Wisdom, unconscious decision-making, and experiential learning
Darya Rubenstein QC 14 and Jim Stellar
In an interesting YouTube piece, Rabbi Akiva Tatz addresses an issue that is under emphasized in the Western world: wisdom. In the world we live in today it is taken for granted that any idea or concept must be reinforced with hard empirical data and anything that is purely qualitative or cannot be subjected to rational inquiry does not receive as much academic recognition as quantitative studies or logical thinking. It is our inevitable enculturation in the Western hemisphere that teaches us to slap a label on any and every idea. If something is not tangible, it lacks validity.
Rabbi Tatz introduces a concept that is very well known in the Eastern World and severely contrasts with this empirical methodology on which we Westerners rely heavily. Contrary to the Western approach, true wisdom cannot be approached empirically or quantitatively. There is no prescribed method of achieving this wisdom, no way in which we can tie it down to words or use concrete rational evidence (at least not the way we define it).
While the lecture focuses on the Hebrew term da’as (deeper/intrinsic knowledge) Tatz acknowledges that the lecture in and of itself defeats the purpose of imparting and understanding the topic. By talking about da’as, or even using any term for it, we cheapen its nature and miss the true meaning entirely. This is where Western thought becomes incompatible with this concept. How can something exist if we can’t prove it? Isn’t everything in science measurable?
What the Rabbi does in the lecture is take the student and her/his rational mind up to the point where the rational fails. What he wants is for the student “to fall into” the concept without words, see the interconnectedness of many points, understand the context and significance all at once, and thus get wisdom. In other words, he wants us to have an “aha!” moment. What we believe he may be talking about is the contribution of the unconscious decision-making processes of the mammalian brain.
First, we have to define what we mean by the unconscious-decision making of the mammalian brain. It is actually the subject of this entire blog, and is even in the URL name “otherlobe.” The term goes back to Paul MacLean and the idea of the triune brain, where the mammalian brain is just below the highest rational level of cognitive neocortical processing (the primate brain) and consists of evolutionary older instinctive and emotional brain circuits that operate by limbic system processing. The author David Eagleman argues in his book Incognito, that most of the decisions we make in our lives – decisions of who to like, what to eat, what job to take – are made outside of conscious rational thought, perhaps in this mammalian brain. Further more, they are presented to consciousness as feeling or conclusions and the conscious rational mind accepts them as its own and generally talks about them without attribution to other processes. For more discussion of this rational self-story-telling, see Gazzaniga’s book Who’s in Charge where he looks at conscious language function as an interpreter module that acts like a personal “press secretary,” putting together the narrative of our lives even if it has to present decisions made elsewhere as its own. Another nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman makes a similar point about predictable but irrational economic decision-making in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Could the wisdom Rabbi Tatz is discussing lie in the contribution these mammalian brain circuits make to primate rational thinking? If that is so, it is no wonder why words fail the Rabbi. .
Now, how do we apply this thinking to higher education? From a student perspective, having the expectation of completely understanding a profession based on a lecture is like having the ability to experience the taste of something you’ve never had before by someone describing it to you. It just isn’t possible. Consider DR’s experience:
Before I started my current job at a nonprofit organization in New York, I understood the mission statement and what the organization technically did, but that said little in terms of what my day-to-day experience on the job would be. Whenever I meet a professional, whether it’s in a social setting or a formal one, my first question that follows her carefully crafted job title is: what is a day at your job like?
Many times this throws people off. They don’t understand the question.
“You mean, from when I walk in to the office in the morning?” They say.
“Yes, exactly. What is the office environment like? Do you check your email right away? Is your chair facing a window? How many people work in your office? Is it a creative environment? What is your boss like?” And the list goes on.
This bevy of questions reflects a part of my brain that craves an immersive understanding of that person’s experience. I want the closest possible thing to the reality that she experiences herself so that I can properly evaluate and metabolize it for myself. I am intensely aware of this self prescribed need but it exists in everyone in varying degrees.
Now that I’ve been at my job for six months I have been able to combine the overarching mission of the organization with the daily tasks and interactions I have. Going through the motions of the job, whether communicating with clients, observing the higher ups, or learning to navigate various software, has given me a kind of knowledge that couldn’t have been obtained in the classroom. Because of my experiences I have learned and am continuing to learn about myself and the workplace. I see the items I have to offer and those that I have to gain. To me, this is the true meaning of experiential education.
So how does this notion of wisdom without words apply to higher education? That topic is often discussed in this blog and comes down to the college’s or university’s potential to organize real-world experiences in and out of the classroom and then help the students tie those experiences back to their emerging career choice through their major and minor fields of study. Higher education has been doing this kind of programming for years, more often in fields that lend themselves to practice, like engineering. But it has not really caught on and particularly in arts and sciences in that only a few universities in America and around the world have really made experiences outside the classroom a major priority.
Why? It is not only that adding experiential education makes the higher education process more complex and therefore more expensive (it does). We think that a part of the reason higher education missed this component of education is a matter of what Gazzaniga said in his book or the Rabbi in his lecture – what is learned from experience often does not fit as easily into rational verbal characterization or measurement as what is listed in a syllabus. That leads Higher Education to just not seeing these activities as being at the same level of importance as the rational conscious knowledge conveyed in the academic curriculum and classical classrooms where professors lecture and test about relevant facts and theories.
These days, much of the world seems to have awoken to the fact that given the expense and time involved in higher education, we need to produce better outcomes, better skills and competencies to go along with the learning of facts and theories. These outcomes include building more committed students who study harder in college and graduate at higher rates. Importantly, now these outcomes also include what happens to our graduates after college and in particular for those who want one, can the recent graduate get a job in their field. Here is where educating the whole student with direct experiences like internships or other forms of academically integrated experiential education can make a difference.