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.

2015 Convocation Address

We held Convocation on Friday evening, September 11.  Here is a transcript of my address.  Please visit our YouTube page to view the entire ceremony.

Good Evening.  Let us start with a moment of silence for 9/11—example of history interrupting

Welcome. The start of the school year is always an exciting time, sometimes a nerve-wracking time, but always filled with hope and promise. I know it’s also filled with a lot of activity and that many of you, now that you’re dressed nicely, have had a nice meal, and are sitting still, will begin to get sleepy soon, so hang with me for a few minutes.

I want to begin with a question–I was a little chagrined that Mr. Low shared the same question with the new upperclassmen last night, but perhaps it’s a good sign that I’m not the only one asking it. The question is “Why are you here?” You can ask that a lot of different ways, with the emphasis in different places–I want to emphasize the “why”. You can ask that about life in general–why do I exist?–but for now I’d like to focus it on your time at The Gunnery.

You may have a lot of good answers in mind: to get into a good college, to learn, because my parents made me, to act, sing, paint or play a particular sport.

I suspect that few of you instinctively went to an answer that went much beyond yourself–an answer that pointed to the fact that you are joining a community, that you are becoming an important part of a larger whole. I’ll get back to this, but I know that when I arrived at boarding school, many moons ago, I didn’t have an answer to that question. Maybe I would have referred to college but not much more than that and, instead, I allowed survival instincts and pursuit of the path of least resistance to guide me, often without very promising results. I certainly didn’t give much thought to the community that I’d entered. So back to your answers–if you didn’t think about the fact you are now part of a larger whole–both this student body and a history that stretches back to 1850–there’s nothing wrong with that–to focus on ourselves is a natural human tendency–but it doesn’t change the fact that you are now “I” in the midst of “we”–what you do here, what you choose to do here, matters not just to yourself but it matters for the rest of us. So that begs the question, what kind of we–what kind of school–do you want us to be and to become? We are known as a tightly-knit, family-like environment–that only happens if you choose to contribute to it. And that means that there are certain things we do–introduce ourselves to people we don’t know, show kindness and grace and compassion and patience to the dorm mate who makes the annoying comment. I was so pleased on Wednesday night to see at least two cases of returning students inviting new students they didn’t know to join their table at dinner. This is where the idea of character comes from–character in the traditional sense. David Brooks, in his most recent book, The Road to Character, points out in his last chapter, entitled “The Big Me”, that we are in the midst of attempts to redefine character:  It is used less to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, and self-sacrifice, and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely. It is instead used to describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity…” David Brooks thinks that redefining character in these terms is a bad thing–that doing so is a symptom of the self-centeredness and utilitarianism of our society. I agree. More importantly, our founder, Frederick Gunn, created this school first and foremost to the end that students would develop character.

One of The Gunnery’s earliest alumni was a man named Clarence Deming Class of 1866‘66. He wrote two chapters of Mr. Gunn’s biography, including Chapter IV, entitled “Mr. Gunn As the School-Master”. Listen to what Clarence Deming said was Mr. Gunn’s reason for all of us being here: “Mr. Gunn’s central objects were [manhood], moral courage, physique, and that grandest of human traits expressed by that word character. Without these he conceived that the [student’s] maturer life would be like a house set on a flimsy base, easy to be wrecked at the first blast of the world’s temptations.” [Repeat for emphasis.]

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How Do You Teach Character?

We had a fantastic admission reception in New York earlier this month. There, a prospective parent (actually, I think, the godmother of a prospective student, as it happens) asked a question that I’ve gotten regularly since become Head: How do you teach character?
She also asked, “How do you define character?” which is a great question, is tied intimately to how you teach it, and needs to be the subject of another post…or a book.)

I think I answered adequately but I did a bad job with part of my answer.

First, my answer in the moment: I focused on the fact that teaching character in a boarding school can only happen when you have great faculty. Frederick Gunn wrote (in 1870), “every teacher will actually teach that which he is.” Yep. I think Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle said something like that even before Mr. Gunn. The faculty are the core of a school, not only in the sense that they need to be excellent teachers-knowledgeable in their discipline and good at equipping high school students to learn-but also to be great human beings. It’s easy to find one or the other but hard to find both, especially when you then require those great human beings to live in a dorm, contribute to the co-curricular life of school, etc.-it’s a high calling indeed.

Then, those great human beings need to be willing and able to dive into the most awkward, complex situations with confidence (real or feigned) because we know that those “teachable moments” come exactly at the worst times-come precisely because it was the worst time. A colleague once suggested that part of a prospective teacher’s interview should include a moment when the interviewer sees a member of the varsity lacrosse team throwing a ball against a wall that he’s not supposed to be throwing a ball against, interrupts the interview and says to the candidate, “I’m sorry-he knows he’s not supposed to be doing that. Would you please tell him to stop?” and then watch to see how the candidate responds. And holding a student accountable for throwing a ball against the wrong wall is easy compared to some things that teachers and parents deal with-but I don’t need to tell you that.1 Whether or not a teacher can “keep their wits about them” (to paraphrase Kipling and, I think, William Wallace) in that moment is the true test of whether they can add “teaching character” to “teaching calculus” as a skill. The good news is it can certainly be learned. It takes practice, of course, but students give us plenty of that, and most of it is fairly benign (like telling the student who illegally parked in the Gunn Memorial Library parking lot that he needs to go apologize to the library’s director face-to-face-I did it by email, which I didn’t like, but I’ll see him tomorrow).

