University Will Not Make You Wise

Perhaps this is something you are not supposed to know yet, at least not before you have graduated from the University of Tartu – or, in fact, any university out there, no matter how big or small, famous or infamous, central or peripheral.

Mihhail Lotman, a member of the Semiotics Research Group at the University of Tartu and Professor of Semiotics and Literary Theory at Tallinn University, addressed his speech on this topic to graduates of our Faculty of Philosophy back in June. You may think it is not that timely to share it at the beginning of the new academic year, but sometimes a perspective on something yet to come may save you from false expectations and serve as guidance and inspiration.

What follows is the middle part of Mihhail Lotman’s speech, which you can watch in full length in Estonian.

Mihhail Lotman

Mihhail Lotman speaking to graduates of the Faculty of Philosophy on 26 June 2015. Photo by Andres Tennus


What did your studies give you? It depends on the expectations you had when you came here. I conducted a small survey and it turned out that very few come after something that I would say is available here.

Some came to become wiser.  I have to disappoint you right away: No one gets wiser at a university.

The peculiarities of  Estonian come into play here. In Estonia, learning a small bit of information is also referred to as ‘becoming wiser’ (in Est. ‘targemaks saamine’), e.g. “How much is this bottle of vodka?” Are you wiser now that you know it? No, you are not. You only learned one small thing. You can learn the entire train schedule by heart – not bad, but this is not wisdom.

Unfortunately, you don’t get wiser at the university. Good for you if you don’t become more stupid. Here lies an important university function: It is some sort of a greenhouse.

A palm or a cactus does not emerge in a greenhouse – the purpose of a greenhouse is not to let the plant wither. Similarly, the university needs to create conditions that support your development.

Well, just a quarter of my respondents entered the university in quest of knowledge. More people thought that it was a nice place to be. By the way, this is a very good approach. If it were a bad place to be, there would be no greenhouse effect: Palms don’t grow in a nasty place, only thistles do.

It’s not that common now, but when I studied at the university, it was widely known that university was a place with beautiful girls. And, by the way, this is extremely important. As Einstein has said, ‘There is no point teaching boys who watch me instead of girls during lectures’.

University is a place to fall in love. At the same time, it’s a place to master responsibility in relationships. I got married during my university time, still happily, thanks to the University of Tartu. Perhaps it’s the biggest thing I’ve received from the university.

Now, coming back to wisdom, Doctor Faust graduated from the university, which at his time meant graduating from all four faculties – those of theology, philosophy, medicine, and law – and realised that he was just as stupid as he had been before.

However, this realisation is already a gate towards wisdom. This is the beginning of Western philosophy and Socrates: I know nothing. ‘Carte blanche’. Only then can you start building something upon it. Not on the ruins of prejudices or stereotypes, but executing constant self-control, doubting – also in one’s teachers, readings, oneself.

There are studies on how a scientist thinks. We don’t know this well, but nevertheless there are two basic strategies: A beginner gets an idea and starts looking for facts that support it. Then (s)he proceeds with a grand concept, which is mostly a bluff. This is because (s)he thinks about things that support his or her concept. (…) A seasoned scientist, on the contrary, collects facts that dismiss rather than support his or her concept. And only then, when (s)he finds such facts missing, (s)he can move on.

This is what university teaches you: not wisdom, but discipline – the discipline of thought.


Graduates of the Faculty of Philosophy

Fresh graduates of the Faculty of Philosophy listening to Mihhail Lotman. Photo by Andres Tennus

Inga Külmoja is an author and the editor of the UT Blog.

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One Response to University Will Not Make You Wise

  1. The Outsider says:

    I’ve liked what he said about wisdom, discipline, discipline of thought. I am always thrilled with an complex philosophical question rather than answers. Questions give me good for thought. I live as I think.

    What he told about beautiful girls and love is also true. My wife is my classmate. Our journey started within less than one year after we enrolled into the university. Like Mr. Lotman, I also want to say, “Perhaps it’s the biggest thing I’ve received from the university.”

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