War on Wisdom “Bring the Family Address”

Szegedy-Maszak, M. (July/August, 2012). War on wisdom: Bring the family address. Observer. Association for Psychological Science. Vol 25(6).

By Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, Observer

Excerpt: There are many ways to do the right thing and most of them are flawed. One can meticulously adhere to rules, for example, or eagerly perform for various incentives, financial or otherwise. We can avoid the sticks and savor the carrots.

And yet, as Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, told the large audience gathered for his “Bring the Family Address” at the 24th APS Annual Convention, within each of these conventional forms of assuring that the “right” thing is done, reside a small minefield of problems that have crippled us as a society.....

“Wise people know when and how to make the exception to every rule,” Schwartz said.

Wisdom, he said, is “moral jazz.” A great jazz musician is a genius of improvisation, and so are those who are wise. Wise people also possess simple empathy and the ability to choose among virtues or rules when they conflict. There is often a choice between being honest and being kind, and wise people make the right choice.

The essential common ingredient for all of these qualities is experience. As Schwartz explained, “No one is born wise; Everyone is born with the capacity to be wise.”

That capacity, however, seems to be undermined constantly. The tyranny of the rulebook has resulted in a crippling lack of opportunity to use judgment and to sometimes fail. Learning from mistakes is the essence of learning, and yet society offers few opportunities to do just that, meeting each failure with a battery of new rules.

In our society and in our professions, wisdom must be nurtured. This approach requires relinquishing control so that others can take a risk and make a mistake. Exemplars of moral wisdom must be recognized and heralded. Virtues are not taught in a classroom, Schwartz pointed out, they are taught by example. It’s no wonder that children who want to be lawyers look to Atticus Finch, not someone doing mergers and acquisitions.

Despite the rather bleak picture of society that he painted, Schwartz assured the audience that he was genuinely optimistic about the future, and not saying that to make them happy. The two great determinants of happiness and well-being are gratifying work and gratifying connections to others. Both rely on practical wisdom to flourish. And from this, transformation of our institutions can begin.


Read the article.

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

  • bjhunter said:

    I became a lawyer (not now practicing), but I didn't look to Atticus Finch; I was reading Supreme Court cases as a teenager, and couldn't believe how fortunate I was to live in a country where such a "wise" decision like Brown v. The Board of Education (ending slavery), particularly as against the politics of the time, could prevail.  I once thought I wanted to be a constitutional lawyer.  Though I'm not today, I do think that those seeking examples of wisdom can look to Supreme Court decisions like these.

    October 1, 2012 7:16 PM
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