Okay, if you’ll all take seats. Thank you.
My name is Dr. Walter Carmichael, and for those of you wondering what you’re doing here, which is probably all of you, I will explain.
I know you were surprised at Freshman Registration to learn that you were automatically enrolled in this course. Sorry about that.
This last-minute change occurred because the august institution for whom I endeavor, and from which you hope to graduate, has seen fit to add to its offerings a course entitled “Wisdom.”
So that’s why we’re here.
Merriam-Webster defines it as “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life, the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand, knowledge of what is proper or reasonable, good sense or judgment.”
That would all be true if wisdom existed. But it doesn’t.
Wisdom is only what people decide it is.
Let’s take those four definitions:
“Knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life.” People can, and frequently do, experience the same thing in different ways and draw different lessons from it. Over a lifetime, how many of these are wisdom and how many are just plain wrong?
“The natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand.” Well, the last time I checked, that was also insanity.
“Knowledge of what is proper or reasonable, good sense or judgment.” Yes, but people must agree on what those things are. And, if you’ve noticed, people generally don’t.
Remember: It’s been over a million years since we humans started to think, but it’s been only four hundred since wisdom stopped telling us the sun revolved around the Earth.
Wisdom exists only in the eye of the beholder.
And if you approach this course with the right attitude, and you work hard to develop the necessary skills, here is my promise: Each and every one of you, with the exception of the lowest twenty percent who must fail, will, to varying degrees, become wise in the eyes of others.
And that is all that matters.
Look at the syllabus in front of you, and I’ll give you an idea of what’s ahead.
For the introductory section of the course, you’ll need to buy two books, The Virtue of Cynicism, by Jacques Disparager and Capacity for Opacity, by I.M. Ply.
The first book outlines the importance of skepticism. Nothing works better to set you apart from the herd than if you oppose popular beliefs.
But it’s not that simple. Done incorrectly, you’re dismissed as a crackpot. Done artfully, you could claim the sun won’t rise tomorrow, and people would actually give it credence.
The second book, Capacity for Opacity, deals with ambiguity. To quote John Lennon, “Got to be good-looking ’cause he’s so hard to see.”
I can’t stress this enough: The more meanings people can take from what you say, the better. Do it effectively, and they just fill in the blanks. Any idea, no matter how vague, makes perfect sense to them.
The intermediate section of the course covers the proper use of phrases like “obviously,” “as we now know,” and a myriad of others.
You’ll need two more books for this, Friend or Faux, by Sue Percilius and The Myth of Common Knowledge, by Una Ware.
As you can see… Incidentally, did anyone notice that I just used another of those empty expressions? You’re nodding your heads, but I don’t believe you.
As you can see, phrases such as these convey the impression that you respect your reader or listener’s intelligence.
Because you are students at a prestigious university, and have met certain high standards to get here, you undoubtedly assume that if anyone’s intelligence deserves respect, it’s yours.
Let’s move on to the final section of the course: literalism. Does anyone know what that is?
Oh, come on, now. Are you already so intimidated that, rather than raise your hand, you’d give the impression of ignorance? If you learn one thing in this class, it’s that it’s not smart to play dumb in a course called “Wisdom.”
I’ll ask again: What is literalism?
Yes, young man? Speak up, I can’t hear you. “Taking things literally.” Thank you, that was brilliant.
For this section, you’ll need to buy only one book because it’s the definitive statement on the subject. It’s called Oh, Really? by Walter Carmichael.
That’s right. I have to make a few bucks like everyone else.
They say that literalism is the opposite of creativity, but they’re wrong. In the proper context, it’s a very useful tool.
Do you remember a while ago, when I said you could claim the sun won’t rise tomorrow and people would actually give it credence? Well, guess what I’m claiming? The sun will not rise tomorrow.
Come on, what is this, an oil painting? Let’s see some hands if you think the sun will rise tomorrow.
There we go, nearly unanimous. My God, what courage!
I notice there’s a young lady down front who didn’t raise her hand. Would you care to tell us why, miss?
Ah, yes, a shrug. Wonderful exercise for the shoulder muscles.
I repeat: The sun will not rise tomorrow. Since so many of you disagree, will someone tell me why I’m wrong?
You there, the fellow in the back, wearing that garish tie-dye shirt. Why am I wrong? Why will the sun rise tomorrow?
What was that? “Because it always has?”
No, I’m afraid the answer is precisely the opposite. The sun will not rise tomorrow or any other day because it never has.
The sun does not go around the Earth, remember? It doesn’t rise and set. Welcome to the real world.
* * *
Okay, if you’ll please take your seats. Thank you.
Well, here it is, at long last, our final class together.
It’s been a lively semester, to say the least, and out of the eighty-seven students who began this course, only five have seen fit to drop it.
The rest of you have taken to it quite eagerly. You plunged into the techniques of sophistry, verbosity, and circumlocution with such relish that it’s almost as if they came naturally.
I have the results of your final exams here, and they indicate significant potential. Which disappoints me greatly.
It means that you have completely missed the point of all this.
Do you recall my saying that wisdom exists only in the eye of the beholder? Of course you do.
But you never realized that you, as the beholder, were given enormous power. You could have rejected me and everything I say. You could have seen through it all and understood that I’m espousing only the shallow trappings of superficiality. But you didn’t.
Those five people who dropped the course did. That’s why they’re all getting A’s.
As for the eighty-two who remained, well, you’ll also recall that I said the lowest twenty percent of you must fail. I was not referring to a curve, and it didn’t mean that failure would be confined only to that twenty percent.
In fact, to the contrary, each and every one of you will be receiving an F for this course.
And when you take my course again, which you will be required to do, don’t take me for a fool. Don’t assume you can get an A by simply dropping it, as those insightful five did. That train has left the station.
You’ll have to get there some other way.
But don’t worry. Now that you’ve spent this term learning what not to do, by getting so good at doing it, you’ll be able to recognize pretentious phoniness when it rears its ugly head. And that’s a good thing.
That’s why the great majority of you will figure this out, and I’ll be glad to remove those F’s from your record.
Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be among the lucky few who catch a brief, microscopic glimpse of wisdom.
In the meantime, enjoy your intersession!