Which is all to say that the first, best way to teach character is daily, hourly. It’s calling kids on the things that count, in the moment, often using a bit of humor to take the edge off or leaving the edge on because it’s just one of those moments. And not every time, at least on the jots and tittles. You have to have “earned the right to be heard” which can happen any number of ways, but it starts with being a person of integrity. (Ironically, the people who most enjoy “teaching character” are likely the least effective at it. They are more like the teacher Mr. Gunn describes in the same piece I quoted above, “You are mean, selfish, stingy, perhaps. You attempt to control a school…But the [students] have found you out; they have a nickname ready for you.”)

There’s so much more to it, but that was at least part of the answer I gave.

The reason it wasn’t enough of an answer is that we do so many things programmatically that also facilitate the teaching of character, and, while a school can’t rest on a program in this area, it certainly needs one. The first and best example here is our LEADS program. You can have a bunch of great teachers who are great humans using those key moments with students, but a formal curriculum like LEADS provides an important opportunity to move from the concrete to the abstract, to make the personal theoretical. The problem, of course, is that with character, as with leadership and other important topics, too many schools do the theoretical well but don’t follow through on the personal. One of the things that attracted me to The Gunnery in the first place was a historic and enduring commitment to do both. It takes work, daily, to do this well but the fruit of it is such a beauty to behold!

Similarly, on the question of character’s definition, I failed to point out at the reception that our mission actually defines character, to a degree at least, when it states “The Gunnery rests on the four cornerstones of character: scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility.” That’s well said, though it can raise more questions than it answers because of what it leaves out, intentionally or not (it’s a mission statement, not an essay), and because of the position of “scholarship” first. I’m still working this out, but I think what our mission gets at by including scholarship in a definition of character-or, at least, stating that scholarship is a “cornerstone” of character-is what I would call wisdom. In other words, if character is something like “knowing the good, right thing to do and then doing it, even if it hurts” then having the wisdom to know, on some level, what is the right thing to do is fundamental to doing it. And wisdom is something more than intelligence, as we know. (There are plenty of intelligent people who aren’t very wise, I will argue.) Once you know the right thing to do, the other key ingredient is having the courage to do it. That’s my working definition of character-wisdom and courage-and what I hope we will continue to devote ourselves to here.

And though I said defining character should be a separate post (which it should be but this will have to suffice for now), it’s also important to point out what character isn’t. Specifically, character and executive function skills are not the same thing, though a person with one may have the other. I say this because there is currently a well-meaning attempt  to redefine character as something we can all agree on-as the skills necessary for a certain kind of success in the world-rather than something that might ignite debate because we don’t agree on what “the right thing to do” is (what’s the right thing to do about abortion, climate change, knowing that your friend cheated, or taxes-that’s dicey stuff). The efforts I’m talking about-to redefine character-are led, in some cases, by friends of mine of whom I think very highly and from whom I’ve learned a lot. They take shape in efforts like “The Science of Character.” (Make no mistake-this is a great effort. Carefully thought and constructed, certain to have a positive impact-includes “wisdom” and “courage” and other awesome traits]and in use informally at our school already.) And while having a “growth mindset” may be a necessary ingredient to having good character in some cases, there are plenty of people of good character-who know and do the right thing-who don’t have a growth mindset in the way Carol Dweck meant it.

In some cases I’m dancing with shadows, but I go back to a more controversial starting point when I think about what character is and how to educate for it. James Hunter, a professor of sociology at UVA, wrote a book entitled The Death of Character: Moral Education In A World Without Good Or Evil. That, to me, puts our situation well. And in the best known part of that book Hunter writes,

We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for.  To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates and compels.  This price is too high for us to pay.  We want character but without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom.  In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.

There is a lot in there that raises flags for 21st century people, but it’s precisely those things that we need to come to terms with. I’ll leave it there other than to say that one of the many reasons I am convinced that boarding school is the best model of education for the 21st century is that we are able to create a truly pluralistic context for meaningful character education. Not that we all do, but we can.

…Update-this topic is unceasingly interesting and ever-evolving. Reading through some recent work on it, I came across this essay. It’s great work. The thing to pay attention to in the introduction (note: I haven’t read the essay, just the introduction) is the author’s (well intentioned) redefinition of “character” as, essentially, “non-cognitive skills”-those very important habits and skills that research shows are critical variables to success in school and life. The author and I agree on the importance of those skills. I just disagree with using the word character to describe them. It seems like quibbling over semantics but the thing I want to focus on is all that’s lost when we abandon, essentially, a more traditional understanding of character. The move from “character” to, say, “character traits” is more significant than may appear at first. I hope to return to this soon.


1 It’s worth pointing out that responding to these moments is what separates experienced faculty from parents-the wheat from the chaff, if I may be so bold. We see this stuff all the time and are either good and consistent at dealing with it or we are not. Most parents have a sample size of two or three and have about ten life changing teachable moments with their kids (I made up the number ten and would be fascinated to know if you think it’s significantly more or less).