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Practical Wisdom Hardcover – December 30, 2010
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It's in our nature to want to succeed. It's also human nature to want to do right. But we've lost how to balance the two. How do we get it back?
Practical Wisdom can help. "Practical wisdom" is the essential human quality that combines the fruits of our individual experiences with our empathy and intellect-an aim that Aristotle identified millennia ago. It's learning "the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time." But we have forgotten how to do this. In Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe illuminate how to get back in touch with our wisdom: how to identify it, cultivate it, and enact it, and how to make ourselves healthier, wealthier, and wiser.
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It's easy read - and still worth the time spend.
At the heart of the book is an application of Aristotelian ethics to an analysis of what has gone wrong with a set of core professions - law, medicine, teaching, and banking. Aristotle argued that ethics is not something we learn in a book somewhere and then go out and apply. Rather ethics is an everyday practice of learning to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, and in the right amounts. It involves balancing and optimizing multiple different and often conflicting goals. When our friend asks if we like her new hair cut, we want to be empathic and honest, we want her to look good and feel appreciated. And it takes practical wisdom to know the right thing to say, in the right way, at the right time. And it is like this with everything we do in life. The presentation of this material thus far is solid and lucid, though far from groundbreaking.
The problem is that we have neglected practical wisdom and instead focused on rules and incentives. Something has gone dreadfully wrong in our ability to read situations and to know how to act. It is as if we no longer trust ourselves and one another and can think of no better way of moderating our behavior than to regulate it with policies. This is a groundbreaking application of Aristotelian ethics to institutional breakdown. The problem, they are saying, is not too much government or a lack of the right programs but the way we behave. But what they have to say about our behavior is completely different from anything you will find in most personal development and spiritual books. Yet, it is easy to imagine at this stage that we are dealing with yet another libertarian railing against rules. But while the authors do not take positions on the political spectrum, this is far from another libertarian rant about regulations.
What is unique here is the answer they provide to institutional collapse: we need to provide the space for people to more fully engage their work, and the people working need to engage it in the right way. They need to recognize the ethos of their profession, the purpose, or perhaps we could say the mission. They need to recognize the various values and goals they seek to accomplish. And they need to develop the capacity to see which values and goals are appropriate for the circumstances. This can be accomplished through experience. It cannot be learned in a book and it cannot be fostered through incentives, though some policies will do a better job of creating space for this wisdom to be practiced and for it to arise. Rather, through experience we learn to recognize patterns, and in seeing a pattern that we recognize, given sufficient conscious experience, we will know what to do. For life is vastly more complex than textbook moral dilemmas.
The book highlights the hollowness of a variety of institutions, covering all of the major professions. And while I have seen analyses of each of them, few authors have taken on all of them at once. So this is more comprehensive than yet another analysis of the health care system or the finance industry. And because it is a comprehensive institutional critique, it could also be said to be a cultural critique. And while many authors, stretching deep into American history, have explored American shallowness and glibness, a lack of the capacity to see nuances and to do what is most fitting, I am aware of no one who has matched such a critique with an ethical answer. If these are the problems of the American character and American institutions, then there is an ethical practice that can transform our institutions, transform our culture, and transform ourselves. That practice is practical wisdom. This goes straight to the heart of what has long been ailing America and provides an answer that is difficult to reject. If many of the reviewers seem to have missed the point, this may because they themselves lack an eye for what is fitting. It is a subtle answer, and while the examples are abundant, it would be easy for the reader to collapse their answer into just a critique of institutional breakdown or a simple self help book. It is neither and so much more.
Now those who have read the book may notice that I added a little. The authors do not mention a deep critique of the America character, and perhaps if they did, the controversy would have sold more books. Nor do they discuss much about more recent developments that have driven our turn toward rules and regulations. Answers might range from information overload to increasing levels of diversity to increases in human freedom to the breakdown in social norms. There are answers for all of these challenges, but as far as I am aware, no one has provided practical wisdom as the answer. In a personal interview with Barry Schwartz, he appeared to concur with my suggestion that these were some of the causes behind the shift. And perhaps the book would have grabbed more of us by the shirt collar if the authors had mentioned these things. American society at the dawn of the twenty-first century is radically complex, and we are still struggling with how to manage that complexity.
