The Wisdom of Secular Education

School of Athens

Right-wing commentator Dennis Prager said at a recent “Moms for Liberty” conference: “There is no such thing as a secular institution with wisdom… That is why the stupidest institutions are the most secular: the universities.”

He’s wrong. The wisdom of secular universities is found in their reluctance to teach wisdom. That may sound like a paradox. But it is an approach to teaching that is as old as Socrates.

I am a professor of philosophy—a “lover of wisdom.” But I don’t teach wisdom. I think that what I teach may help students develop wisdom. But I would never presume to teach wisdom. I can teach about the world’s wisdom traditions. But I do not have the right to teach wisdom in my role as a secular professor.

Prager’s critique of secular education

Prager is a frequent critic of secularism, and of public education. He is not happy with what secular schools teach about racism, gender, and religion. Prager wrote, in a column in July 2022: “When America was more religious, wisdom was taught to young people. This is another reason to fear a thoroughly secularized America—we are producing a nation of fools. The proof lies in our universities. The most secularized institution in America is the most foolish institution in America.”

Really? American universities lead the world in research and creativity. People come here to study from across the globe. American universities are not stupid or foolish.

But Prager is right that secular universities do not teach wisdom, in his sense. He thinks that wisdom implies the specific content of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But it is not the job of a secular university to instill the values of a specific religious tradition. This does not make universities foolish or stupid. Rather, secular universities refrain from teaching wisdom because in a diverse society grounded on liberty, we leave wisdom to the private sphere. If you want wisdom, go to a church or temple. But if you want knowledge, go to a secular school.

Secular universities should be neutral, inclusive, and pluralistic. They ought to disseminate knowledge, without staking a claim about wisdom. They ought to train students in the art of sifting and winnowing. They should teach skills in scientific method, critical thinking, and hermeneutics. But knowledge and critical thinking skills do not produce wisdom.

Wisdom vs. knowledge

Wisdom is about meaning, value, and purpose. It is a matter of the soul, the conscience, and our fundamental beliefs. Universities can and should include courses that teach about the varieties of opinion about wisdom and the meaning of life. But no secular university professor should presume to grade and evaluate students based upon the condition of their soul. That would be obnoxious, and it would violate the spirit of open inquiry that is essential to the secular pursuit of knowledge.

The pursuit of wisdom is different from the pursuit of knowledge. In religious traditions, teachers of wisdom provide definitive answers about meaning, value, and purpose. The teachers of religious wisdom aim to transform the souls of their disciples. They inspire, admonish, and guide their pupils toward a vision of the good life.

This is not what university professors should be doing. University professors teach knowledge, and methods for discovering it. But they should avoid any attempt to peer into the soul of a student. They may inspire students to seek knowledge. But they should not pick sides in cultural, religious, or spiritual struggles.

The pursuit of knowledge is, of course, part of wisdom. Wisdom requires knowledge. Ignorant and stupid people are not wise. But wisdom is not simply the accumulation of knowledge. And there are knowledgeable people who lack wisdom. Wisdom is a virtue or character trait. It is more a way of being than a pile of facts.

Wisdom involves judgement, discernment, and a sense of justice. Wisdom is about what we do with our knowledge, how we apply it to solve problems, and how we construct a life of meaning and value.

The Socratic model

An important model for the contemporary secular approach is Socrates. Socrates never claimed to be wise. He was a questioner, and a gadfly. He did not pontificate about the meaning of life, apart from suggesting that to be fully human is to think. This what he meant when he said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socratic wisdom is a lifelong commitment to the ongoing labor of thinking. But this is an open-ended kind of wisdom that avoids picking sides in cultural or religious squabbles.

And now, finally, let’s return to Prager’s contention that when America was more religious, wisdom was taught to young people. He’s probably right. In a homogeneous world young people are often trained to conform and identify with a specific answer to life’s questions. Some may call that training wisdom. But it is narrow and limiting.

Such a narrow training in wisdom is not appropriate for a world that values liberty, free inquiry, and diversity. For that world—our world—we need a secular, Socratic approach. The secular approach is oriented around the Socratic “love of wisdom,” and a process of arguing and inquiring that is open-ended. Secular universities do not teach wisdom. Rather, they teach us how to decide for ourselves what is wise.