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A wise man once said

We would do well to heed the advice of the author Mark Twain who said, “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.” It follows therefore that the writer of this article would be wise to go no further! We may though wish to consider whether the author of the following statement may be deemed wise: “A man who recognises his mistakes when wrong is wise. A man that recognises his mistake when he is right is… married”! It is wise for us to move on quickly!

by Tim Middleton

The English language is not exactly the easiest to learn and often people are made to look stupid by their use of it. We have the very similar-looking words “through”, “though”, “trough” and “tough” yet they are pronounced very differently. Add in a word like “bough” and we find the same letters ‘ough’ have many different sounds. We need to be pretty switched on and clever to know the differences. Then we have two similar-sounding words that are spelt differently. The word ‘president’ is defined as a person who presides over something, one who runs, manages, controls, has authority, is responsible and accountable; the word ‘precedent’ is very similar in sound but has the definition of being an example, a guide, something to be considered when decisions are made in the future. If we think about it, though, and apply some wisdom, we may recognise that a president sets a precedent in whatever he or she does — the two words are actually very close in meaning.

It is without question very important that we know the right sound and the right meaning of the words that we use. In the same way it is crucial that we know right from wrong, but we do not need wisdom for that; that is plain common sense. Indeed, it would appear that everyone is an expert in saying what is wrong with individuals’ or organisations’ behaviour, performance and decisions. As Lemony Snicket said in The Slippery Slope, “It is easy to decide on what is wrong to wear to a party, such as deep-sea diving equipment or a pair of large pillows, but deciding what is right is much trickier.” Knowing right from right is the hard thing — and for that we need wisdom.

When children do something wrong, the natural, obvious and therefore ‘right’ reaction will no doubt be to treat them in the same way — that is perceived to be fair, just and true. So, for example, we discover two children bullying another child and the school’s response might be to suspend both pupils (though that is not resolving the problem, but simply removing it); however, suspension for one child might be absolute bliss (sleep in, watch television, do no studies), but for the other it might be the worst embarrassment, the greatest fear (ruin reputation, miss classes). What such action is doing is looking at the consequences only and not the causes. The wise person will follow the latter course and determine what is right for each situation, for each child, for each moment, for each circumstance, by asking why such behaviour was evident, and how each will best learn.

Furthermore, many will also use the argument that the punishment sets a precedent or that a precedent has previously been set. The problem with that though is this: What if the precedent (let alone the president) is wrong? Why should we stand by the precedent if the precedent is inappropriate or unhelpful? We are only setting a precedent for the child to follow such recourse.

How then can we enable youngsters to be wise? We could listen to the one who said that, “It’s so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don’t say it.” Too late, then, for this writer! The answer may be that the wise man does not say anything but rather asks everything. As Claude Levi-Strauss argued, “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.”

It is similar to the statement that “A wise man once said that a wise man once said nothing.” This, however, is paradoxical because how could the man be seen to be wise in making such a statement if a wise man in fact says nothing? The strange but subtle truth is, as King Solomon showed, that we need wisdom to know we need wisdom and then we need wisdom to get wisdom. It is not a matter of our children being clever or smart; they will only get somewhere if they are wise.

Any fool should realise that! Consequently, we will be wise if we say no more right now. Do you need to ask why?

l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.

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