Teaching Wisdom – To Know the World, you Have to Live in the World

child-in-nature“To know the world, you have to live in the world.”

Carol Black has written a beautiful and insightful essay on connection between children and the outdoors, knowing, and what education ought to be.  It resonates with me.  I think looking back that I was blessed with land and having my brother Andrew with whom to escape into the land and explore.  Meals brought us home.  We were blessed with our own New Zealand version of this …..

“A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.”

the-wonder-of-a-childFor us it was eels, cockabullies, birds nests and bees – and about any other thing that involved water, trees, mud and a live (or dead) thing, as well as the community activities on the land from mustering to dusty yards smelling of dung.  We were curious beyond measure. But it was never about measure.  It was about awe, reverence, contentment, and fun.  I’ve written about relationships to landscapes and people in my blog here and when trying to explain what is this thing we call a forest.

George Monbiot makes the same point in his book Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. To know the world, you have to live in it; embrace it with all our senses; see it, sense it and feel it withsanity-wholeness-of-consciousness both sides of our brains. Belong; to the wholeness of life, of consciousness. Realise the connections, and that you are connected to others and the landscape.

Ball’s Clearing – a lowland podocarp hardwood forest remnant near the Kaweka Ranges of inland Hawke’s Bay – was the start of a journey for me. That place of enchantment and its uplifting overload of sense experience, transcendence, awe and joy. Try and measure that.

I remember ‘getting’ the years of learning the foundations of forest ecology lying on my podocarp_forest.jpgback recording bird counts where all the connections of a particular spot, with particular qualities, were in play. The fact that it was a great spot for kereru had made the place in which I lay.

Keystones shrieked their ephemeral presence – in this particular place, in this particular time, within these defining yet not easily definable rhythms and dynamics of life.  The wider statistics of the forest don’t measure life; they don’t indicate these particular place-based connections, and the place didn’t exist in the aggregate models because we dealt beyond single plots in broader scales of vegetation types, means and standard errors – the world of STEME (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, economics).  We lose the fine resolution of things in our programmes of convenient standardisation, especially if our focus is ‘resource’ rather than ‘ecology’.  And we lose something more, a wise persepctive.

The whole Modern programme (for a discussion on Modernity as a ‘way of seeing’ read Ways of Seeing I: Paradigms of Progress – the Rise of the Machine) – with all its measures and murdering to dissect, its certain, controllable the-earth-does-not-belong-to-us-we-belong-to-the-earthfocus on predictability and technology – is, to me, a risky enterprise in unwisdom; in UNeducating the mind.

There is madness here, but we don’t
call it so.  Its perspective is mad in the sense that the world is defined as a certain mechanical path, walked upon by looking through a telescope, within a realm of mists surrounded on all sides by multiple treasures and mortal traps, beyond the ken or concern of myopic men.

Mr Magoo meets Jurassic Park.

Its purpose is mad in believing not only in the framework of the machine, a thing outside ourselves, but in an unquestioned destiny of eating the home that gives us breath.  It is unknowing, unwise, and extends to the classroom, Black’s focus in her article.

“The purpose of school was to “elevate” children out of their [“totally depraved”] natural state and train them to take their place in man’s grand project of “subordinating the material world to his use”.”


Black continues …


“These original purposes, as John Taylor Gatto has pointed out, were so effectively built into the structure of modern schooling –– with its underlying systems of confinement, control, standardization, measurement, and enforcement –– that today they are accomplished even without our conscious knowledge or assent.

They are not, of course, accomplished in the ways that the social engineers had in mind. These visionary men assumed human nature to be infinitely malleable; children were to be molded and fashioned like any other industrial raw material into a predetermined finished product, and industrial utopia would be the result. But they did not count on the power of children’s instinct for dissent. The wild mind strives to protect itself the way a horse under saddle does, with a thousand strategies of resistance, withdrawal, inattention, forgetting; the children won’t do what the authorities say they should do, they won’t learn what the experts say they must learn, and for every diligent STEM-trained worker-bee we create there are ten bored, resistant, apathetic young people who are alienated from both nature and their own chained hearts.”itsnotyou-itsyourcage-stuart-hardy


The world as machine. A child as a machine with a chained heart. The proto-Picasso manufactured into an accountant.

We know there is a problem.  We know we need to fix it.  And we respond – in the best Modern mechanical way – by using the same reductionist, analytical and ‘objective’ – meaning disconnected – thinking in an attempt at solution …

“There is some dawning awareness these days of the insanity of raising children almost entirely indoors, but as usual our society’s response to its own insanity is to create artificial programs designed to solve our artificial problems in the most artificial way possible.”

