Saturday, October 16, 2010


Florida College English Association
panel presentation at Rollins College
14 October 2010

The roots of a course I’ve long taught at Rollins, called Personal Writing, trace back, I figure, to my freshman year in college. I was taking an introductory course in philosophy and reading an anthology with illustrative excerpts from a bevy of famous thinkers, from Socrates to Whitehead. The final exam would expect students to demonstrate their familiarity with major ideas articulated by these philosophers.

While reviewing the anthology before that exam, I got hijacked by a rebellious urge I couldn’t resist, risky though it seemed. Rather than regurgitating positions and theories of the masters, I wanted to argue that such an introductory course should introduce us not only to philosophy but also to philosophizing—that we should be trying to work out our own ideas and positions on some of the problems we had encountered in the various discourses we’d studied.

When the final exam time came and all the various discussion sessions gathered in the general lecture hall to address our common test, I executed my contrarian scheme, writing out my case for a course with a different aim, though taking a few minutes at the end to sketch brief answers to specific questions to show I actually knew some relevant information. But wisdom seems more important than information, I argued, and philosophy means “the love of wisdom,” right?

I did take the prudent step of asking my grad-student section leader to have the main lecturer, Brand Blanshard, read my unorthodox exam.

I seem to have gotten away with my aberration since my course grade came in at the same B level of my earlier grades, and that is all I ever heard about the effect of my sassy gambit.

Many years later, though, well into my 40-year career at Rollins, I devised the course that’s closest to my heart, and that echoes my freshman-year motive of giving students an opportunity to seek their own wisdom and work out something of their own philosophies, in the loosest sense. I have even nick-named my Personal Writing course—with apologies to our philosophy department—“Wisdom 101.”

From the start of the semester, students know that their term-end essay will address the topic: “The Good Life, According to Me.” Bi-weekly essays they write throughout the term—first-person familiar essays, often reflecting on provocative readings—may attempt partial forays into that larger topic. One of our textbooks might properly be titled “Wisdom 101,” though it is actually named Getting a Life: Strategies for Joyful and Effective Living, a sage and accessible little book, by Copthorne Macdonald, an independent scholar who has developed an extraordinary online site, The Wisdom Page (

It’s now many years since starting that Personal Writing course and first using Cop Macdonald’s book. By now Cop has visited Rollins as a Thomas P. Johnson Distinguished Visiting Scholar, and the highlight of his stay was a large public address on the topic: “Wisdom: The Highest Aim of Life and Higher Education.” Arguably an expert on wisdom, Cop has also written two other prudential books, Toward Wisdom and Matters of Consequence, which fortify his credentials.

On his Wisdom Page you will now find the fruits of our collaboration, an online course named “Wisdom 101,” which includes the downloadable pdf text of Getting a Life and of a study guide to that book which I wrote for my students, containing prompts for journaling and essays.

Of course, my primary objective for Personal Writing is to entice and coach students to write good personal or familiar essays, and other elements in the course work to fortify their compositional and editing skills, especially the engaging text Sin and Syntax: A Guide to Writing Wickedly Effective Prose, by Constance Hale. Furthermore, I always require each essay to be revised, with violated rules in Blanche Ellsworth’s English Simplified written out on the revision.

If “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates, “the wisest man in Athens,” famously said, then I trust that my Personal Writing class inspires and goads my sophescent students to examine worthily and reflect on their own values, aims and ideals—culminating in their formal attempt to articulate a vision of the Good Life for themselves.

Though I love the idea of wisdom and aim to pursue and practice it myself, I know I fall far short of being wise and acting wisely—as is the case, I suppose, with most of us. We are at best works in progress or pilgrims on Wisdom’s Way. Likewise, I would hope, are our students, whom we would assist to become not only more knowledgeable and smarter, but wiser.

The best pocket definition of wisdom I can give you comes from another putative expert on wisdom, Nicholas Maxwell, a philosopher of science at The University of London, who, like Cop Macdonald, as published three books addressing the subject from different angles. To act wisely, Maxwell says, is “to realize what is of highest value to ourselves and others.” To “realize” means here both to comprehend and to bring about, both knowing and doing. Discovering what is of value, then, is wisdom’s object in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. A Good Life must be a life of realized value, a demonstrably worthy life.

The devil, of course (or the angel) is in the details, in finding the right path and then following it. But having first determined that the pursuit of wisdom of our highest aim, we have at least a beacon to illuminate the way. As we say at Rollins, citing our motto, “Fiat Lux.”