What Does a Well-Educated Person Really Need to Know?

I’m working on a white paper about the basic skillset for practitioners of health care quality. The exercise, in addition to some of the discussion at a recent writer’s conference I attended, prompted reflection on what a “high performer” needs to know for a specific domain of excellence.
But what about the domain of life in general? Are there certain skills, knowledge or experience that an ordinary person ought to possess, to increase his odds of success over the long haul?
I think there are, and these bits of knowledge can usefully be presented in six increasingly broad categories. Let’s explore them, one by one.
Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse
What will you do when the fecal material hits the fan blades? The first and most basic category of knowledge is survival skills. I like the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse because one will never happen, but the metaphor really signifies any situation of a non-trivial period where a person’s life or health are at elevated risk and there’s little or no recourse to public authority for assistance. So Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a zombie apocalypse for the folks in southern Louisiana. So is sliding off a rural road in the middle of a blizzard, in a cellular dead zone. So is a solo hike in Denali National Park.
In a First World setting where we never really worry about the basics, we ought to know what to do in case those basics fail us. I think everyone needs to know how to start a fire, build a primitive shelter, forage for food on land and water, safely cook that food, collect and purify drinking water, and navigate by trail. You should know basic first aid and visual weather forecasting and campsite selection criteria. You need to know how to prioritize food, water, shelter and fire depending on the circumstances you’re dealing with.
I’m not suggesting that everyone ought to impersonate Les Straud or live a prepper lifestyle. I am suggesting you should be able to operate at Boy Scout level in the forest, without a support team to assist you.
For that matter: You should possess the basic skills to resolve routine inconveniences in a pinch, without relying on others — little things, like swapping a flat tire or unclogging a slow drain or repairing a broken kitchen drawer or controlling a major bleed. Instead of dialing 1-800-HELP-4ME, just take care of it.
Being able to survive a “zombie apocalypse” is less about specific skills and more about a specific state of mind. Ample evidence says that the people most likely to survive a catastrophe are the ones who feel prepared and in control of their own destiny. Backcountry and crisis-management skills build the confidence to weather the storm psychologically. A well-educated person will not simply curl up and die during a disaster.
The Social Graces
So, you’ve survived the zombie apocalypse. Congratulations. More difficult is taming that most wild of beasts, man.
The social graces include those skills you need to thrive in a community setting. Chief among these are communication techniques intended to defuse conflict, coupled with the self-defense skills to protect yourself from aggression when the situation cannot be resolved amicably.
Think of self-defense as managing three zones of risk. The first zone is situational awareness — of being competent at identifying potential threats, so you can avoid conflict in the first place. The second zone is conflict management. When you’re being confronted, responding appropriately with a mix of words and non-verbal cues can reduce the risk of an altercation — classic “how to deal with bullies” techniques. The third zone is combat. Even a little bit of self-defense training can help you hold your own in a bar fight or during a back-alley mugging attempt.
Cultivate a high level of emotional intelligence. Learn the basics of psychology, including paradigms like Maslow’s Hierarchy and the core psychological self-defense mechanisms. When you understand what motivates people, and what sorts of behaviors are learned versus instinctive, you can predict and perchance mold a tense situation to your benefit.
Being aware of the context in which others live is useful, too. If Siri misdirects you into the burned-out ruins of inner-city Detroit, then you hit a pothole and lose a tire, being aware of the particulars of urban culture can reduce your risk of victimization. Likewise, mastering the basics of cross-cultural communication could turn a blah dining experience at an ethnic restaurant into something magical.
Oh, and one more thing: A well-educated person is a master of civility, no matter the situation. Stiff upper lip, chap.
Life, the Universe & Everything
After you’ve made peace with your fellow humans, you need to make peace with your place in the cosmos — that is, by having a well-defined sense of the supernatural and how you plug into the universe’s grand design.
No one can ignore the God question. We may each come to different conclusions, but we cannot pretend like the question doesn’t exist. A coherent theology — even a negative theology like atheism — sets an existential framework for building a personal teleology. Agnosticism, embraced by some as a putative enlightened path, is intellectually indefensible: The Law of the Excluded Middle tells us that a binary question like the existence of God cannot admit to an I-don’t-know box on the ballot. So you have to pick a side, and live with both that choice and its real-world implications.
That word teleology is significant. Not only does a well-educated person grapple with the God question, but she also grapples with the big questions about the meaning of life. Teleology is the theory of being as understood in the context of a thing’s essential purpose. Humans largely write their own destiny. A well-educated person understands the things that contribute to human flourishing and what ingredients people need to thrive. And then she’ll live a life of self-actualization in line with her teleology of human excellence.
The Queen of the Sciences
Philosophy: Long may she reign supreme over the merely material sciences!
The benefit to studying philosophy is that the discipline teaches you how to think, and especially how to think objectively about difficult things that others ignorantly dismiss as being too highfalutin. Philosophy is the home of such valuable subjects as ethics, aesthetics, taxonomy, logic and epistemology. Philosophy teaches right and wrong, true and false, beautiful and ugly, reasonable and unreasonable. You learn how to examine an argument from any side and how to spot errors in reasoning that can lead to bad outcomes.
The other academic pursuits provide ample raw materials in the form of facts and figures and rules. But philosophy is the place where the application of those facts and figures and rules actually originates.
A well-educated person will be familiar with at least entry-level philosophy, such as that presented in Roger Scruton’s excellent Modern Philosophy.
This. Is. Jeopardy!
The broadest category of knowledge is that of standard academic learning. Although no one can know everything, everyone ought to know a little bit about a lot.

