Monday, February 01, 2010

Wisdom and Knowledge

In ninth grade, I had a wonderful, high-energy social studies teacher whose favorite exhortation was "wisdom and knowledge!" He'd usually punctuate it by thwacking his yardstick against a desk while we took notes. At the time, it was an entertaining shtick, and I didn't think much about the distinction between wisdom and knowledge.

With age and experience, though, I'm beginning to appreciate the difference.

Knowledge is cumulative. The more you know, the more you know. Knowledge can be stored, transmitted, shared, hoarded, traded, taught, learned, and even brandished. People who are "quick studies" can accumulate a surprising amount of it in a short time. Both trivia and timeless truths can be knowledge.

Wisdom is different. It's about knowing the relative importance of different things, and knowing what can be downplayed or ignored. It's closer to 'intuition' than to 'knowledge,' in that it's difficult to store, hoard, transmit, etc. It's hard to 'cram' wisdom, and some people just never quite get it. Wisdom can discern the difference between the important and the trivial, or the passing and the permanent. My grandfather dropped out of the ninth grade and worked most of his life as an electrical lineman, but he was wise. He knew what to care about and what not to, and allocated his energies accordingly. I always admired that about him. His house had the worst paint job in the Western world, and his fashion sense could be described as idiosyncratic, but he didn't care; he was focused on family, politics, and baseball, and the rest was trivia. He knew exactly who he was.

We could use some of that wisdom locally, in preparing next year's budget. There's plenty of knowledge flying around: the governor wants to propose figure x, various legislators are thinking figures d through j, and state tax revenue projections fall somewhere between 'ambiguous' and 'pulling numbers out of a hat.' If you want it, there's warrant for projecting any one of dozens of different outcomes, each with different implications for what we can afford.

Wisdom, here, comes in the form of knowing what to ignore. Some numbers are just wishful thinking or political posturing, and others are actually realistic. Discerning what to discount and what to take seriously is far more important than knowing the exact figure with which someone will grandstand.

The relevance now is that any tuition increase has to be approved by the Board of Trustees, and the Board will likely be more or less open to increases depending on what it expects will happen at the state level. If the best case scenario comes to pass, then passing a tuition increase would just seem punitive to the students. If the worse case scenario comes to pass and we don't have a significant tuition increase, heaven help us all. For various reasons, the Board has to make its decision before the state has to make its decision, so the game is "guess the gap." By necessity, that involves weighing unknowns, which means guessing likelihoods.

If we base the proposal we bring to the Board on the latest-and-most-inside knowledge, we take the very real risk of basing a crucial decision on a number that was never meant to be taken literally. (Initial proposals are often understood by those making them to be strategic, whether highball or lowball.) If we go in with too much optimism and get it wrong, we wind up in much worse shape. If we go in too pessimistic and get it wrong, we inflict needless pain on students, and damage our own future credibility. But the answer is probably not to be found entirely in more assiduous information-gathering. In fact, in many ways, the trick is to block out the more outlandish numbers, and to go with as realistic a projection as experience-based intuition can generate.

Wanted: budgetary wisdom. Apply within.