Schwartz and Sharpe on Practical Wisdom, Part II

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Barry Schwartz, Professor of Psychology, and Kenneth Sharpe, Professor of Political Science, recently released their new book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing.

The Gazette sat down with the professors to discuss their collaboration over the years and the concept of practical wisdom articulated in the book and in many of the courses they teach at Swarthmore. Yesterday, the Gazette published a portion of the interview dealing with the origins of their friendship and the mechanics behind their new book. Later in the interview, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe moved on to describing the concept of practical wisdom and how it relates to today’s world.

Practical wisdom is not a skill that you can just teach people. It “fits closely to the idea of a character trait which then enables you to make decisions,” explained Sharpe. Without the requisite character traits like courage, patience and humility, you would not know when or how to use it.

In the book, Schwartz and Sharpe express their dissatisfaction with the institutions that serve us today, and argue that practical wisdom is becoming more and more important as a complement to the rules and incentives that generally govern these structures.

Even though practical wisdom relies on the individual’s traits, Schwartz and Sharpe argued that it makes sense to talk about “wise institutions”: those that are “nurturers of wise people, not makers of wise decisions,” said Schwartz.

For people in the institutions to make wise decisions, a place like Swarthmore College should organize itself so that “the faculty have the opportunity to become wise and use their wisdom in interacting with students. Then students have the opportunity to become wise and to use their wisdom when interacting with one another.”

Similarly, with faculty, Schwartz said that instead of giving them a long list of job duties to accomplish, you want them “to think about what the purpose of their work is, so that they can step in at an unexpected moment, embrace their purpose and improvise if something is not on the list.”

Both Schwartz and Sharpe highlighted how the close student-faculty interaction at Swarthmore facilitates wisdom, even though no time or money is spend actually helping teachers or students become more wise.

Sharpe illustrated the point by using good listening — “which isn’t just how to be quiet but rather how to hear, perceive and discern” — as an example. A wise teacher could encourage good listening in the way in which he or she structures their classroom.

For instance, “an interesting question would be if you could give a big chunk of the grade to students based on class participation,” said Sharpe. Class participation could be interpreted by students as the number of times they can speak in class. It is probable that this structure would undermine listening and encourage interruption.

“The institutional design can encourage or discourage things, in this case, listening, which are very important for wisdom,” Sharpe elaborated.

The interview ended with a discussion on how practical wisdom is also the key to happiness.

According to Schwartz, research on happiness has revealed that, beyond subsistence, “the two things that matter most are close relationships/love and meaningful work.”

“What we suggest in the book is that you can neither work well nor love well without wisdom.”

Once you appreciate the importance of wisdom, the professors say you enter into a virtuous circle, because “wisdom makes you a better husband, a better father, a better friend and a better teacher, doctor or lawyer.”

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