Wisdom training?

Dear colleagues,

Wisdom is normally thought of as something you develop as you get older, as a result of experience. But is there some way that you can train to become wiser? Can this be applied to academic work?

Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, professors at Swarthmore College in the US, have written the book Practical Wisdom. They start with an example. Luke, a custodian in a US hospital, had just cleaned the room of a young patient in a coma. The patient's father, who for months had been keeping a bedside vigil, was out of the room when Luke cleaned it. When the father returned, he confronted Luke, demanding that he clean the room. What should Luke have done? He could have invoked the rules and refused, saying he had done it already. Instead, he decided to clean the room - again - without telling the father he had already done it. Why? Because he cared about the patient, knew the father was under extreme pressure, and wanted to improve the quality of life for both of them.

According to Schwartz and Sharpe, Luke displayed practical wisdom. More abstractly, they say that practical wisdom involves knowing how to balance rules and circumstances, using empathy to help accomplish the proper aims of the activity being undertaken.

People don't develop practical wisdom just by ageing or by doing something over and over. They need opportunities to learn the true aims of the enterprise they're involved in. Luke was officially a custodian, but he cared about the patients and their families and took his greatest pride in figuring out how to help them.

Constraints on developing practical wisdom can be built into technology. In building 19, sensors were installed to turn off lights in rooms when there is no movement. The sensors removed the incentive to develop the elementary good sense of switching off lights when leaving rooms. The result is that lights are regularly left on in rooms that don't have sensors. The taps in some toilets are set so that a fixed volume of water is produced at a fixed flow rate, irrespective of how much water a person wants to use.

To develop practical wisdom, we need opportunities to better understand the goals of activities, to understand others and to practise making judgements. Schwartz and Sharpe are concerned that, in the US, these opportunities are being removed by rigid applications of rules. Lawmakers, for example, have imposed constraints on judges, for example the infamous "three strikes laws" in some US states in which three felonies of any sort - even stealing golf clubs - can result in a mandatory prison sentence of several decades. Judges in the US are being denied the opportunity to exercise discretion and hence are losing their capacity to make wise decisions. The same sort of thing is happening with US teaching templates that mandate exactly what teachers do every minute through lessons.

In the Australian higher education system, practical wisdom is becoming harder to attain because discretion is being removed from many decisions. For example, teachers used to deal with plagiarism on an ad hoc basis, attempting to suit the penalty to the circumstances of the student. Now the formal processes for dealing with plagiarism are so complex and bureaucratic that, once entered, there is less scope for flexibility and hence for developing the skill to respond to students according to the aims of higher education, namely to foster honesty and skills in proper acknowledgement of sources.

Teachers used to have considerable discretion in designing subject outlines. Now there are so many required inclusions that teachers have less opportunity to develop skills in working how best to communicate with their students.

The Australian federal government's research scheme called Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) evaluated excellence in part according to whether academics had published in highly ranked journals. The journal rankings can be interpreted as a rule-based system that discourages researchers from deciding for themselves the most appropriate outlets for their publications. The journal-ranking process caused so much critical comment that it was dropped a few months ago. Nevertheless, ERA's other evaluation methods still hinder the development of wisdom to decide the most appropriate way to contribute to the goals of higher education in producing and disseminating knowledge.

Rules are brought in for a reason: to protect against abuses. Discretion can be used to give special favours. Obviously it is wasteful when some people leave lights on or taps running. But there is another sort of waste, caused by discouraging the capacity to learn responsibility in using lights or educating students.

As Schwartz and Sharpe put it, "Rules are set up to establish and maintain high standards of performance, and to allow the lessons learned by some to be shared by all. But if they are too strict or too detailed or too numerous, they can be immobilizing, counterproductive, and even destructive." (p. 255) This insight isn't new, but certainly warrants continued attention.

Those who know when to bend or circumvent the rules are called, by Schwartz and Sharpe, "canny outlaws". They are people who serve higher aims of the organisation by quietly negotiating their way around wisdom-inhibiting rules.

Schwartz and Sharpe have even greater admiration for those who try to change systems to enable the development and use of practical wisdom. Given the trends toward greater bureaucracy, promoting higher education processes that foster practical wisdom may seem like a rearguard action, but is worthwhile for the long run.

13 July 2011


Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York: Riverhead, 2010)

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Kate Bowles, Nicola Marks and David Mercer for helpful comments.

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