Two weeks ago the New Birmingham Library was officially opened by Malala Yousafzai. It struck me that this 16 year old girl, thrust into the limelight following her fight for education in her homeland of Pakistan, already displays the hallmarks of wisdom. Having visited the library last week, I cannot deny that it is a wonderful facility, crammed with information gathered, written and published through previous generations and which can now be accessed in any number of traditional and technical ways.
As time goes by and our understanding of the world expands, new discoveries are made and life becomes increasingly complex, so does the amount of knowledge recorded, shared and passed onto our children. Each generation has to start at the beginning to learn the basics and despite increasing years spent in formal education, most of us can only hope to ever reach the lower echelons of the pyramid of knowledge. Our way of handling this overwhelming amount of information is to specialize and become experts in one tiny sphere and as such our outlook on life is forever skewed by our lens of choice. When faced with challenges beyond that field of vision we believe it is not our problem, that someone else will have the knowledge to fix it and we relinquish any sense of personal responsibility.
How we record and share copious amounts of knowledge is one thing, but for me the moot point is whether our propensity to spend greater amounts of time in formal education is producing the collective wisdom required to tackle the global challenges of 21st century life. Just 80 years ago in the so called western countries it was the norm to leave school at 14; today many are studying well into their twenties and yet the evidence that this has produced an equivalent increase in wisdom is not obvious. If we look at those individuals whose actions have had positive benefits for large numbers of people – Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – they are few and far between, perhaps one or two per generation. None of them benefited from extended formal education and yet arguably they displayed a wisdom most of us are in awe of. Can such wisdom be taught in a classroom or is it something which is innate in a few individuals and which given the opportunity, will propel that person to act for the greater good? Do they perhaps view the world through a wide angle lens rather than one which has narrowed it’s focus? In trying to increase our knowledge with unprecedented amounts of information are we actually overloading our minds and cluttering our ability for clear and wise thinking?
In an era which has for the first time in history enabled us to be acutely aware of global issues, does the forum and delivery of knowledge and the nurturing of intelligence require a different approach? The encouragement of modern individualism seems at odds with the challenges which need addressing in the 21st century. In Malala maybe we are witnessing one such wise individual but it seems we are far from knowing how to harness, share and encourage a collective wisdom.