  • Humanities. Introduction to visual and performing arts. Ability to read music and at least poorly play an instrument. Study of a foreign language to at least the collegiate 202 level. Knowledge of the contents of the Western Canon and acquaintance with many of the titles therein. Deeper knowledge of world history (e.g., through a careful read of J.M. Roberts’s History of the World) and U.S. history.
  • Social Sciences.  Econ 101. Introductions to anthropology and sociology. Deeper understanding of psychology, with an emphasis on abnormal psych. Functional geographical literacy. Solid understanding of basic political theory and the structure of different forms of government.
  • Natural Sciences. Equivalents of a college seminar in each of astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics.
  • Mathematics. Algebra and systems of equations. Set theory. Statistics, to include central tendency, dispersion, correlation, sampling, regression and visualization. Basic geometry and trigonometry.
  • Applied Sciences. Basics of agricultural practice. Business systems. Computer science, including at least an introduction to programming in any given language. Basics of mechanical and electrical engineering. Introduction to the fields of health care, law and journalism.

The Ephemera
Layer on top of all of the above, a smattering of knowledge about human health — fitness, diet, and the diagnosis and treatment of common ailments — and a wholesome acquaintanceship with one’s local environment, and you have a good start.

Lest we forget, a well-educated person should be acquainted, too, with pop culture. A shared vocabulary of pop music, TV shows, movie references and celebrity gossip helps to grease the wheels of interpersonal communication. Plus, sometimes pop-culture watching is a guilty pleasure.

Few people really fully possess what I’ve laid out here. The great thing, though, is that we’re all life-long learners, and there’s no sell-by date on a person’s ability to grow.
Besides, I hear the zombies don’t like rich, healthy brains — they go after the brains of the stupid, because they’re thinner and easier to digest. So there’s that.

Wisdom and The Law

Many moons ago, I half-justified to a friend a particular deviation from Catholic moral theology by arguing that as long as he understood the rationale behind the Church’s prohibition, he could live according to the real moral truth (imperfectly encapsulated by a behavioral norm) despite his superficial non-conformance with the letter of the law. The subtext of that somewhat Gnostic argument? That much of the thou-shalt-not discipline of Scripture and Tradition was intended to provide concrete guidance to the great unwashed masses who lack the intellectual wherewithal to properly adjudicate complex ethical problems.

We, the wise, however, ought not to labor under such crude restrictions, better suited to toddlers than adults. Ergo, as long as we could tease out a logical superstructure of principle beneath those crusty old rubrics, we could live as enlightened souls who didn’t obsess over compliance with rules intended to shepherd the children around us.

Interesting, then, to read Aaron Rothstein’s review of Steven Weitzman’s Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom published in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. Rothstein — a medical student at Wake Forest — offers a refreshing insight into the interplay of wisdom and spiritual humility:

The rabbis conceived of gezeirah, alternatively known as building a fence around the Torah. One places certain restrictions on lifestyle in order to (in Rabban Gamliel’s words) “keep a man far from transgression.” … In other words, if we understand the secrets of why we do certain things or why certain laws exist, we remove the barriers that prevent us from breaking more serious laws. Solomon’s downfall, then, demonstrates the danger of too much understanding — a biblical version of the Faustian tale.

