Learning to Be Wise: New Swarthmore Course Teaches 'Practical Wisdom'

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By Carol Brevart-Demm

How do you feel when a friend borrows a small amount of money and doesn’t pay it back? How can you approach the topic without making your friend feel like you’re a creep? What does your friend’s behavior say about how thoughtful he is with respect to you? You face the dilemma of either saying nothing and having your friend’s oversight fester or saying something and having your friend think you small. How do you know what is the “right” thing to do?

Trivial as it may seem, this example contains all the ingredients to illustrate the importance of being able to make a “right” decision in a difficult and complicated situation.

This fall semester, the skills needed to make decisions like this one are being discussed in a new course at Swarthmore called Practical Wisdom. Guided by Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action Barry Schwartz and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science Ken Sharpe, students analyze the concept of practical wisdom—the ability to make “right” judgments, driven by qualities such as compassion, honesty, empathy, responsibility, or commitment—in any given situation. They investigate its necessity in life, the means to acquire it, the social forces that threaten it, and the consequences for society in its absence. And they learn the difference between independently acquired practical wisdom and dependence on predetermined codes or rules for “moral” behavior.

In sessions devoted to theoretical topics, concepts like moral imagination and moral emotion, limits of utilitarianism, and progression from perception to deliberation to action are examined. The choice to begin by investigating the area of friendship was, Schwartz says, “a stroke of accidental genius” because the students can so easily relate to it.

The 25-student class meets for four-and-a-half hours on Monday evenings and in small groups for a minimum of one hour during the week. Required reading includes works by Aristotle, Charles Dickens, Martha C. Nussbaum, and Mark Johnson as well as articles relating to the weekly topics.

Colleagues and collaborators for 25 years, Schwartz and Sharpe wanted to teach about character and virtue as a kind of response to contemporary moral and political trends, which they oppose. During the past two years—including Sharpe’s sabbatical leave last year—the two spent an incalculable number of hours studying individually and “about 1,000 hours” working together to develop the syllabus.

“Conservatives,” says Schwartz, “had sort of cornered the market on virtue talk. Liberals don’t talk about what it means to be good or do good, while all these right-wing people talk about how the liberals are destroying any notion of character and morality.” Sharpe adds that the conservative notion of good character not only excludes important virtues like compassion, empathy, honesty, commitment, and justice but also implies that virtue can be taught according to certain rules.

“For us,” says Sharpe, “the crucial notion of a good character isn’t simply to be a good rule follower but to possess the practical wisdom to decide what it means to do the right thing in the right place at the right time. This notion of practical wisdom—which is an ancient one—just wasn’t part of the current discussion.”

In addition, Schwartz and Sharpe both regard the capitalist marketplace, acclaimed by conservatives as the solution to social ills, as corrosive to character and a principal factor in spawning the very character flaws that conservatives seem to abhor. Meanwhile, liberals rarely apply their critiques to character.

“So,” says Schwartz, “we feel that our idea speaks to both of the two major currents of thinking in America—and that it is critical of both of them. We came to see that wisdom is the central element of virtue and character. None of the traits identified as virtues would get you anywhere unless you had wisdom. You’d be better off with rules.”

Several weeks into the course, the class prepares to discuss the use of practical wisdom in medicine. “Knowing what practical wisdom is really doesn’t tell you what to do,” Schwartz tells the class. The leap from moral understanding to moral conduct is difficult to see. Fifteen short readings offer concrete situations as starting points for the evening’s discussion.

One student presents the situation of an oncologist having to tell a patient she has ovarian cancer. Someone says: “In deciding what to tell a patient, it’s crucial for the doctor to know something about the patient and then to mold the truth to make it bearable.”

“What then about the virtue of honesty?” asks another student.

Another wonders whether an expert doctor with hundreds of patients—about whom he knows nothing but their clinical symptoms—is preferable to a less skilled family physician who sees fewer patients but knows them better. The expert is technically more competent, but the family physician shows more compassion. “Which one would care enough to send you elsewhere, if he didn’t know the answer?” he asks.

Sharpe acknowledges that risks are involved in using judgment. “If your practical wisdom is bad,” he says, “or if there’s none to be had, as in places where there is no pattern to follow, you use rules.” He asks whether it is possible to teach doctors to ask “caring” questions or whether only certain individuals are able to do this: “How is being a virtuous person essential to being a good doctor?”

After four-and-a-half hours of such talk, the students are still vigorously engaged. Discussion is more important than reaching conclusions. “We’re thrilled with the course so far,” says Schwartz.

So, it seems, are the students.

“I love this course,” says Celia Paris ’05. “The first few weeks of the semester, I felt like I couldn’t escape from it. Every decision in my life suddenly seemed to be a morally laden choice requiring indefinable practical wisdom. The course helped me understand the fundamental process of human decision making and how the decisions have implications for character. And I like the focus on how institutions shape and are shaped by certain moral perspectives.”

Sydney Beveridge ’03, a political science major, says: “This is a great experience. What sets this course apart is its emphasis on personal, community, and professional life.”

One of the goals of the course is for the students to learn to appreciate the importance of becoming wise. “We’d like them to develop certain strengths that will enable them to become wise and compassionate decision makers,” Schwartz says.

In affirmation of this, Lillian Ray ’05 says, “I feel like I now have a concept of virtue that I can work with and use to think about decision making.”

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