Published on August 25th, 2016 | by Paul Ryan
An Abundance of Philosophy with a Scarcity of Wisdom
As with most perspective-changing events, this one began on an idle Tuesday. One of my Nepalese coworkers approached me and explained that ISET hosted a competition awarding funding to graduate students, and the competitors were presenting their projects today. The presentations were going to be in English, and they asked me if I wanted to see them. I had figured out my lesson plan for the day and didn’t have much else going on, so why not? I came to the room and saw about 10 people sitting outside. They seemed nervous, but excited to tell us about their projects.
As the presentations began, I was struck with how well-intentioned they were. Each student was an aspiring environmental scientist and each had a plan for how they were going to study one or more of the major environmental issues plaguing Nepal. These people had goals —they were going to make a difference! However, as the presentations went on, I started to notice holes in their plans, holes that they couldn’t account for. One woman planned to study the use of plants as cleaning agents for a polluted river that runs through Nepal, but she failed to account for the seasonal flooding/drought cycles and the plants’ ability to survive through them. Another man planned to study the effects of climate change on food security, but he only planned to look at data over a 6 month span, which even by his own data would only account for a maximum shift of .03 degrees Celsius in temperature. Holes like these showed up over and over again. In all of these cases, good intentions alone were not enough.
While it’s easy to excuse these glaring omissions as due to poor instruction or educational standards, the heart of the issue hits closer to home than we may realize. I think this may be a fairly common issue shared by graduate students all over the world. A friend of mine back in the States once remarked that my school seemed to have an abundance of philosophy but a scarcity of wisdom. He meant we’re filled with good ideas, huge goals and aspirations that we all want to achieve, but sometimes we lack the experience, or wisdom, to understand the difficulties of solving these problems. I’m inclined to agree. No amount of “can do attitude” will ever truly solve poverty.
It’s easy for policy students to get caught up in their own ideas. Whether it be issues facing vulnerable populations, or poverty, or food security, it’s easy to lose focus on the physical and logistical constraints surrounding an issue.I recall hearing a fellow student once ask “What is LBJ doing for the community?” This question always struck me as odd because it presupposed a shared meaning to the word “community.” It implied a requirement on the part of LBJ (and by extension its students) to provide some sort of service to others. I don’t disagree with that, but did they mean the local community? The national community? The global? Are those who volunteer to help Palestinians in the Middle East more or less “involved” than those who work in the poorer areas of Austin? What about those working in security? As policy students I think we each serve a variety of communities, and it’s important to realize that the areas where I focus my efforts may not match my peers.
While I watched these presentations, I suddenly became incredibly grateful for my professors at LBJ. I heard their voices in the back of my head pointing out the realities and constraints in these well-intentioned projects: shoring up my own scarcity of wisdom. And if we received nothing else from the LBJ School, I would be grateful for the first step down the road of “wisdom” that our professors make us take. I firmly believe that we need well-intentioned dreamers in our government writing our policies and planning our projects. But I also think we need those dreams to have a healthy dose of wisdom. We need them to understand that only so many resources exist and providing for one “community” may rob another; we need them to understand that change may be slower than we would like but will eventually occur.
And that’s not to say that I don’t believe the students I saw present are in any way doomed. I have no doubt that they will complete their studies and become phenomenal environmental students, though a little wiser after a few well-placed questions from my bosses.
Edited by: Joel Dishman