We are at risk of creating the vicious circle of myopia breeding myopia breeding myopia, where the seer who points out the nakedness of the emperor is the one considered the mad witch.

Modernity is bad enough, but in our Neoliberal Age it is even worse – Modernity on steroids – we frame land and people as measured ‘resources’ with a dollar market price attached, to be used, disassembled, dominated, controlled, instructed, and exploited to achieve another madness, measured – unnaturally – in someone else’s dollars.

Perhaps the worst insanity of all is to assume that you can know the world from a classroom desk.  Aristotle wrote about this in Nicomachean Ethics in his profound discussion of the four intellectual virtues.

  1. Knowledge that can be taught in a classroom is the lowest form (Episteme).
  2. Knowledge learned by doing – being in the land, with other people, acting – higher (Techne).
  3. The rudder of a considered life and moral virtue – the Core.
  4. The practical wisdom and judgment (Phronesis) – the decision of what to do regarding this issue, in this place, in this time, with these unfolding consequences the Queen.

We reduce both knowledge and wisdom by assuming Episteme will define our future within our mechanical world. And we risk falling into an alligator pit we cannot even imagine.

Aristotle’s wisdom is being rediscovered by brilliant thinkers like Bent Flyvjberg and Alistair MacIntyre; who summed up the need for connection to people and place in order to be wise ….

“that it is only by participation in a rational practice-based community that one becomes rational.”[1]

And yet our approach to education seems to be the opposite; that it is only by non-participation in the real world and all its complexity that one can be rational.

Strangely, that is exactly the point of view that i-see-humans-but-no-humanityTreasury took relating to policy analysts from the 1990s. We were told that knowledge of a sector wasn’t required. Economics would be the ring that binds them all.  Not merely necessary – itself debatable – but sufficient. More, that any practical and professional knowledge within the field and within communities was a disadvantage.

We were ‘captured’ by the sector by knowing.  We were ‘subjective’. They, in their non-participation in life itself, liked to consider themselves ‘objective’. Their faith in the technocracy of Episteme and Techne as the replacement of ken and wisdom was complete.

Is this, perhaps, the nadir of the Modern mechanical age; where thought and perspective is divorced from the real world we experience as unchained hearts searching for eels along the banks? We are breeding GM dreams, aquifer frackers and water thieves; the unleashing of the Hyenas of Corporate commerce, reducing our complex world to expendable things, to means for others’ ends.

We have cast aside the moral rudder; discarded practical wisdom in favour of an input:output equilibrium model, mr-magoodisconnected from any real world in this universe.

And this is madness too; Mr Magoo is breeding the naked emperors amongst the alligators, both of whom he cannot see.

And perhaps we have lost the ability to teach a different way of seeing. Carol Black thinks so.

“But the truth is we don’t know how to teach our children about nature because we ourselves were raised in the cinderblock world. We are, in the parlance of wildlife rehabilitators, unreleasable. I used to do wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and the one thing we all knew was that a young animal kept too long in a cage would not be able to survive in the wild. Often, when you open the door to the cage, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do. The world has become unfamiliar, an alien place. This is what we have done to our children.

This is what was done to us.”

I hope I am right in thinking that in New Zealand we have yet to reach that point of no return. But we do need to treasure our connections to doing things within family, community and place, in order to be learn to be rational and wise.

Teach your children well.




Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

[1] Quoted in Hauerwas, S., 2007 The Virtues Of Alasdair Macintyre. First Things. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/10/004-the-virtues-of-alasdair-macintyre

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9 Responses to Teaching Wisdom – To Know the World, you Have to Live in the World

  1. As usual Chris you hit the nail on the head. New Zealand is blessed in having so much natural beauty and access to places of solitude in nature. A childhood spent exploring and learning is a childhood that is well spent and forms a bedrock of understanding in the soul of how the real world works. Humanity has destroyed so much of nature – and continues to destroy the natural world a rate that is truly frightening. Pity the children whose feet are never in contact with the good earth. We face a stark choice for which there is only one answer and one result – we either return the earth to itself or the earth will return us to where we came from by force. Its already happening – droughts, storms, erosion, the decline of natural systems – we can choose to stop the destruction voluntarily or we can wait until nature stops us in our tracks. Knowing humanities propensity for not only ignoring the problems but outright defiantly carrying on then alas for mankind the alternative choice is more likely. Weep for human beings because they don’t know what they are doing and when they realize the time will be past any hope of a ‘soft-landing’. What a different world our children and grandchildren will live in.

