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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