Wisdom true purpose of study

As the university year begins, Richard Dawson writes that knowledge is never an end in itself.

It's student time again in Dunedin, with all its colours, creeds, shapes and sizes. They are here now revelling in their new-found freedom or returning to do battle again. Despite the congested north end, we should be thankful for their presence. They contribute enormously to Dunedin's eclectic cultural mix.

They keep us young and they provide us with a myriad of career opportunities in the education sector and its associated support industries and they implant a little bit of this city's life into people who will be distributed to all corners of the world.

We can, perhaps, look enviously at Christchurch's industrial base, Wellington's government sector and Auckland's shear brute size, but nothing beats Otago University for both quality and character.

From the compact layout of the campus, with its conveniently close accommodation, to its modern quality international library and lecture halls within a stone's throw of the beautiful clock tower building, this is a world-class campus complemented by a world-class faculty of teachers. It is something to be both proud of and careful with. It is not an easy thing to stay at the forefront of education in this world and Dunedin must be a steward of this resource with great energy and a cunning worthy of the Scots who founded the institution.

Their vision was for an education system that allowed their children and their descendants to enjoy the very highest reaches of education, because back home this had been denied to them. Indeed, the Presbyterian Synod of Otago and Southland paid for one of the first three chairs of the university - that of mental and moral philosophy and political economy. For them, education was a spiritual matter providing, as it did, a mind trained to discern not just truth from untruth, but good from bad. And the key to the "spirituality" of education lay for them not just with knowledge, but with discipline. It is this that is at issue today.

For Christians, knowledge wasn't ever an "end game". Important though it is, knowledge could never be an end in itself because without wisdom and a moral foundation, knowledge could become as much an evil as it could a force for good.

Knowledge has to be wielded with a compassionate and humble heart, if it is to be of use to the greater community.

I contend that this is the core business of our university - a "business", to which its own motto bears stark testimony: "Dare to be wise."

Wisdom - that elusive ability to be able to use knowledge to the betterment of one's self and one's community - is what the Christian foundations of this university were intended for.

The ability to look past the despair of the human condition with hope and with kindness; the desire to press on to discoveries which make life a little more bearable; the passion to deal with the hardest problems in medicine, politics and psychology in a manner which honours, as does the Gospel, the human (as a human created in God's image). This was always the hope that we, in the Church, had for academia - and we believe it still.

You, who do battle annually with this influx of wild talent, don't give up because they are a little more foolish than the year before. Don't despair at the idiocy of immaturity and don't believe it is not your job to deal with this intake of raw and unrefined humanity. The kindness you show, the boundaries you establish and the quiet patience you exhibit is worth at least as much as the basic knowledge you impart this year. We deal in education with intelligence or its lack. But intelligence alone can be grossly overrated.

Give me grace, generosity and kindness any day over intelligence.

Intelligence, however, is still a great gift and has bequeathed to us both survival and prosperity. But where there is great light by which we are human, there is also darkness.

That's why I like this quote from Antonio Gransci, a man who, though an atheist, believed in the importance of giving all people hope. He died at the hands of the Italian Fascists in 1937.

"I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will."

The Rev Richard Dawson is Minister of St Stephen's, Leith Valley, and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church's Southern Presbytery.



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