A word to the wise

One of the baffling aspects of the internet is there are so many well-known websites for gossip, news, sport, porn, shopping, music, books - you name it - but not a single one for wisdom.

Perhaps this is because wisdom is never-quite-universal, thus difficult to monopolise. However, you'd reckon its shifting, ever-changing nature would also give it a built-in obsolescence attractive to the canny entrepreneur.

The closest I've come to a portal of wisdom on the net is iTunes U (for university), which, unlike those limp new Apple ads suggesting your mobile phone can save the planet , actually lives up to its marketing.

"Learn anything, anywhere, anytime," is an enormous boast, but I'm yet to find a subject iTunes U cannot augment with seriously credible, entertaining, often obscure academia for free.

The most amazing thing about this resource - aside from it costing not one cent - is the quality. You can listen to entire semesters of subjects from universities as august as Harvard, Stanford, Oxford or our own ANU.

"Self-directed learning" (SDL), aka autodidactism, might sound like something dreamt up in a cubicle in Silicon Valley but it's actually an ancient practice utilised by people as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci,  Malcolm X, Julian Assange, former PM Paul Keating and, of course, the Greeks of antiquity.

Its latest adherents, however, are just as likely to be living in a third-world slum as southern California thanks to the fact that globally, more people have access to mobile phones than they do clean drinking water.

According to Nature magazine, massive open online courses or MOOCs like those run by edX, "exploded into the academic consciousness in 2011, when a free artificial-intelligence course offered by Stanford University attracted 160,000 students from around the world - 23,000 of whom finished it".

Professor Andrew Ng of the Stanford computer-science department made the observation that "when one professor can teach 50,000 people, it alters the economics of education".


Reports Nature, Anant Agarwal, the former head of the computer science and artificial-intelligence laboratory at MIT, had 7200 students complete his free electric-circuits MOOC in 2012.

"These included an 81-year-old man, a single mother with two children, and a 15-year-old prodigy from Mongolia who got a perfect score on the final exam," said the journal.

Like SDL, MOOC's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it requires active participation from the student rather than the passivity of the classroom, thus the average completion rate for online courses hovers around 15 per cent.

Even iTunes U makes you search for what you want - it doesn't just appear like most media, gossip, news, sports, porn, shopping and music.

That said, it's a calming antidote to the screams of "must-see TV" or "you'll never believe what happens next" click-bait you're bombarded every time you turn on your telly, radio or laptop.

Still, even top-notch knowledge is a step removed from wisdom, which is the fair-minded application of that knowledge in the real world.

It says something about us humans that you can search for how to make a pipe bomb, bird feeder or chocolate bilby, but you're most often frustrated when seeking what is right or just in a particular situation.

Pair this with the fact that Google's annual Zeitgeist survey of popular search terms last year revealed questions such as "how to love" and "how to change" came out on top, and you're left with a stark truth.

Google ain't Kant. Yet.

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