Reform Education: Teach Wisdom and Ethics: It's Clear That Students Are Getting Smarter, Learning More All the Time. It's Just as Clear We Are Not Making Strides in Teaching Them More Wisdom or Better Ethics. We Should

By Sternberg, Robert J. | Phi Delta Kappan, April 2013 | Go to article overview
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Reform Education: Teach Wisdom and Ethics: It's Clear That Students Are Getting Smarter, Learning More All the Time. It's Just as Clear We Are Not Making Strides in Teaching Them More Wisdom or Better Ethics. We Should


Sternberg, Robert J., Phi Delta Kappan


When I was an administrator at another institution, my wife and I lived near one of the most famous hospitals in the United States. When we moved in, we complimented ourselves on our good luck because we could expect excellent medical care within easy walking distance of our apartment. After a halfdozen visits to various doctors and clinics at this hospital, however, we realized we had been rather seriously mistaken. In visit after visit, we found the patient care was neither excellent nor even adequate. I remember commenting to my wife that I wished some of the practitioners we had seen had stayed in their labs. Eventually, we switched to a less renowned hospital with much better results.

Of course, we may have been unlucky in our particular visits, but the experience resonated with the research I had been doing over a period of 30 years, in which I had found that "practical intelligence," or common sense, is only very weakly correlated with "analytical intelligence," or academic smarts. But even more important, academic smarts also are only weakly correlated with wisdom. What is wisdom? I define it as the seeking of a common good--over the long and short terms--by balancing one's own interests, those of others', and higher interests through the infusion of positive ethical values. Of course, there are other definitions, but I will use the definition I have proposed here in this article.

All of this matters because our schools--from the elementary level and into higher education--have chosen or, in some cases, have been forced to emphasize the acquisition and abstract analysis of a type of knowledge in their instruction and assessment. These are the elements that conventional standardized tests measure; those tests, in turn, drive the curriculum. We are very far removed today from the McGuffey Readers of old, which sought to teach our young people not only to read and to think, but also to think wisely. Today, standardized tests don't measure wise thinking, with the result that we may be producing more and more students who are smart but unwise. Some writing tests are even computer scored, and no computer is yet in a position to assess wise thinking. Relevant to this development are the findings of James Flynn of the University of Otago in New Zealand, who has discovered that during the 20th century and even into the 21st, IQs as measured by raw numbers of items answered correctly on intelligence tests have gone up about 3 points every decade. (Scaled scores on IQ tests do not appear to increase because test publishers re-norm the tests every so often, ensuring an average of 100.) If people are so much smarter, at least in the narrow IQ sense, why are so many things in a mess? Why is it so much easier to point to people who are smart than to people who are wise? So many people have studied intelligence, to so little avail, and few have studied wisdom because it is much harder to study, and psychologists, like other scientists, often prefer easier problems with better chances of quick publication to harder problems that may lead to papers never published at all. A notable exception to this trend is now-deceased, German psychologist Paul Baltes. More recently, Howard Gardner and his colleagues Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, in their book Good Work (Basic Books, 2002), have recognized the importance of the marriage of excellence and ethics in creative work.

'A self-fulfilling prophecy'

The result of emphasizing narrowly defined knowledge and analytical reasoning is a society that has become seriously skewed in major respects. One, mentioned earlier, is in doctors who may be stellar researchers but mediocre practitioners with respect to their patient skills. Elite training may not have taught them adequately how to deal wisely with patients, a useful skill that nevertheless does not result in prestigious publications. Another is in political debate that, in many instances, has degenerated into name calling and dysfunctional polarization of legislative bodies; sharp debaters may be smart in an analytical sense, but they are not necessarily wise politicians.

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Reform Education: Teach Wisdom and Ethics: It's Clear That Students Are Getting Smarter, Learning More All the Time. It's Just as Clear We Are Not Making Strides in Teaching Them More Wisdom or Better Ethics. We Should
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