Put differently: Laws, both secular and religious, serve as markers that delimit acceptable behavior. In many cases, those markers sit very far away from grey zones, in order to protect people from the confusion reigning at morality’s twilight. When we, the wise, treat those markers as rules for the unenlightened — when we decide that our own wisdom is sufficient to light our way through that twilight — we risk missing the next set of markers, hidden in the darkness, roping off the point of no return. Ethics becomes tautology: A given act is acceptable because I believe it’s acceptable. QED. And the wisdom inherent in the original placement of those universal markers fades from public consciousness.

Having decided that I have ascertained the real lesson of the rules that govern everyone else, I can then presume to know when those rules may safely be broken. And what’s true of one’s private life — e.g., out-thinking biblical dietary norms — works in one’s public life, too. Anyone want to wager whether all the best and brightest at the National Security Agency will always elect to follow domestic-surveillance laws, enacted in messy and haphazard fashion by a dysfunctional Congress, when the intelligence analysts think they’ve got a compelling case to skirt them in service to their version of the public good?

We break laws with impunity when we think we understand the law’s purpose and decide that some other, higher, purpose ought to trump.

Therein lies the risk. Humility — a trait that often comes easier to men of intellectually modest means — helps us to acknowledge that the law’s markers serve a valuable purpose and were erected with foresight. When we lack that humility, we treat those markers as speed bumps, yet we rarely acknowledge that some wisdom superior to our own may have played a part in setting them.

Solomon fell because he out-thought the Torah and God decided to remind him that mere wisdom isn’t a license to disobedience. Today, we see case after case after case of men out-thinking both statutory and natural law, and we must ask: Are we really that wise, after all?

Expertise and Its Discontents

The hardest thing about earning a degree in moral philosophy is discussing ethics with someone who lacks any real academic formation in the subject. Interlocutors assert, based on their belief that they have a personal apprehension of “right and wrong,” that their perspectives are just as valid as the expert’s. After all, everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

Except … when they aren’t. An opinion is nothing more than the conclusion of an argument whose major premises, more often than not, are unexpressed. And an argument’s conclusion is open to criticism based on the usual criteria of logical consistency, factual coherence, etc. You’re not “entitled” to be unchallenged in your idiocy. Privilege only applies to preferences (e.g., “I like cashews”).

So you get into these positions where you’re discussing the ethical propriety of “X” and person “Y” refuses to accept that someone else has a better understanding of the subject than they do. For people unschooled in the academic aspects of moral philosophy, “ethics” is merely “deciding what’s right and wrong,” and since everyone thinks his moral compass is infallible, most people are resistant to counsel that flows from first principles.

There are parallels with other domains of expertise, too. Try being the statistician with a solid understanding of data-management theory, and then explain to the uninitiated why they can’t get the data they want, when they want it, in the format they demand. If you’re the only one in the room who understand the technical implications of a request, and everyone else in the room are customers in the business who only know that they want a result yesterday, then most attempts to impose methodological coherence are viewed as being negative or obstructive: “Just give me what I want.” Even if what they want is mathematical nonsense.

barista-300x225Or, take baristas. Just because you know how to make a pot of coffee doesn’t mean you’re smarter than your barista, and it doesn’t give you the right to treat the coffee-ordering experience as if it were a Cold War treaty negotiation. You really don’t need to counsel the barista about how many pumps of syrup to use or ask irrelevant questions like whether the beans are shade-grown or whether you can substitute fermented yak milk or whether you can bring in your own antique glass cups for your hot tea. You also don’t need to comment on the names of cup sizes. Just drink the damn coffee and leave a tip.

Even physicians aren’t immune; more and more doctors lament that self-diagnosed patients are more difficult to treat and are more prone to abandoning prophylactic treatment because they think they know better.

Expertise, then, is both a blessing and a curse: You really do know better than others, but others fail to concede the point.

So next time you’re arguing with someone whose education and experience outshine your own, remember how you felt when the tables were turned and shape your response accordingly.

Wisdom, Properly Understood

Someone who’s “book smart” might be able to prattle off many different facts and ideas about, say, theoretical physics — but remain utterly incapable of plugging in his DVR. A person who can single-handedly repair giant marine diesel engines may nevertheless not know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. And we’ve all met folks who advance because of their charm, not their competence.

Aristotle taught that wisdom falls into two categories — theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom. The former addresses principles and facts and abstract knowledge; the latter real-world techniques for getting things done. Neither is better than the other — the world needs both. A person who excels at one isn’t better or worse than someone who excels at the other.

