In Troubled Times, Is There Any Place Left for Wisdom and Knowledge? By Keith Burnett

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Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and President of the UK Science Council.

I am in New York City for the annual meeting of the Worldwide Universities Network.

It is a chance to meet with scholars from the United States, Australia, China, Africa and Europe to think about what Universities should be doing for our global communities at this time when so much is happening in our world.

But before the conference starts, I have taken the chance to walk the streets and absorb the sights and sounds of the city. I lived and worked in America for the best part of a decade. I have many friends and colleagues in its science community and beyond, and I grew to love this country.

But this is also now Trump’s America. So I’m asking myself, “How has it changed?”

America has told a story of possibility and inclusion which drew the ambitious of the world. Yet today, the news is full of the debate on healthcare and television celebrity Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional speech about his newborn son’s heart condition, asking if America will leave families facing the same without insurance.

The sight of the President announcing an end to budget cuts for the military, surrounded by the Air Force Academy football team, conflicts for air time with his gaffe on Civil War history. What is America’s story now?

While I considered, I lit a candle for my family in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, an exquisite space where the affluent mix with the homeless sitting with their bags on the polished pews. On the street corner I noticed the longest queues were for the chicken sold by The Halal Guys. And on the pavement, Jewish men in jeans and sneakers wear skull caps or characteristic black hats. It is a city teeming with life, commerce and contrasts.

And then as I walked towards the Rockefeller Center, I saw the words written above it: Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times.

At a time when wisdom and knowledge are surely up for challenge as never before in America but also around the world, my immediate thought was “if only.”

We are hearing a lot about stability in our uncertain times, so I checked the reference: it comes from the Book of Isaiah. So what did it mean? And why should it be written so prominently in this great city, at the heart of its looming skyscrapers.

Surely it can’t be a promise of unproblematic greatness. The author of Ecclesiastes warned that wealth does not always go to men of wisdom. No reading of the prophets could leave anyone with the impression that those who love truth or wisdom would have an easy time. That enemies would be held at bay. That justice could prevail in human societies.

Whose times then will be made stable and certain through something as elusive as knowledge? As an educator, could I claim that the insights of my university could bring stability to our times?

And then I read more closely. I saw the word “thy” – thy times. “Thy” was the way that the King James Bible translators conveyed the personal “your.” This quote from Isaiah is no collective instruction. It is an admonition which asks you and me to insert our own name.

What the serious students of Isaiah tell us is that the Torah must be far more than words. It needs to live. The stability promised is not certain times for a nation but an inner strength for those who will not be buffeted by every storm of events, even the winds of politics or our changing times. The people of Isaiah were sustained by a powerful idea and a narrative which was not extinguished by changing empires or nations.

So what should be ours?

There are many we could pick. Commerce. Democracy. Science. But all of these are vulnerable in the end if they have no foundation, no purpose.

In the end, we need a story – a personal narrative – more enduring than the changing weather of outrageous fortune. Something our success is for, something more like Service or Love. Without this our edifices will not last. Like the skyscrapers of Manhattan, they must be built on a rock that will not be shaken.

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