Student Well-Being Opinion

Teaching for Wisdom in Our Schools

By Robert J. Sternberg — November 13, 2002 7 min read
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The top-level managers who brought down companies such as Enron, Global Crossing, and WorldCom were, for the most part, nothing if they were not smart and well-educated. Yet one cannot help feeling that something fundamental was missing in the way they were educated. Similarly, today’s consummate terrorist defies the stereotype of the poorly educated ignorant peasant who, having nothing better to do, joins up with a movement and blindly follows orders while showing no personal initiative at all. On the contrary, many of the terrorists who are covertly walking our streets are smart and well-educated—in the United States, in some cases. When their plans go awry, they use their wits to figure out how to get those plans back on track. Once again, it appears that something was fundamentally wrong in their education.

It's not just what you know, but how you use it.

What is that something? I believe it is that, for the most part, we are teaching students to be intelligent and knowledgeable, but not how to use their intelligence and their knowledge. Schools need to teach for wisdom, not just for factual recall and superficial levels of analysis.

When schools teach for wisdom, they teach students that it is important not just what you know, but how you use what you know—whether you use it for good ends or bad. They are teaching for what the Bush administration referred to recently, in a White House conference, as the “fourth R": responsibility. Smart but foolish and irresponsible people, including, apparently, some who run or have run major businesses in our country, exhibit four characteristic fallacies in their thinking.

The fallacy of egocentrism occurs when people think the world centers around them. Other people come to be seen merely as tools in the attainment of their goals, to be used and then discarded as the egomaniacs’ needs change. Why would smart people think egocentrically? Conventionally smart people often have been so highly rewarded for being smart that they lose sight of the needs and desires of others.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Wisdom requires one to know what one knows and does not know, as well as what can be known and cannot be known at a given time and place. Smart people often lose sight of what they do not know, leading to the second fallacy.

The fallacy of omniscience results from people’s starting to feel that not only are they expert in whatever they trained for, but that they are all-knowledgeable about pretty much everything. They then can make disastrous decisions based on knowledge that is incomplete but that they do not recognize as such.

The fallacy ofomnipotence results from the feeling that if knowledge is power, then omniscience is total power. People who are in positions of power may start to imagine themselves to be all- powerful. Worse, they forget the old saw that power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. At the same time, they fail to reckon with the potential consequences of their actions because of the fourth fallacy.

Wise people look out not just for themselves, but for all toward whom they have any responsibility.

The fallacy ofinvulnerability comes from people’s view that if they are all-knowing and all-powerful, they can do what they want. And because they are all-knowing, they can get away with anything. Most likely, they convince themselves, they won’t get caught. Even if they do, they figure they can weasel their way out of being punished because they are smarter than those who have caught up with them.

If foolish (but smart and often highly accomplished) people commit these fallacies, what do wise people do?

I define wisdom as the application of intelligence and experience toward the attainment of a common good. This attainment involves a balance among (a) intrapersonal (one’s own), (b) interpersonal (other people’s), and (c) extrapersonal (more than personal, such as institutional) interests, over the short and long terms. Thus, wise people look out not just for themselves, but for all toward whom they have any responsibility.

An implication of this view is that simply being smart is not enough. It is important to be wise, too.

There are several reasons why schools should seriously consider including instruction in wisdom-related skills in the school curriculum.

First, knowledge is insufficient for wisdom and certainly does not guarantee satisfaction, happiness, or behavior that looks beyond self-interest. Wisdom seems a better vehicle to the attainment of these goals.

Second, wisdom provides a way to enter considered and deliberative values into important judgments. One cannot be wise and at the same time impulsive, mindless, or immoral in one’s judgments.

Third, wisdom represents an avenue to creating a better, more harmonious world. Dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin may have been knowledgeable. They may even have been good critical thinkers, at least with regard to the maintenance of their own power. They were not wise.

Fourth and finally, students, who later will become parents and leaders, are always part of a greater community. Hence, they will benefit from learning to judge rightly, soundly, and justly on behalf of their community.

If the future is plagued with conflict and turmoil, this instability does not simply reside out there somewhere. It resides and has its origin in ourselves. For all these reasons, students need not only to recall facts and to think critically (and even creatively) about the content of the subjects they learn, but also to think wisely about it.

Wisdom teaches students to understand things from diverse points of view across time and space.

Wisdom can be taught in the context of any subject matter. Our own current research, funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation, involves infusing teaching for wisdom into American history. Students learn to think wisely, and especially to understand things from diverse points of view across time and space. For example, what one group might call a “settler,” another might call an “invader.” What one group might call “Manifest Destiny,” another group might call “land theft.” Students also learn that in the current world, peace, or at least absence of conflict, depends in large part upon being able to understand how other nations and cultures see problems and their solutions differently from the way we do. The goal is not necessarily to accept these other points of view, or even necessarily to achieve some kind of accommodation, but rather to understand that resolution of difficult life problems requires people to want to understand each other and to reach a resolution, whenever possible, that all of those people can somehow live with. In our own research, students being taught to think wisely are being compared with a control group that learns the historical material in a
standard way.

The road to teaching for wisdom is bound to be a rocky one. First, entrenched educational structures, whatever they may be, are difficult to change. Wisdom is not taught in schools. In general, it is not even discussed.

Second, many people will not see the value of teaching something that does not have as its primary focus the raising of conventional test scores. Teaching for wisdom is not inconsistent with raising test scores, but teaching to tests is not its primary goal. Teaching for wisdom relates to President Bush’s “fourth R"— responsibility—more closely than it relates to the conventional “three R’s” that tend to be tested.

Third, wisdom is much more difficult to develop than is the kind of achievement that can be developed and then readily tested via multiple-choice tests, such as “What is the capital of France?”

What do we wish to maximize through our schooling? Is it just knowledge? Is it just intelligence? Or is it also wisdom? If it is wisdom, then we need to put our students on a much different course.

Finally, people who have gained influence and power in a society via one means— through money, high test scores, parental influence, or whatever—are unlikely to want either to give up that power or to see a new criterion be established on which they do not rank as favorably. Thus, there is no easy path to wisdom or teaching for wisdom. There never was, and probably never will be.

Wisdom might bring us a world that would seek to better itself and the conditions of all the people in it. At some level, we as a society have a choice. What do we wish to maximize through our schooling? Is it just knowledge? Is it just intelligence? Or is it also wisdom? If it is wisdom, then we need to put our students on a much different course. We need to value not only how they use their outstanding individual abilities to maximize their attainments, but how they use their individual abilities to maximize the attainments of others as well.

We need, in short, to value wisdom. And then we need to remember that wisdom is not just about what we think, but more importantly, how we act.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Teaching for Wisdom in Our Schools


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