My criticism of the book is unusual in that I don't think the authors went far enough in applying their own framework. In other words, I think they are able to answer more problems than they seem to recognize. Take cultural diversity. One school of thought says we need to be more sensitive to difference. Another school of thought says we need to integrate cultural difference into a wider set of shared norms. But while Practical Wisdom does not touch on the issue, it provides an answer. What we need to do with difference is engage it, and through continually engaging our human differences, we will begin to see what sort of engagement is the right kind at the right time. Through engaging differences in this way, we might develop new norms of human interaction. This is how we make a Boston or New York or San Francisco work. Or take environmental ethics. The last few decades have seen a massive increase in the number of beings and things we need to take into ethical consideration: how we travel, where we drive, what we eat. To those of us who take animal suffering or greenhouse gas emissions seriously, the burden of ethical commitments can become unbearable. Most just try to throw off the burden by making glib remarks about vegetarians or treating climate change as a hoax. But Practical Wisdom provides a framework through which we might optimize the application of this mountain of commitments. Vegetarians could do far more good if they learned the right way to engage their concern for animals, in the right amounts, at the right, all the while paying attention to the right times for personal and the right times for political change.
The book also pulls the rug out from libertarian conservatism. For they may be reacting to the exact same things that the authors identify as being problematic, but their answer lacks compassion, is divisive, and may not actually accomplish what they want. The authors could have been more explicit here and used that challenge to draw attention to their very important arguments. But the book also opens the gates to a third way in American politics. Call it the civil sphere. Perhaps we as a society could learn to identify institutional problems that are not conducive to policy solutions, either of the minimalist or maximalist kind. Perhaps we could identify areas where there is a need for more space free from regulations. Imagine uniting the teachers unions with contractors, entrepreneurs with liberal legal rights groups, doctors with creative rebels. The agenda would be neither left, nor right, nor center, but entirely new. Any politician who adopted these arguments would find a ready constituency of disengaged swing voters.
There is another way the work could be taken further. In the tradition of Aristotle, the authors suggest that practical wisdom cannot be studied but must be learned through experience. But one can imagine creating exercises that speed up the learning process immensely by helping us to identify what it is like to experience practical wisdom within the context of one's profession. Here is what I have in mind. Spend some time identifying and writing up the mission of your work. Then list the goals, values, principles, and objectives you seek to accomplish. Now imagine a challenging scenario of the sort you often confront on the job. Notice how it feels in your body. Now try to imagine what it would feel like if you could accomplish several of your objectives at once. Notice how this feels. Now imagine other similar scenarios, noticing how it feels to get the response right. Do this repeatedly and regularly until it is second sense. Having done such an exercise, a person could much more quickly learn practical wisdom.
If the authors failed to include such exercises, perhaps it is because of the groundbreaking nature of the work. This book simply opens a gateway into a whole new way of looking at being in the world and there isn't the space to go into all of the applications. The point of these criticisms is not to say that the book was lacking, but rather that it was so ripe as to require a follow up. Read it and read it well. Perhaps if you read it with practical wisdom, you too will see it to be a masterpiece.
The authors carefully discuss how the legal, medical, financial and educational systems are being impacted by this steady erosion. The information in the book is very depressing, almost alarming.
Glimmers of hope (system changers) are applauded throughout, and at the end of the book. I longed for more examples.
Practical Wisdom's subtitle "The Right Way to Do the Right Thing" would make a fabulous main title and subject for a much needed follow up book. I want so badly to read page after page about various system changers and what they are doing to lift themselves and others out of the rampant and insidious demoralization that Practical Wisdom has brought to light.
Surely there is enough material out there to fill a book. I really, really hope so.
One of the most impacting stories, and example of the opposite of practical wisdom, in the book relates to my home state of Texas. For many reasons the educational growth of students in the Texas educational system is declining. Authors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe explain some of the reasons. One reason is school administrators focus on the Texas Accountability System (TAC) test scores of each school. Because government officials put too much emphasis on the scores, the "You get what you measure" syndrome occurs. Teachers "teach to the test". Consultants hired to show teachers and principals how to improve TAC scores use a triage method of green, red and yellow. Teachers are told to classify students who will pass the test will little or no help as GREEN. Students who will most likely fail the test, even with lots of tutoring, are classified RED. Those few students who can pass the test with teaching and tutoring are labeled YELLOW. Yellow is where the teachers are told to spend the bulk of their time during the school year. If you have a GREEN or RED child, they will not get much attention.
My daughter took our three grandsons out of a "good" Texas school district last year to home school them. Why? Because they are all GREEN and were bored to death with public education.
Schwartz and Sharpe explain why there is a lack of practical wisdom in America's healthcare, legal and banking system. I hope lots of people read and apply the wisdom in this book.