Modern psychologists suggest another distinction: The idea of emotional intelligence. Someone with a high EI knows how to work with people to achieve a goal even if he lacks both theoretical knowledge and practical good-sense. Which, I guess, explains Congress.

The world’s a funny place. When you take the three three major realms of wisdom — book smarts, street smarts, people smarts — and push them against each other, it’s tempting to rank-order them. Usually, this sequence is self-referential: You tend to either over-value what you have, or over-value what you think you lack and therefore feel bad about your perceived lack of self-worth.

A perfect person might have high scores in all three categories. No one’s perfect, though — not even me. (Hard to believe, I know.) Instead we all have varying skill levels in each category. Each person’s mix tells the story of who he is — and this story is neither good nor bad. Only a jackass thinks himself better than someone else because he’s got more book smarts or better practical skills or is more suave in a social setting.

The world needs a mix of wisdom levels. And people need to be pared with people who fall at different wisdom levels. The whole is stronger than its parts, so a couple or a group that offers different levels of wisdom is stronger than a group that consists of two or more of the same thing.

Wisdom seeks its compliment, not its mirror image.

Annual Birthday Reflection, 2012 Edition

So. Yesterday marked the beginning of year No. 36. All things considered, No. 35 was refreshingly solid:

  • Nothing bad happened.
  • I experienced some lovely travel events, including vacation trips to Las Vegas and Windsor, Ont., and a business trip to San Diego.
  • I’m in (slightly) better physical shape than I was a year ago.
  • I earned my Technician license for amateur radio, which was a bucket-list item.
  • I’ve replaced most of my “lost” outdoors equipment, including hiking gear, and acquired and actually used a new kayak.
  • Tony and I have done a pretty good job keeping current on our podcasts.
  • I competed in the 2011 National Novel Writing Month and learned a bit of humility in the process.
  • I finally finished building out my home office and fully stocking my home-based “vice station” of spirits, liqueurs and cigars.
  • Gillikin Consulting has seen real profitability for the first time since 2008.
  • My circle of friends grew substantially through the WriteOn! group and our monthly cigar-and-cocktail evenings.

The observance of my birth went off without any unwelcome drama. Ronda very kindly got me a T-shirt and a scrumptious birthday cake on Friday. I got cards from my mom and grandmother. Tony, Jen, Jon and Emilie spent the weekend in Grand Rapids; at considerable expense to themselves, we had dinner yesterday at Judson’s Steakhouse then spent a fair amount of time imbibing at Cygnus27. Then back to Cygnus27 this morning for a champagne brunch. Yummy. And they got me two bottles — one of a tasty, tasty single-malt Scotch and one of a smooth bourbon.

I’ve drawn two major life lessons in the last 12 months.

First, I handle stress best when most things are moving smoothly along several different dimensions. Probably this reflects my own natural way of approximating Maslow’s Hierarchy. Those dimensions include:

  • Living in a place that you’d be happy to welcome guests into.
  • Being reliably mobile.
  • Looking and feeling healthy.
  • Having enough disposable income that you can handle sudden problems or unexpected opportunities without sweating the bank account.
  • Pursuing meaningful life goals and being able to demonstrate excellence in a self-defined niche.

When any of those broad categories fall short, I tend to obsess over them and then other things begin to destabilize, like the roving finger in the proverbial dike.  So paying attention to how things are going and being more proactive at life planning helps keep the Ship of State on course.

Second, I’m just beginning to sense the attitudinal benefits attendant to growing older. I used to genuinely fear aging; now, I’m more stoic about it and more welcoming of the experiences that influence thought patterns — not a bad trade for the occasional grey hair. I think the tipping point was noticing how my approach to problems has shifted. I’m more often approaching them with a patient “been there, done that, no big deal” mindset that reduces the drama. If some of the uncertainty at the hospital had played out a few years ago instead of now, for example, I’m pretty sure I would have responded more aggressively and, thereby, shot myself in the foot.

Put differently: More and more of the knowledge I’ve had in my head is becoming internalized in my heart. Many of the lessons I knew in an academic sense have become more “real” because I’ve accumulated enough experiences to move from knowledge to wisdom. As we remember from Gillikinism #44: “Experience puts meat on the bones of theory.”

All that having been said, I guess I’m OK being 36. Not that I have much choice. But I see more clearly now than I used to that the decisions I make today and tomorrow will decide whether next year’s birthday blog post will be positive, negative or neutral.