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No one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom.

And so the 2015-16 academic year begins once again. As I was thinking about what to say concerning something that has happened almost four score years for me, I remembered something that one of our U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Elena Kagan, said. In terms of important learning, she said “I’ve led a school whose faculty and students examine and discuss and debate every aspect of our law and legal system. And what I’ve learned most is that no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom. I’ve learned that we make progress by listening to each other, across every apparent political or ideological divide.”

TRUTH: “a fact or belief that is accepted as true.” Of course, until the late 16th century, everyone believed the “truth” that the sun and planets revolved around the Earth. Until about the late 19th century, it was absolutely true that epidemic illnesses such as cholera and the plague were caused by a poisonous mist filled with particles from rotting things. Until the early 20th century, the most common procedure performed by surgeons for thousands of years was bloodletting, because the “truth” was that blood drained from the body balanced the four “humors”—blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. To this day, there are those who believe the “truth” is that President Obama is a Muslim and was not born in the USA. Some also believe that the “truth” is that there is no global warming. We are living in a time of such remarkable science and technology and, in spite of it, some stand firmly behind their “truths” … even if so much of what they know to be “true” is actually wrong.

WISDOM: “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.” Well, here are examples of conventional wisdom in the past: “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” ~Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872 – “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” ~Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM, 1943 – “With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” ~Business Week, 1958 – “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.” ~Literary Digest, 1899 – “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” ~Albert Einstein, 1932 – “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” ~Western Union internal memo, 1876 – “Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” ~Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1889 – “Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” ~Dr. Dionysys Larder, professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, 1793-1859. You get the point.

So as another academic year begins, whether you are a student, parent of a student, or neither, it is good to remember that both truth and wisdom are often relative to time, culture, experience, social class, and education. Humility, or recognizing that “no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom,” is a good characteristic to always pursue in seeking the common good.