Not What You Know, but How You Use It:
Teaching for Wisdom
of Higher Education, Friday,
June 28, 2002, by Robert Sternberg
Karadzic, wanted for war crimes committed in Bosnia, is, if anything,
well educated. He is a physician, trained as a psychiatrist. Unfortunately,
he is not alone among war criminals in his attainment of impressive educational
credentials: Many top-ranking Nazis were highly educated, possessing doctoral
degrees of various kinds. Similarly, today's compleat terrorist is not
an uneducated young man yanked off the streets, but a well-educated, carefully
trained weapon of mass destruction.
education, and the intellectual and academic skills it provides, furnishes
little protection against evil-doing or, for that matter, plain foolishness.
The United States has had some very well-educated politicians and even
presidents whose foolishness in their lives has cost them and their reputations
dearly. The recent Enron and Global Crossing bankruptcies have made clear
that the shenanigans of the well-educated apply to business as well as
politics, and those of us who reside in the groves of academe know that
foolishness can be found there as well.
edited a book, Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (Yale University
Press, 2002), in which scholars who study human intelligence analyze why
smart people are susceptible to actions that seem foolish to the world
at large and often, some time later, even to those who acted foolishly.
My own view is that smart and well-educated people are particularly susceptible
to four fallacies, precisely because they are so skilled:
The high and
mighty often have spectacular rises followed by spectacular falls. Their
falls often occur, in part, because they succumb to those fallacies. Examples
aboundNixon with Watergate, Clinton with Lewinsky, Lay with financial
mischief at Enron, and so forth. What were these people thinking when they
did what they did? According to the view I've sketched, they were thinking
something like this: that they were omniscient, omnipotent, and invulnerable,
and concerned only with themselves instead of others.
- The egocentrism
fallacy, whereby they come to believe that the world revolves, or at
least should revolve, around them. They act in ways that benefit them,
regardless of how that behavior affects other people.
- The omniscience
fallacy, whereby they come to believe that they know all there is to
know and therefore do not have to listen to the advice and counsel of
- The omnipotence
fallacy, whereby they come to believe that their brains and education
somehow make them all-powerful.
- The invulnerability
fallacy, whereby they come to believe not only that they can do what
they want, but that others will never be clever enough to figure out
what they have done, or to get back at them.
was thought, and many people still believe, that intelligence and/or education
are the answer to many of the world's problems. Luis Alberto Machado,
who in the early 1980s was Venezuela's minister for the development of
intelligenceprobably the first such official in world historybelieved
that higher intelligence somehow would create better, more humane people.
And a variety of studies shows that higher levels of education are associated
with higher intelligence. Research by James Flynn, of the University of
Otago, in New Zealand, has shown that, during the 20th century,
IQs increased by an average of about nine points per generation. (One
could not detect the increase simply from looking at standardized-test
scores, because the tests are adjusted every so often to bring the mean
IQ back to 100.) That increase, essentially worldwide, was probably due
in part to better education. But what does such an advantage confer upon
rose, the 20th century also saw historic levels of massacres
and genocides, not just in Nazi-occupied Europe, but also in Bosnia, Rwanda,
Burundi, Cambodia, the Soviet Union, and many other places. As the example
of Karadzic points out, some of the most highly intelligent and educated
people use their skills cynically, to foment hate and violence. So whatever
benefits go along with increased intelligence, wisdom does not necessarily
appear to be one of them. Indeed, focusing exclusively on the development
of academic skills may take time away from activities that might help
to develop wisdom.
to be done? Although I do not claim to have any solution to the problems
of hate and foolishness, I do believe that we need to rethink our goals
in education. Increased academic skills may be necessary for many kinds
of success, but they are not sufficient. Students need something more.
In my work and that of my colleagues at Yale University's Center for the
Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise, we are seeking a
solutionteaching students from roughly age 10 or so to think wisely.
Underlying this program is the view that we need to teach students not
only knowledge but also how to use that knowledge well.
for our instruction is my own "balance theory" of wisdom: People are wise
to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good.
They do so by balancing, in their courses of action, their own interests
with those of others and those of larger entities, like their school,
their community, their country, even God. And they balance these interests
over the long and the short terms. They adapt to existing environments,
or shape those environments, or select new environments to achieve ends
that include, but go well beyond, their own self-interest. Because they
gain a perspective both on themselves and on others, they are unlikely
to fall prey to the four fallacies.
is not to teach values but to help children develop positive values of
their own that promote social welfare. We try to give students a framework
in which to develop those valuesseeing things from others' perspectives
as well as one's own, and thinking not just about one's interests but
also about a common good. In some ways, our views are in contrast to those
of many educational programs, which stress the acquisition of knowledge
but not how such knowledge will be used. The high-stakes testing movement,
for example, seems to emphasize knowledge acquisition much more than the
socially desirable use of that knowledge.
for wisdom means helping students to know what they know but also to know
what they do not know, and even, at a given time, cannot know. Wise scholars
realize that learning is lifelong, that there is no end in sight to what
they can learn to broaden and deepen their work. Foolish ones may believe
that they, and even they alone, have discovered "the truth," and as a
result, stop growing intellectually from that point onward.
for wisdom also means helping students to think dialogicallyto be
able to understand other people's points of view, whether or not one agrees
with such views. Successful negotiations of any kind, whether in a close
relationship, a work environment, or an international setting, typically
involve such an ability to see things as others see them.
share credit, because they see things from the standpoint of those who
collaborate with them. Foolish scholars may hog credit, thinking that
it will be to their greater glory. It may bein the short runbut
in the long run, it costs them more than it benefits them, in terms of
lost reputation and the consequent unwillingness of others to work with
may be concerned that teaching for wisdom amounts to teaching values.
In fact, it is teaching that encourages students to develop their own
values while understanding multiple points of view. At the same time,
teaching for wisdom recognizes that there are certain valueshonesty,
sincerity, doing toward others as you would have them do toward youthat
are shared the world over by the great ethical systems of many cultures.
course on teaching for wisdom, used now in the sixth grade in six schools,
is included in American-history courses, where students learn to understand
this history not only from the standpoint of the European-American majority
culture, but also from the standpoints of other cultures, within the United
States and abroad. This means that American history is not taught as though
everything the United States has ever done is morally right and not in
need of questioning. For example, students learn that what Americans may
have seen as manifest destiny, Mexicans or Native Americans may have seen
as the theft of their land.
for wisdom can be made part of any subject matter, because wisdom is a
way of looking at the world, a vision that we have seen in such leaders
as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.
The wisdom displayed during the brief presidency of Mandela in South Africa
stands in sharp contrast to that of Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe.
Both were resistance heroes against oppression, but Mandela brought his
country out of a swamp of hatred and retribution, while Mugabe has entrenched
his country more and more firmly within the swamp.
conflict in the Middle East is a good example of a situation where wisdom
is sorely neededwhere it is essential to find a path to some kind
of common good that will benefit all parties to the conflict. Otherwise,
the conflict shows no sign of ever abating.
risks falling deeper and deeper into that swamp. Teaching for wisdom may
be our best hope of pulling ourselves out of it.
J. Sternberg is a professor of psychology and education at Yale University
and director of its Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies,