Testing for Wisdom?

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.
Photo credit: Ed Menendez (CC-By-SA 2.0)

I noticed an article in Scientific American entitled “Is the U.S. Education System Producing a Society of Smart Fools?

They interviewed Cornell University psychologist Robert Sternberg who annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science they said sounded the alarm about standardized testing.

He addressed problems with IQ tests and college entrance exams that are selecting and rewarding people who have a particular kind of intelligence, but not the intelligence needed to solve significant challenges.

Tests like the SAT, ACT, the GRE—what I call the alphabet tests—are reasonably good measures of academic kinds of knowledge, plus general intelligence and related skills. They are highly correlated with IQ tests and they predict a lot of things in life: academic performance to some extent, salary, level of job you will reach to a minor extent—but they are very limited. What I suggested in my talk today is that they may actually be hurting us. 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.

He argues we must factor other variables with intelligence to cultivate the problem-solvers our society needs.

What I argue is that intelligence that’s not modulated and moderated by creativity, common sense and wisdom is not such a positive thing to have. What it leads to is people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense. We may not just be selecting the wrong people, we may be developing an incomplete set of skills—and we need to look at things that will make the world a better place.

He says wisdom is needed.

You know, it’s easy to think of smart people but it’s really hard to think of wise people. I think a reason is that we don’t try to develop wisdom in our schools. And we don’t test for it, so there’s no incentive for schools to pay attention.

He then notes that schools teach what they test, and to get them to learn wisdom, he believes, we should start to test wisdom.

If we start testing for these broader kinds of skills, schools will start to teach to them, because they teach to the test. My colleagues and I developed assessments for creativity, common sense and wisdom. We did this with the Rainbow Project, which was sort of experimental when I was at Yale. And then at Tufts, when I was dean of arts and sciences, we started Kaleidoscope, which has been used with tens of thousands of kids for admission to Tufts. They are still using it. But it’s very hard to get institutions to change. It’s not a quick fix. Once you have a system in place, the people who benefit from it rise to the top and then they work very hard to keep it.

I have problems with this approach. First, I am not convinced we can teach wisdom in formal classroom settings. Sternberg is right that one can learn from role modeling, but how much can be done in school? Very little. Wisdom is something acquired through experience which takes time.

Second, can you test for wisdom in a standardized way? Who decides what is wise? Will this just be another way to label our kids? Also, is substituting assessments a solution? Wisdom, like perseverance, grit, and other characteristics social emotional learning focuses on is subjective. What is considered wise by some is considered folly by others.

So I’m doubtful that we can assess wisdom in a standardized way and I am not convinced that we should.

3 thoughts on “Testing for Wisdom?

  1. To accurately define and achieve wisdom seems to me to be a very difficult thing. I believe it will best be realized by the long journey and varied experiencies of life which leads to the recognition and understanding of the complexities of it.

  2. Cardinal John Henry Newman was universally acknowledged to be one of the towering figures of his generation, even by his enemies, of which he had many. He had this to say: “I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country [England], were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.” The Cardinal was using this hyperbolic statement to make the point that the prevailing vision of “the good life” among the leaders and experts of his country was totally off course.

    The same point could be made here about those who peddle Wisdom and its fellow abstractions so popular now in the portfolio of social and emotional learning — Grit, Creativity, Truth, Beauty, Collaboration, etc., etc. — as the proper object of education. Anyone who claims that “wisdom” can — and should — be taught is seriously deficient in that quality. Anyway, it is clear that “wisdom” as here presented is simply an adjunct of the unexamined goal of “making the world a better place.”

    How about applying some “critical thinking” here. The classical tradition in education hewed to the principle of the transmission of knowledge and the training of the intellect. It led students with reverence and respect through the study of “the best that has been thought and said,” primarily in Greek and Latin culture. In this sense it was profoundly conservative in spirit, not utopian. The educational program was rigid but it produced the most extraordinarily varied personalities and thinkers over the ages. Clearly, in the aggregate, the “creativity” of those who emerged from such a regimen was not impaired in the least by its constraints.

    It produced the geniuses of the American founding, among others. The amalgam of an array of views that was far more wide-ranging than often presented certainly contributed to “making the world a better place.” And the Founders certainly displayed “wisdom,” as a group. But they didn’t get there by “studying wisdom.” They got there by studying the works of wise men and continually adding to their store of knowledge and experience.

    Subsuming education to abstractions like Wisdom is a form of indoctrination. It should be avoided like the plague.

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