In a recent New York Times Op-Ed column, “Schools for Wisdom,” David Brooks criticizes Greg Whiteley’s documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which he calls “a bold indictment of the entire K-12 educational system.” Although Brooks agrees that there is much wrong with our present system, he thinks Whiteley underemphasizes intellectual virtues, especially wisdom. Of special interest to California readers is Whiteley’s favorable highlighting of High Tech High, “a celebrated school in San Diego that was started by San Diego business and tech leaders.” This school emphasizes “relational skills future workers will actually need” and “takes an old idea, project-based learning, and updates it in tech clothing.”
In the process of criticizing the documentary for underemphasizing intellectual virtues, Brooks presumes that education should aim at developing wise persons, and then asks, “If we want to produce wise people, what are the stages that produce it?” I agree with his presumption, think his question is an important one, and in a previous article quoted favorably E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977), who wrote that “more education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.” But what Brooks says about wisdom is inadequate.
Contrast what he writes to the insights of psychologist Robert Sternberg, who has written much on wisdom. Brooks writes, “Wisdom is a hard-earned intuitive awareness of how things will flow. Wisdom is playful. The wise person loves to share, and cajole and guide and wonder at what she doesn’t know. The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy.” But Sternberg has observed that wisdom is not only about “knowledge but also how to use that knowledge well.” In an article entitled “It’s Not What You Know, but How You Use It: Teaching for Wisdom,” which first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2002), the psychologist mentioned the work he and his colleagues at Yale University’s Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise were doing. They were attempting to teach “students from roughly age 10 or so to think wisely.” And underlying their teaching was “the view that we need to teach students not only knowledge but also how to use that knowledge well.”
The basis of their instruction was Sternberg’s “balance theory” of wisdom: “People are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good. They do so by balancing, in their courses of action, their own interests with those of others and those of larger entities, like their school, their community, their country, even God. And they balance these interests over the long and the short terms.”
Sternberg insisted that his group’s goal was ‘not to teach values but to help children develop positive values of their own that promote social welfare. We try, he continues, “to give students a framework in which to develop those values—seeing things from others’ perspectives as well as one’s own, and thinking not just about one’s interests but also about a common good. In some ways, our views are in contrast to those of many educational programs, which stress the acquisition of knowledge but not how such knowledge will be used.”
Many other commentators on wisdom have also observed that it involves not only the intellect, but the emotions and one’s actions. Alan Nordstrom, for example, writing on “Shakespeare’s Take on Human Wisdom,” observes that “wisdom for Shakespeare has far more to do with the heart than the head. . . . [with] a true and faithful heart, radiant with love, care, and devotion, brimming with compassion and forgiveness.”
Wisdom also involves creating a proper hierarchy of values and trying to live by them. In Sternberg’s article mentioned above, he writes that “smart and well-educated people” are often unwise because of four fallacies, which he labels the egocentrism, omniscience, omnipotence, and invulnerability fallacies. All four are tied up with too big an ego and with overestimating one’s own importance and powers, and they suggest the triumph of egoism over love and associated values like empathy and compassion. Most wisdom scholars emphasize a wide variety of “wisdom values,” and I have argued that love, which would include Sternberg’s seeking the “common good” and promoting “social welfare,” is the most important of these values.
Most of today’s discussions about education revolve around such topics as the common core, charter schools, racial gaps, testing, classroom size, or teachers’ rights, duties, and pay. Or more specifically about such state-wide developments as the Texas State Board of Education’s curriculum standards and mandated textbooks. Universities ask themselves how they can better prepare students to meet today’s and tomorrow’s business needs.
But what E.F Schumacher observed in the 1970s is still too true today. He wrote then that the education most people received did not give them much help in going beyond “mere training, something more than mere knowledge of facts, and something more than a mere diversion.” He criticized what eventually became the dominant aim of higher education—career preparation for work in our modern industrial societies, which were “incessantly stimulating greed, envy, and avarice.” He granted that the dominant educational systems might help people obtain jobs that made them richer and able to afford more consumer goods and services—at least for a while. But he also believed that their education was preparing them to live in unhealthy economic systems and societies that were environmentally unsustainable.
The main problem he perceived with modern education was that it had abandoned the incorporation and guidance of traditional wisdom, which helped us answer questions like “What is our purpose in life?” and “What are our ethical obligations?” Today, the question remains, “What should be the primary educational goal: career preparation, aiding students to live a wise life, or some other aim?”
Walter G. Moss