The ‘Getting’ of Wisdom in the 21st Century

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Insights
Ms Jan O’Sullivan, Head of Griffith House

Wisdom is the principal thing;
Therefore get wisdom: and with
All thy getting get understanding
Proverbs, iv. 7

This proverb is quoted in the foreword to the novel, The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel [Ethel Florence] Richardson, first published in 1910, with the film, directed by Bruce Beresford, released in 1977, a story about girls at boarding school, which focuses on a spirited and highly unconventional girl who attempts to adapt herself to the strict discipline of the narrow society of the time, especially its narrow mindedness in relation to the role of women.

Wisdom literature

The quotation above is taken from The Book of Proverbs, which originated from the later writings of the Old Testament and is classified as ‘Wisdom literature’ or ‘Wisdom texts’. It belongs to the 3rd–1st centuries BCE and may have been influenced to some degree by Greek philosophy, especially that of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The main characteristics of the Wisdom texts are that they:

  • are short, pithy proverbs
  • focus on broad philosophical issues (i.e. how to live a good life) rather than on narrow religious issues
  • personify WISDOM as a goddess-like female figure and always refer to it as ‘she’
  • focus on public virtue and moral righteousness.

Virtue Ethics focuses on character

Around the same time that the Wisdom texts were written, Aristotle espoused the value of Virtue Ethics to help individuals to negotiate their way through the complexities of life. The word ‘virtue’ is derived from the Latin word ‘virtus’, meaning excellence, capacity or ability. In modern English, the word has come to refer to someone’s character or personality, including traits such as generosity, honesty, courage, good humour and friendliness. Virtue Ethics encompasses developing admirable character traits and aspiring to be an excellent human being.

The development of character

Clearly displayed ‘in relief’ on the feature wall of our CLC Building is the Brisbane Girls Grammar School Statement of Intent:

Proud of our Grammar tradition, we are a secondary school that establishes the educational foundation for young women to contribute confidently to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity.

Scholarship is the central essence of our Statement of Intent as it is, and has always been, the focus of our educational tradition. The ‘Getting of Wisdom’, interpreted from a Girls Grammar perspective is not solely linked to academic pursuits, but also to the life skills required to navigate the world with compassion, generosity and veracity. In reflecting upon the meaning of the entire Statement of Intent, three questions provide ‘food for thought’ for students, teachers and parents:

  1. How can we ensure that our girls learn what they need in order to go out into the world and the workplace with wisdom, imagination and integrity?
  2. How can we ensure that our girls actually understand morality so that they can judiciously and ethically engage with the world, thus enabling them to be ‘women of integrity’?
  3. How can we ensure that our girls take with them the confidence and fearlessness required in order to function assertively in a world partly devoid of religion and the ethics that go hand-in-hand with religious teachings?

A real-life example of a Girls Grammar ‘old girl’ contributing to the world with wisdom, imagination and integrity

While Girls Grammar is a secular school, it is grounded in developing girls of character who contribute confidently to the world. A strong culture of Service, which encourages girls to give back, combined with international experiences that foster cultural understanding, gives girls perspective and insight.

In our Year 9 Level Assembly last Wednesday, teachers and Year 9 students were privileged to have ‘old girl’ Lara McArthur-Dowty speak to them about her fervour and conviction in relation to helping Indigenous Australians. As Lara is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, her presentation focussed on raising awareness in the Year 9 cohort of the ways and means of enhancing the wellbeing of Aboriginal people. She wanted the students to gain a deeper understanding of their predicament and the action needed to close the gap between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians. This presentation aligns with the work of 2014’s School charity, the Uralla Club, formed this year by the girls to promote understanding of Indigenous issues in Australia. It also complements the current Year 9 English assignment, ‘Australian novels reflect the best and worst of what defines us as Australians.’

What are the implications for us as students, teachers and as a School community?

Ethics in combination with Values are embedded in our curriculum and our Student Care sessions explore Ethics in some detail. However, let’s think about the questions posed earlier about girls being able to attain wisdom, imagination and integrity. Scholarship will enable girls to achieve these goals if specific and existing strategies, such as the ones that follow below, are reinforced by teachers and parents:

  • Reinforce the idea of character formation through service to others: treat others as you would like to be treated
  • Promote empathy and kindness
  • Reduce the girls’ stress by promoting mindfulness
  • Provide guidance and consolation by letting girls know we genuinely care about them
  • Constantly reassure them and ‘contain’ their anxiety and their fear of failure
  • Encourage silent sustained reading: creating stillness, peace and reflection in each student’s day.

 Wisdom: Exalt her, and she will promote you; she will bring you honour, when you embrace her.
I have taught you in the way of wisdom; I have led you in right paths.
Proverbs, iv. 9 & 11


New Testament: Psalms Proverbs (ND).  Mawson: The Gideons International in Australia.

Richardson, Henry Handel.  (1910).  The Getting of Wisdom. Melbourne: Heinemann Educational Books.

Shelly Spong, John. (2007).   Jesus  for the Non-Religious.  New York:  Harper Collins Publishers.

Stanford Center for the Study of Language and Information. (2014). ‘Aristotle’s Ethics’. Retrieved from

Published 7 August 2014