    • cjkperley says:

      We know not what we do Gavin, and I think we put far too much faith in the Tyranny of Experts, many of whom haven’t the breadth or long term perspective, or morals to see.
      Cheers friend. Chris

  2. B.J.Ridler says:

    Unfortunately my thoughts seem not as coherent as yours, but complex systems are not easy to understand and even more difficult to simply discuss.
    You suggest economics is not the complete answer and I agree. But economics, if used properly, can quickly distinguish the probably good from the obviously bad. The simplified “input/output” approach cannot however provide insight.
    Many project reports use averages and straight line responses which simplistic input/output methodology (and user understanding) is capable of handling.
    Yet all biological processes exhibit diminishing returns as production increases and when a critical point is reached the curve rapidly changes and decreases at an ever increasing rate. System economics decreases but the environmental damage increases rapidly. Complete failure of both occurs.
    “Proper” economics can identify the point where economic benefit becomes loss. It may also be able to indicate the environmental costs of such economic stupidity. This in itself would begin the process of improving the economy and the environment in a “symbiotic” manner.
    However your main message is about “teaching wisdom” or rather being allowed the freedoms to teach ourselves.
    “Proper” education should allow this yet curriculums are becoming increasingly defined as are workplaces and many of the “recreational” options that previously provided individual learning opportunities.
    Paine stated “Man has no property in man” yet individually many have allowed politicians, media, education and bullies to enslave their thoughts rather than to nurture their own.
    As most who read your Blog will probably know, independent thinking requires both courage and humility. It is however a choice still able to be made.

    • cjkperley says:

      Agree Barry. Both regarding education and systems. I like your reference to “proper” economics. Economics is the management of home (Eco) and the very first precondition to proper management ought to be an understanding of home/eco through the study of how these systems *actually* work. Not as infinite linear machines, but as you point out as complex systems with limits and thresholds and connections.

      Neoliberal Economic (The Grand Faith) certainly doesn’t get this. I have hope for Ecological Economics and Behavioural Economics. They start from an understanding of the world and people, not mechanically measured ‘resources’ and allocation transactions extending into all facets of life’s meaning.

  3. Makere says:

    Love this, Indeed I will repost it.
    The chasm between the environment that my children grew up in and their activities and the experience of most of my grandchildren disturbs and troubles me enormously. I keep wishing for some land on which they could experience those things, where they could learn to restore and nurture ecosystems, and yes, lie on the ground watching the kereru, and the tui.
    I fear, though, that we may indeed have passed that point of recovery at home, Chris. The insane race for more and more housing development, for flipping houses and making a capital gain, for a ‘stronger economy’ while yet more and more children sink further under the poverty line and i in 100 people are homeless, where the Minister for Climate Change wouldn’t know a kereru if she was fortunate enough to fall over one and whose best solution for homelessness as the Minister for god-knows-what was to sell state housing and put the homeless into motels, doesn’t inspire me with confidence.
    I too have some hope for ecological economics, up to a point. But positive though it is, it is not enough. We ourselves are the problem. There are sufficient numbers of us who prefer to keep the status quo, who like the ability to ;grow the economy’, regardless of the cost, and to chase a piece of that pie. We’re running out of time. Actually, we’ve run out of time. And that, right there, is an enormous problem.

    • cjkperley says:

      I so agree Makere. We need a completely new way of thinking. I would call it an ‘indigenous’ view, but I fear when using that expression that Europeans will see that as a ‘non-European’ thing when in fact it is also *deeply* European if we look back at the views held by the people of the land before the mechanical Modernity programme began. ‘Becoming Native to a Place’ is what it is about. I have a lovely book on that.

      • Makere says:

        I have just seen this but not read yet.. http://irqr.ucpress.edu/content/9/3/323.abstract there is also some very nice work by Dwayne Donald on wha he calls mettisage – I dont recall who originated the term, but it speaks to what you are saying, I think, and may allow a ‘way in’ to that idea, as it were.. As an Indigenous person with a foot in each camp, I think it is a very important idea and one which many would like to give voice to.

      • Makere says:

        I have also touched briefly on it in Chap. 1 of The New Imperial Order. Indigenous Responses to Globalization. I think its in a number of libraries at home.

      • cjkperley says:

        That! I am going to hunt up Makere! Thanks. I think the whole framework of indigeneity is essential to our future. We all have this history. All of us. How do we tap back into it?

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