proverbs (in Hebrew) and Confucius (in English translation).

Perhaps a return to some of these ancient religious ideas may help us to improve our teaching. There is a trend in this direction, including Maxwell (2005), Maxwell and Barnett (2007), Deane-Drummond (2007), and Targowski (2006). We need to change our education so that ‘problems of living’ are part of our teaching, in addition to ‘problems of knowledge’. Deane-Drummond wonders whether wisdom has been discarded because of its connection to religion.

“Religion” may be taught in contemporary education settings, but it is taught within a positivist framework. Christian wisdom is mentioned, usually as it grows out of Jewish wisdom; Buddhist and Islamic wisdom are left out entirely, so I might have to address them later. Confucianism comes up, along with Jewish wisdom.

The concept of critical thinking comes up in LIS, but sometimes it is in a negative capacity:

Undergraduates not capable of critical thinking (Guardia, 1998). Herro (2000), Gibson (1995), Albitz (2007) discuss information literacy and its connection to critical thinking. Critical thinking is broader, more theoretical, but information literacy is required for critical thinking.

I’ll give you a couple of samples of Proverbs and Confucius. I’m a big fan of modern translations, because they didn’t speak in King James Shakespearean English back then, and neither do we. “Through these proverbs, people will receive instruction in discipline, good conduct, and doing what is right, just and fair. .. They will give young people knowledge.” Confucius: “The love of knowledge without love of learning sinks into presumption … Love of uprightness, without love of learning, sinks into harshness…”.

This highlights some of what I found in both sources that are common. We find the following common perspectives:

There are stages of critical thinking. Proverbs talks of those who reject or don’t understand wisdom, and those who accept wisdom and are therefore wise. Confucius wanted his students to desire to learn.

Critical thinking is active and disciplined. Both Confucius and Proverbs promote discipline; both self-discipline and correction from one’s mentor or instructor.

As wisdom grows there is more self-discipline. Wisdom is the acceptance of this discipline. There is also the concept of being with and listening to the right people and listening to their advice. I tell my daughters that all the time: never refuse advice. You don’t have to follow it, but don’t refuse it. You have to evaluate what you hear, think about it, and critically evaluate what you hear. “The prudent carefully consider their steps” (Proverbs 14:15).

It’s the idea of looking at the options and choosing the best one. It doesn’t mean being open to accepting anything, it means being able to make good judgements. Finally, creativity isn’t always brought up in critical thinking; creativity involves going outside of the box, but you don’t have to go outside the box to be creative. Sometimes it is about creatively challenging assumptions. Critical thinkers are aware of their context. Confucius didn’t distinguish between religion and philosophy. Solutions were worked out within a given framework.

Confucius discourages speculation, certainty, inflexibility, and self-absorption (thinking only his ideas are true). Proverbs addresses the mocker, the fool, and the simpleton, which are related to these four ideas.

The benefits of critical thinking/wisdom:

  • empowerment, self-autonomy
  • wisdom will bring a person success
  • balanced recognition of the group as well as individuality

What do we do with all this? We found some interesting things in Proverbs, Confucius, and critical thinking literature. How can all this help us?

Several of the things taught in information literacy are “wise” — but not called “wisdom”. Perhaps they should be. The most significant thought I found is that ancient wisdom calls for the same integration in all of life. It’s not just something for ‘information seeking’ or ‘information literacy’. It’s something that pervades all of life and can inform all of life. Rather than separately looking for ‘wisdom’ in life and ‘critical thinking’ in education, Confucius would call for us to bring these together.

To truly be a wise person, it has to be something you practice in all of your life. Buying groceries is a place for critical thinking. An undergraduate deciding how to spend his never-enough money is also a place for critical thinking. When a student walks past a needy person asking for help, it’s a time to creatively think about how to respond to the homeless.

Timeliness is very important. We know that an information literacy lesson is more effective if the professor brings his class to the library at the moment when they need to start researching a paper, as opposed to having a generalized information literacy session at the start of the school year. Wisdom out of context, critical thinking separated from other contexts, is just as artificial-seeming as the separation of information literacy instruction from the need to start an assignment. Why should a student be taught to think critically while searching for information in the library, and then go out and behave foolishly in the evening? Critical thinking should be taught as something that permeates life.

At Alberta Bible College, we give students integrative assignments. First-year students spend a week living and working at a downtown ministry called Mustard Seed. Second year students work cross-culturally with First Nations people. Third year students continue to do cross-cultural work with people who speak other languages. Fourth year students try to produce a philosophy of where they’re going to “go from here”.

About 1000 years before the common era, Solomon began a wisdom tradition. A few hundred years later, Confucius taught his followers wisdom. Both of these thinkers improved their societies. Today we have rejected this kind of wisdom teaching, which integrates with all areas of life. We need to add to our ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’.

Future Research:

A colleague of mine has done a lot of work in transformational learning. I like the idea of transformational literacy. I wonder if ‘critical thinking’ is broadened to ‘wisdom’, perhaps ‘information literacy’ can become ‘transformational literacy’.

Question from the Audience: I would have defined wisdom as ‘discernment’ and ‘judgment’ a week ago. Abut a couple of days ago, I was introduce to Confucianism, which introduces the idea of ‘moral judgment’, which we also get from Proverbs. Do you see ‘moral judgment’ as an element of critical thinking? I wonder if that’s where the tension is in bringing the concept of ‘wisdom’ to academia?

Answer: I think so, because of our desire for intellectual freedom, and freedom from religion, which was one of the things people were seeking in the New World. We don’t want to judge anyone’s morality. But I think critical thinking relates to morality, and it might be related to Internet searching. There are some bizarre ideas available out there, and that might relate to morality.

Question from the Moderator: Have you looked at how many universities are teaching critical thinking or ‘wisdom’? We tend to teach information literacy within a silo. We don’t have as a goal that every undergraduate will graduate with information literacy as a toolkit, but they do have writing across the curriculum. So the idea of embedding something across the curriculum is already accepted.

Answer: I’m at a small college, so the faculty all sits down together and talks about how it crosses over. It might just be a factor of size.

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