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Education Does Not Guarantee Wisdom

Regrettably, the focus of our current system of education, a system reliant on the standardization of instruction and outcomes, falls short in addressing some genuine needs facing our nation and the world. We continue to operate in a facts-based system, where "success" is determined by the percentage of correct responses on a standardized measurement tool. This is no longer sufficient, if, indeed, it ever was. Our society needs citizens and leaders who are not just memorizers and who are more than just analytically adept. We need people with developed wisdom.

We have seen the enormous costs of having leaders who are seemingly knowledgeable and intelligent, presumably well educated, yet who are unwise. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not targeting specific or necessarily contemporary leaders here. These are generalized observations over the course of history.) These "leaders" tend to commit several cognitive fallacies:

- Unrealistically optimistic: believing that anything they do will turn out well because they are so brilliant.

- Egocentric: believing that the world revolves around them.

- Falsely omniscient: failing to learn from experience because they believe they know everything.

- Falsely omnipotent: believing that they are all powerful by virtue of their superior skills or education.

- Falsely invulnerable: believing they can get away with almost anything because they are so clever.

- Ethically disengaged: believing that ethical principles apply only to lesser mortals.

These leaders may be smart (educated) but they are simultaneously foolish (unwise).

So, what is this thing called "wisdom"? How does one become wise?

We know that wisdom isn't a function of age. And it isn't something that can be bestowed. Quoting French author Marcel Proust, "We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us." Perhaps, then, acquiring wisdom is partially a function of experience. But is experience alone enough to assure that one will be wise? I don't believe so. To be wise requires perceptive conviction. Nobel prize winning author, Naguib Mahfouz , suggests: "You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions." (Emphasis is mine.)

Wisdom it seems, the function of being wise, is a carefully constructed tapestry of qualities that include experience and knowledge, along with good judgment and personal integrity. It requires insight and the ability to respond sensibly and prudently to what ever is at hand. Here's my working definition: To be wise, one must have the personal courage to act with well-informed purpose in a manner that is consistent with that individual's best interest and the best interests of others.

Many of the 21st century skills discussed in previous posts on this blog, and found in my book The Education Kids Deserve, have enormous potential in guiding students toward the development of wisdom. For example, the opportunity to collaborate with peers and to engage collectively in shared inquiry are some of the skills necessary in developing wisdom. Quoting Sir Ken Robinson from a 2009 interview he conducted with Educational Leadership: "Most original thinking comes through collaboration and through the stimulation of other people's ideas . . . fierce collaboration among people with common interests but with very different ways of thinking." Were we to harness that type of learning and discourse in our classrooms, we would increase the odds of turning out graduates who are both educated and wise.

American writer, photographer and activist Walter Lippmann describes a paradox of wisdom. He writes: "It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf." While refining one's own sense of wisdom, a wise person recognizes the wisdom of others, and aligns with these individuals to develop a community where unfaltering integrity, fairness, equity and good judgment, influenced by education and experience, are the core values. Buoyed by the wisdom of others, a wise person then can effectively embark on the realization of his or her selfless vision.

Intention can only effectively become reality if it is guided by a beacon of wisdom. A good education is not enough. Does our system of education embody the courage to develop wisdom? It must.

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