To be honest, you’ve probably heard it all before if you’re a current or recent student. Our collective obsession with standardized tests has crowded out the focus we should be providing on qualities like creativity, practical problem-solving, and ethical reasoning.
Even though I’ve heard people give the same diagnoses for our educational system, this article was interesting in part because the interviewee, Robert Sternberg, claimed that we should add wisdom to the list of skills —like creativity— that should be taught in school. It made my ears perk up to hear this coming from a bona fide scientist rather than a philosopher or cultural critic. An excerpt:
(bold is the questioner)
Our overemphasis on narrow academic skills—the kinds that get you high grades in school—can be a bad thing for several reasons. You end up with people who are good at taking tests and fiddling with phones and computers, and those are good skills, but they are not tantamount to the skills we need to make the world a better place.
Do we know how to cultivate wisdom?
Yes, we do. A whole bunch of my colleagues and I study wisdom. Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values.
The division between technical competencies and a type of “soft” reasoning ability reminds me of a distinction that philosophers have made for centuries. In a nutshell, there are two types of reasoning, or “rationalities:” Instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental rationality concerns itself with selecting the best means to achieve a given end. For example, the road tripper who is figuring out the best arrangement to pack her gear in her trunk so everything will fit is exercising instrumental rationality. Intrinsic rationality deals with setting the goals/ends an actor may strive towards. If the same road tripper deliberates between driving to Yosemite or Las Vegas, she exercises intrinsic rationality in weighing how much she values sweeping vistas of mountains and forests versus casinos.
In this view, the critique against modern schooling seems to be that we’re getting really good at cultivating certain types of instrumental thinking in students, but are ignoring all things intrinsic. Students may be damn good on the ACT, but they can’t be counted on to think ethically or make value judgements unless those are already given. This, coupled with the fact that the institutions our students spend the majority their time in tend to emphasize performance and prestige above all else, leads to an environment that is successful at producing “people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense,” according to Sternberg.
Obviously, this needs to change, but the conversation gets weird to me when we look hard about how Sternberg conceives of the “ethical reasoning” that seems to be part of his conception of wisdom. Rather than describe something that resembles reasoning about ethics and morals, he seems to say we should take those as givens and think about how to implement them.
Basically, ethical reasoning involves eight steps:  seeing that there’s a problem to deal with (say, you see your roommate cheat on an assignment);  identifying it as an ethical problem;  seeing it as a large enough problem to be worth your attention (it’s not like he’s just one mile over the speed limit);  seeing it as personally relevant;  thinking about what ethical rules apply;  thinking about how to apply them;  thinking, “What are the consequences of acting ethically?”—because people who act ethically usually don’t get rewarded;  and, finally, acting. What I’ve argued is that ethical reasoning is really hard. Most people don’t make it through all eight steps.
This is beginning to look a lot like the instrumental rationality that we’re trying to escape from, especially the “what’s in it for me?” mentality that sneaks through in step 7. Sternberg seems to think our students are receiving the correct ethical principles already, and following an 8-point plan is all that is necessary. This description of what needs to happen doesn’t quite explain the presence of the social ills he wants to combat, unless you believe that people do have socially constructive values, but something goes wrong in the Sternberg 8-point™ plan so they never end up acting on them. This is possible, but it is much easier to explain the same phenomena as originating from deficient values/lack thereof as opposed to thinking everyone is a saint on the inside but can’t make the connection between  and , for example.
In any common-sense conception of wisdom, critical thinking plays a large part. Questioning the “ends” is part of what makes intrinsic rationality such an interesting concept, and potentially useful (instrumental — hah!) in achieving what Sternberg wants to. Rather than banking on our educational institutions to provide us with the correct values off the bat, we can task our students to engage in a little bit of intrinsic rationality and interrogate the ideas they come across. Hopefully, after reflection and a bit of adolescent angst, they arrive on the side of altruism, curiosity, civic engagement, and a deep concern for the well-being of the world, rather than the tribalism Sternberg describes.
Perhaps Sternberg is using “wisdom” and in a sense different than mine, but I’ll claim his idea of it doesn’t look like the wisdom we want. Part of wisdom is indeed using your “abilities not just for your own selfish ends,” yet, the decision to be altruistic must be a result of autonomous reasoning as opposed to the internalization of dogma that only happens to be constructive