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Here's to wisdom

Culture

Fools spring eternal-through all cultures and all eras. No exception for our own. But rather than discount them as burdens, we'd do well to see the blessing. For like the bubbles in the fountain, they add a certain unexpectedness-more three-dimensionality-to life.

Bewildered, bemused, befuddled, benign-fools of every persuasion have proven a mainstay throughout literature. Shakespeare, Molière, Dickens, Twain-all keen observers of human character and relationships-were wont in every work to throw a fool or two into the mix. In the hands of a master storyteller, a fool can be quite instructive. And besides, life just doesn't look the same without them.

Now where literary forbears once found inspiration for metaphorical musings, scientific moderns are finding grist for the research mill.

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Cornell University's David A. Dunning has been studying fools-though you won't find that word in his research-for years. His stated purpose: to find "why people tend to have overly favorable and objectively indefensible views of their own abilities, talents, and moral character." His findings show that those with little to offer tend to be confident that they have much, while those with much to offer underestimate their gifts.

What's worse, those who underestimate their own value can eventually be persuaded of it, while those who overestimate hold fast to their delusion.

Would that Shakespeare were around to have a go at that! Or did he already tell us so?

In As You Like It, Touchstone says, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."

Yesterday was April Fool's Day, a day reserved for proving the other a fool while not being proven one ourselves. It is thought to have originated in 16th century France when a calendar change meant April 1 would no longer be New Year's Day. Any fool who writes checks in January will relate.

Having a designated Fools Day may cause us to wonder: Does it then follow-like the Mad Hatter's UnBirthday bashes-that the other 364 (365 in this leap year) days of the year are UnFools' Day?

I don't think so. Not as long as there are subjects for Dunning's research. One of the professor's spin-off concerns is "how people bolster their sense of self-worth by carefully tailoring the judgments they make of others." He notes that people tend to judge others in such a way as to bolster their opinions of themselves. Or, as the saying goes, cutting off others' heads to make oneself taller.

Which leads to the question: Who is really the fool? Professor Dunning found that 94 percent of college professors claim to do "above average" work-a statistical impossibility that leads one to wonder whether it is almost statistically impossible to avoid being a fool.

Perhaps those who overestimate their abilities never read in Proverbs that: He who trusts in himself is a fool. Or the flipside in Thomas Jefferson: "He who knows best knows how little he knows.''

And what of Dunning? He now tells reporters he's haunted by the fact that he himself may be one of those incompetents who overestimates his own ability.

Which may leave you wondering about your own. Not to worry. After all, as Albert Einstein once said, "Before God we are equally wise and equally foolish."

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