Is the U.S. Education System Producing a Society of “Smart Fools”?

Had wisdom been a basic curriculum objective, my career as teacher would have been far more fulfilling.

Robert Sternberg sounded an alarm about the influence of standardized tests on American society. Sternberg, who has studied intelligence and intelligence testing for decades, is well known for his “triarchic theory of intelligence,” which identifies three kinds of smarts: the analytic type reflected in IQ scores; practical intelligence, which is more relevant for real-life problem solving; and creativity.

 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.

IQ rose 30 points in the 20th century around the world, and in the U.S. that increase is continuing. That’s huge; that’s two standard deviations, which is like the difference between an average IQ of 100 and a gifted IQ of 130. We should be happy about this but the question I ask is: If you look at the problems we have in the world today—climate change, income disparities in this country that probably rival or exceed those of the gilded age, pollution, violence, a political situation that many of us never could have imaged—one wonders, what about all those IQ points? Why aren’t they helping?

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 ... be developing an incomplete set of skills—and we need to look at things that will make the world a better place.

Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values.

You know, it’s easy to think of smart people but it’s really hard to think of wise people. ... we don’t test for it, so there’s no incentive for schools to pay attention.

Can we test for wisdom and can we teach it?
You learn wisdom through role-modeling. You can start learning that when you are six or seven.

Basically, ethical reasoning involves eight steps: seeing that there’s a problem to deal with (say, you see your roommate cheat on an assignment); identifying it as an ethical problem; seeing it as a large enough problem to be worth your attention (it’s not like he’s just one mile over the speed limit); seeing it as personally relevant; thinking about what ethical rules apply; thinking about how to apply them; thinking what are the consequences of acting ethically—because people who act ethically usually don’t get rewarded; and, finally, acting. What I’ve argued is ethical reasoning is really hard. Most people don’t make it through all eight steps.

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. [emphasis mine]

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Most people don't make it through all eight steps.

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