A few weeks ago I was returning some books to the library. I was in a hurry and had my three-year-old with me. As soon as we entered the library he said, "I get book."
I replied, "Not today, I'm in a hurry."
More insistently this time he said, "I get book!"
Not wanting a screaming fit on his part in the middle of library I relented. "Hurry!" I told him.
And hurry he did. By the time I was done returning my books he returned with his book, Petunia by Roger Duvoisin. The story is a bit of whimsy written for children. But like some of the best children u2018s books there is a lesson gently hidden in it.
The story begins with Petunia, the silly goose, out in the meadow. In the meadow she discovers something. After some effort she identifies it. She has seen Bill the farmer's son with one. It is a book! And she recalls that Mr. Pumpkin the farmer saying, "He who owns Books and loves them is wise."
So Petunia goes off knowing that she has become wise. Being wise she becomes proud. The other animals seeing the Book began to believe in Petunia's wisdom. Finally Petunia gets to demonstrate her wisdom.
One day Petunia heard Clover, the cow, say to King, the rooster, "I wonder what makes your comb so red, King-as red as the barn."
"It's my blood," said King. "It's the color of my blood."
"Nonsense," said Clover. "I have blood too. But I'm not a red cow. Your comb has been dipped in red barn-paint, that's what makes it so red."
"You are both silly, of course," said Petunia. "King, your comb was stuck on by the farmer so he can tell you from the hens and know who lays eggs and who doesn't. Plastic comb, I'd say."
And so King never again shook his proud comb in song for fear it might fall off.
Poor sad rooster.
Petunia's forays into offering the other barnyard animals sage advice results in Ida, the hen, being worried; Noisy, the dog's nose getting singed; and Straw, the horse, suffering a toothache in forlorn silence. When Cotton, the cat, gets stuck in the tree, Petunia's advice results in the barnyard animals all getting bumped and bruised in the misguided rescue attempt.
Matters come to a head when the animals find a box labeled firecrackers.
"Ah, wise Petunia!" they shouted. "We found this box in the ditch beside the road. Maybe it's food, Petunia. Please tell us what the writing on it says."
"Glad to help," said Petunia. "Now, let's see … Why CANDIES. That's what it says on that box. Yes, Candies. You may eat them. Yes, of course." No sooner had Petunia given the word than seven greedy mouths tore up the box and grabbed the candies out of it, and … Boom!
All the animals were burned and bruised on top of their earlier ignominies. As for the goose:
…Suddenly Petunia spied the Book. The firecrackers had blown it open so that the pages showed. She had never seen them before. Now she saw that there was something written inside the Book, which she could not read. So she sat down and thought and thought and thought, until at last she sighed, "Now I understand. It was not enough to carry wisdom under my wing. I must put it in my mind and in my heart. And to do that I must learn to read."
Silly goose! She had thought that merely holding a book provides wisdom. Silly animals! They thought that she had become wise because she had the appearance of wisdom. Silly us! How often do we make the same mistakes? We assume that those in academia, government, medicine, and the press have wisdom that we do not possess. Much like the goose and animals assumed that holding the book gave the goose wisdom, many assume that holding a position or a credential is the same as wisdom.
When my wife and I were newly married, she taught math at a local college. I joined her one day for lunch. Sitting with us was an economics professor. The conversation turned to the economy. I had the temerity to express doubts regarding the long-term prospects of a fiat currency. I was promptly put in my place for questioning modern economic wisdom. Like King, the rooster, I slunk away.
Unfortunately, like in the story, the lack of real wisdom often results in calamity. Consider inflation or the state of modern schooling. These are some of the results from those believing themselves to be wise but spreading folly.
Wise goose! The goose in the story finally understands the true nature of wisdom, that acquiring wisdom takes effort. She resolves to start becoming wise. With effort on our part we can become wise.
Wisdom has … sent out her maids, and she calls from the highest point of the city.
“Let all who are simple come in here!” she says to those who lack judgment.
“Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed.
"Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding. (Proverbs, 9:16)
Let us make the effort to become wise. Read Aristotle, Pascal, Augustine, The Gospels, Proverbs, Adam Smith. Read those who have gone before us and become truly wise. Ponder what they have to say. Become wise yourself. In becoming wise you will not fall prey to the blandishments of those who falsely consider themselves wise.
May 3, 2006