Book Review: Practical Wisdom

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Practical Wisdom
By Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe

The premise of this book, written by a psychologist (Barry Schwartz, also author of Paradox of Choice) and a political scientist (Kenneth Sharpe), is that we have a society with too many rules and perverse incentives that discourage the cultivation and use of practical wisdom. This may sound at first glance like a modern rehashing of a libertarian perspective, that we should let individual freedom and market forces lead us all to greater happiness and stop meddling government rules and bureaucrats.
But this book deftly shows how de-humanizing incentives can corrupt and undermine practical wisdom in many large institutions, whether they be a public school or a private hospital.  The book is split into four sections. First, what is practical wisdom and why do we need it? Second, the machinery of wisdom. Third, the war on wisdom, and finally, sources of hope.
What is practical wisdom? It begins, say the authors, with Aristotle, who described what he called phronesis. Aristotle’s wisdom in Nichomean Ethics was not a theoretical system of moral rules, but a specific, practical ethics, impossible to describe in general terms. Doing the right thing was not a matter of just knowing the right rules, but knowing the right thing to do, in the right circumstances, with the right person at the right time. And this takes practice. This moral dimension of practice is a compelling one for me, and resonates with how I approach becoming a better teacher.

In the machinery of wisdom, they cover several bits of familiar (for me) territory in modern research in psychological science. First, that decision-making is critically dependent on our emotions. Without emotions, there are no decisions, and without empathy, there is no wisdom. Second, science has a desire to find hidden patterns, the unseen rules that drive our clockwork universe. Science has been wuite successful in this effort, but our human worlds, of education, of law, of medicine, are not at all clockwork, and so complex and uncertain, that rule-based approaches are doomed to fail. Examples of this abound in artificial intelligence research, where we have thought that giving robots cameras, microphones, and an amazing analytical processor would quickly give us computers that could do simple human tasks, like navigate our environment, understand language and recognize objects and faces. But even these simple tasks have proven to be monstrously difficult, because we are doing what our brain does best in these cases, which is to cope with uncertainty and make good educated guesses.  Most computers, while amazing when given a good set of rules in a rigid, predictable environment, are terrible in situations that are context-dependent or uncertain.
So what is the war on wisdom?  The authors begin with judges and mandatory minimums. Mandatory sentencing guidelines erode judges’ ability to make individual decisions based on the circumstances. In other words, it takes away their power to judge. Doctors, through financial incentives are nudged into doing more procedures and seeing more patients per day. Teachers are given strict guidelines on what to teach on what days.  Or if they are not, are nudged towards teaching to a specific high stakes test.
Why do we have this war on wisdom? Of course no one is anti-wisdom, but well-intentioned efforts designed to encourage other characteristics have had horrible side-effects on practical wisdom. In medicine, a value of higher patient autonomy has led doctors to present options, but refuse to give their own (expert) opinions. In law, the system where lawyers are strictly advocates for their clients, rather than also representatives of the court has led to a disregard for the truth and wise solutions. Further, the desire to fully account for their time, and the competitive nature of making partner, has shaped the legal profession for the worse. The “science” of accountability in the legal profession has eroded the wisdom of the profession.  In teaching, seeking to consistently train new teachers and set minimum standards has led to undermining teachers’ ability to learn through practicing their craft.
What are the sources of hope? In law, the authors praise special veterans courts, where judges design sentences and programs to balance the goals of rehabilitation and safety.  In legal training they cite a clinical approach to teaching law, preparing law students using a mentoring apprenticeship. Like many in education,  they propose a portfolio system for evaluating students and teachers, with flexible criteria, allowing teachers to work within their curriculum, with their own judgment.  
While the prose and argument was sometimes a bit lengthy (he says in his typically long-winded blog post), I really recommend this book. It integrated disparate thoughts I have had on large political questions that don’t seem to be engaged by any politicians, or any political party.  I can see how simply leaving people entirely alone to practice (whether it be teaching, judging or healing) could be  corrupting, but the dehumanizing system we currently have is corrupting in a different way, and we seem to be heading further down that road.
In the next post, I am going to pivot on this, and try to integrate some of the insights from this book with another of my intellectual touchstones, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist, and apply them to my own teaching practices.
Other resources:

One more supporting link (maybe more to come)

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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One Response to Book Review: Practical Wisdom

  1. Pingback: “We Believe in Nothing, Lebowski” – Charges of Edu-nihilism and Change I Can Believe In | Cedar's Digest

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