Barry Schwartz on Wisdom

In his 2009 TED Talk, Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College, put well something I’ve been thinking about a lot: “At TED, brilliance is rampant. It’s scary. The good news is you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough. It’s as likely to get you and other people into trouble as anything else.”

In his talk, which I recommend highly, Schwartz provides multiple examples of what he calls, quoting Aristotle, “practical wisdom.” It is, I think, what Frederick Gunn was aiming at when he said that character is the goal of education. That wasn’t an obvious claim when he made it and it isn’t obvious today, even as we try to stick to it. “‘Practical wisdom,’ Aristotle told us, ‘is the combination of moral will and moral skill.’ A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule…A wise person knows how to improvise…” It’s important to watch or listen to the talk for the examples Schwartz provides–diverse enough that they hit every walk of life.

There is an important resonance between Schwartz’s claims and those by David Brooks that I highlighted in my recent blog posts. Educational theory today, from what I can tell, focuses almost entirely on creating brilliance but very little on nurturing character or practical wisdom. Schwartz rightly points to the KIPP school movement as a terrific example of an attempt to develop character–practical wisdom–in students but, as I’ve written elsewhere, the thought leaders of KIPP, who I consider heroes, by the way, are in other ways part of an attempt to redefine character not as practical wisdom but as practical skills. This attempt to redefine character as skills captures well the thrust of educational theory today, at least as it applies to independent schools. We should celebrate it for the good it is doing–identifying the skills students need in order to succeed in the classroom and in life–without calling it character.

Instead, we should figure out what it looks like to help students develop practical wisdom in the ways in which Schwartz and Brooks describe it, alongside and amidst helping students become really good at physics, languages, history and interdisciplinary thinking. Not surprisingly, Schwartz emphasizes that if you want students to grow in practical wisdom, they “need to be mentored by wise teachers.” How do we determine that a prospective teacher is wise? Still working on that.

I do think it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a new question. I think, among other things, it means that we should be reading as much Aristotle as we are Dewey and Dweck in graduate schools of education.

Other practical steps Schwartz recommends in developing practical wisdom:

“Celebrate moral exemplars…” and,

“perhaps most important, as teachers, we should strive to be the ordinary heroes, the moral exemplars, to the people we mentor. And there are a few things that we have to remember as teachers. One is that we are always teaching. Someone is always watching. [Ted Sizer] The camera is always on…[students] need to learn to respect learning. That’s the principle objective. If you do that, the rest is just pretty much a coast downhill. [debatable!] And the teachers: the way you teach these things to the kids is by having the teachers and all the other staff embody it every minute of every day.”

(Following Schwartz’s TED Talk, two moral exemplars he mentions, Ray Anderson and Willie Smits, are well worth the time.)

Frederick Gunn said, memorably, “we teach that which we are.” He was on to something. I don’t know how much Aristotle he’d read, but he knew how to develop practical wisdom in his students and lived it himself. He knew that the collection of character traits embodied by the person who is always learning (and not just learning in order to patent the next widget but learning in the whole-life-sense), the humility it requires, was good for students and for the world.

The focus should not be just on the individual. As Schwartz states in his conclusion:

“Wanting to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each and every one of us if only we start paying attention. Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it, and, perhaps most importantly, to the structure of the organizations within which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed.”

May we create schools that aspire to this.

Watch Schwartz’s talk because he puts it better than I do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s