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  • Writer's pictureCassie Janisch

The Difference Between Being Wise and Being Clever

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

My educational life was a glorification of being clever, rather than being wise. I think many can relate to this – all that striving for good marks and external validation from teachers, parents and society at large. I ended up at age 23 going to work for a large mining house in downtown Johannesburg as “an Economist” – a job that I had apparently been trained for (with three university degrees in Economics), but that I had no idea how to actually do, or why it was important. I remember waking up at the ago of 25 and realising that, in fact, I had no idea who I was, or what I was on earth to do. It was a shattering realisation to say the least – my parents thought I had lost the plot completely, but I knew then than the most important thing I had to do was figure out who I actually was, and what I was here to do. That is when my life truly began…

When I had my own children, I had this absolute conviction that there must be a different way for children to grow up, so that they are not so completely disconnected from who they actually ARE that it takes until age 25 to have the first glimmer of recognition that they are not who their society has programmed them to be.

My oldest child is now 15, and as we were driving home from his karate session a few weeks ago, I tried to explain to him how I know that success at a mainstream high school is not the be all and end all that so many people believe it to be. I said to him that, if he was at a mainstream high school right now, I have absolutely no doubt that he would be achieving academically, he would be occupying leadership positions, and he would be thriving on the sports field of his choice. I know this about him because he is highly intelligent, extremely self-disciplined, physically strong and capable, and a natural organiser. I explained to him that 35 years ago I did the due diligence on this for him, and I know that the answer to finding meaning and purpose does not lie there. I explained that I would be disserving him by sending him through that machine 35 years later and expecting a radically different result from the one I had. Yes, we are all unique and his outcome may not have been identical to my own, but as a systems thinker I can see the pattern that our society offers children does not serve any of them particularly well. Some do better than others, and some inadvertently find their way and make a meaningful life for themselves, but often this is in spite of, rather than because of, their education.

I explained to my son that I was interested in knowing what was on the other side of that story that our society has told its children for generations: just excel at school and all will be well in your life. That is why I have spent the last 12 years creating and evolving a learning ecosystem that is focused on supporting the incredibly rich process of human learning, rather than a pre-defined (and frankly both arbitrary and frequently disproven) result.

Many people have no clue why I am so determined not to replicate mainstream education at Misty Meadows. This has frightened more than a few families away, and has resulted in literally 100s of conversations with anxious parents with a script along the lines of: “… but what curriculum do you follow?” and “Will my child get a matric?”. In case anyone wonders, my answers to these are: “Everything is curriculum – a child can learn from literally anything that they choose to learn from”, and “If your child chooses to get a matric, there is no reason why they would not be able to – they will have developed all the skills and capacities that they might need in order to write and pass a school leaving exam of their choice”. You might notice that both of these answers acknowledge the child’s right to choose what and how they learn.

There is a saying that “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink” and this is the absolute truth about learning. Parents believe that schools can force children to learn things that they have no interest in knowing, and that this is actually school’s main job. This is absolutely untrue. School can, at most, force children to cram a bunch of facts and methods into their heads for a short period of time, perhaps even long enough to spew them out in an exam and get a pass, but if a child has no desire to know that stuff, they will not remember it, or ever use it, so why do parents believe this to be so important? Because our society says so? Because the child needs that piece of paper so that he can “get a job”? Being able to “get a job” is our society’s proxy for adult well-being. The panacea for all of life’s challenges. As long as my child is qualified to get a job, I have done my job as a parent. Anything more than that is a nice-to-have, but definitely expendable on the path to a recognised academic qualification. Who cares if my child is confused about his identity, burnt out, depressed, or unfulfilled – at least he is equipped to “get a job” (and even that job is no longer so certain in the rapidly evolving world of 2023).

As I explained to my son the other day, I am so excited by what is on the other side of this one-dimensional educational fairytale that our society has believed for far too long. So many children’s passions, curiosity and creativity are sacrificed on the altar of school-recognised success. This success is both a false idol, and a chimera (something that is hoped for, but illusory or impossible to achieve). It is my firm conviction that the evolution of human education requires us to support children to be the WISEST version of themselves rather than just CLEVER.

So, how would I define wisdom? Wisdom is about having the power to discern and judge properly what is true or right for ones own unique self, not just to learn things and jump through hoops defined as important by others. Wisdom points to a deep, intrinsic motivation to know and understand a wide range of, often immeasurable, things at the levels of mind, body and soul. It is so much more multi-faceted than the simple task of getting good marks. It includes a lot of qualitative and largely unmeasurable things like fulfilment, balance, joy, purpose, meaning, inspiration, innovation, integration…

I think that our society has fixated on irrelevant little boxes of things that are measurable because it requires a huge amount of faith to trust that the most important, yet largely unquantifiable, things are actually happening for one’s child if someone isn’t telling you objectively that they are. Much easier to trust the marks. Marks don’t lie… but what if they are only telling the truth about something completely irrelevant? Marks are the Emperor’s Clothes – we can all pretend they are magnificent, but a wise little boy recognised that those clothes were, in fact, not actually real at all.

If you are a parent who wants to figure out how to support their child become the wisest version of their own unique self… we have a Wisdom School designed specifically for that…. It’s called Misty Meadows, and I’d love you and your child to come and play here. In future blog posts I will define this wisdom game better for those who would like a bit more detail, but as a first taster I will tell you that the words on the scroll under the school badge on the non-existent uniform (yes, I notice the irony of my Emperor’s Clothes metaphor) say “KNOW THYSELF”.

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