Why We Need Wisdom Taught in Schools

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Prof. Robert Sternberg argues that a national focus on standardized tests and IQ scores is hampering global progress.

Intelligence without wisdom makes one a smart fool. In a fascinating interview with Scientific American, psychologist and Cornell University professor Robert Sternberg explains that the U.S. education system is far too focused on standardized tests and IQ scores. This myopic approach is creating individuals who possess a certain kind of intelligence, but not the kind that helps society to progress in meaningful ways.

Students who score well on tests like the SAT, ACT, and the GRE have good general intelligence and fairly high academic knowledge, but these tests reveal nothing of their creativity, common sense, ethical awareness, or wisdom, despite the fact that these qualities are enormously important in making our world a better place. The tests also filter out many people who do possess those qualities. As Sternberg says:

“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.”

This evaluation may sound harsh to some readers, but Sternberg puts forth an interesting argument. Consider the fact that IQ points have risen 30 points on average in the 20th century, which is enormous, and continue to rise in the United States. Where is the evidence of that increasing intelligence? Sternberg doesn’t see it reflected in responses to modern-day problems:

“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?”

The problem, he argues, is that education lacks wisdom. The school system no longer teaches young people how to be good citizens, uphold good values, engage in ethical reasoning, and use common sense; and as more people distance themselves from religious institutions, there’s even less exposure to these valuable lessons.

Why does it matter, one might ask? Because, without wisdom, “we get people who view the world as being about people like themselves. We get this kind of tribalism.” We get skilled professionals who are good at taking next steps, but lack the ability to be game-changers, to be “redirectors and reinitiators, who start a field over.” We even end up with a society that no longer values ethics and wisdom as it should because they are such unfamiliar concepts.

Sternberg wants universities to change their admissions tests to do a better job at assessing a person’s creativity, common sense, and wisdom. Schools would respond by teaching these concepts to students to ensure they do well on those tests; and then, slowly but surely, a revolution could occur – not only in our schools, but also in our personal and political relationships and responses to environmental crises. In Sternberg’s words, “It’s a no-lose proposition.”