The real crisis? We stopped being wise. – Barry Schwartz – TED

I loaded up a lot of TED videos for my recent trip. Here’s one which I felt had a number of educational implications.

Now, this video starts a little slowly but you’ll see Mr. Schwartz start to get more comfortable and fired up as things progress. Some of these notes are close to quotes but others are rough translations. My own comments are the footnotes. 1

Here are his (and Aristotle’s) two pieces to wisdom.

  • the moral will to do right
  • the moral skill to figure out what right is

Things a wise person knows

  • when and how to make an exception to every rule
  • ow to improvise (real world problems are often ambiguous and ill defined and the context is constantly changing)- a wise person is like a jazz musician who uses the notes on the page but dances around them based on the location and the people on hand
  • knows how to use these moral skills in pursuit of the right aims- to serve others not to manipulate them
  • a wise person is made not born- wisdom is based on experience but not any experience

    • time to get to know the people your serving
    • permission to improvise
    • try new things
    • occasionally fail
    • wise mentors

Brilliance is not enough.

And here is where we really get into some things that are problems with education.

“We hate to do it but we have to follow procedure”

Rules and procedures may be dumb but they spare you from thinking. When things go wrong we reach for two tools- rules and incentives. Neither rules nor incentives are enough to do the job. Rules may improve problems in the short term but they usually create a worse long term situation. Moral skill is chipped away by an over reliance on rules and moral will is destroyed by incentives to do the right thing.

This reliance on rules and incentives is the equivalent of a war on wisdom.

One example of this reliance is American education. He sites scripted, lock step curriculum and points to some crazy warning Kindergarten teachers have to read in Chicago before reading a book about the bath. Essentially, we know why these scripts are here. People don’t trust the judgement of the teacher.

These scripts, these rules are insurance against disaster2 but also a guarantee of mediocrity.

We do need rules but too many rules results in demoralization and then people lose wisdom or simply stop playing.3


1 Maybe I’m adulterating the message for my own ends. I’d watch it myself if I were you.

2 I’d challenge this positive aspect myself. The same person who’s judgement you can’t trust, can’t be trusted to read this script or read it correctly. All these things really do is provide CYA material for upper levels, while at the same time demoralizing and frustrating the teachers you can trust.

3 Sounds a lot like education to me.

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