3 Can we teach wisdom?

Brad C. Anderson

A wise society is built upon wise organizations. Wise organizations, in turn, arise from the wisdom of individuals within them. Is wisdom, however, something we can teach?

The fun thing with that question is, if the answer is no, we can close this text and turn on the TV. The following section highlights the challenges of teaching wisdom. The subsequent section argues that there are reasons to keep the TV off for a while despite these challenges.

The Challenge of Teaching Wisdom

We draw on wisdom to deal with the complexity of real life. Classroom environments and textbooks, at best, present simplified models of reality. Creating the real muck and messiness of life in the classroom is often impossible.[1]

We draw on wisdom when knowledge is lacking or flawed–if the answer is clear and known, we do not need wisdom. If no one “knows” the right answer for a particular problem, what right does the teacher have to assign you a grade for your solution?[2]

Wisdom is subjective. Different people perceive different acts as wise depending on their situation, attitudes, cultural beliefs, and so on.[3][4][5] Without an objective measure, how can a teacher grade your wisdom with any validity? If wisdom is a matter of opinion, can a teacher teach you how to act wisely?

Moreover, people acquire wisdom over a lifetime–it is a neverending journey. It is through the accumulation of experience over the years that one achieves wisdom, which classrooms and textbooks cannot replicate.[6]

Importantly, wisdom is action-oriented–it is doing the right thing. The teacher may teach you how to approach a problem. You may write a fantastic paper on a proposed solution, receiving excellent marks in return. Will that give you the courage to act, however, when you are in a real-world situation where the stakes are high and the consequences of failure severe?[7]

Wisdom cannot be taught. We can, however, identify the skills that wise people rely on and develop those skills. If we cannot teach wisdom, perhaps we can foster its development.

A Path to Developing Wisdom [8]

Values guide wise action. Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action. Wisdom is action-oriented. If you wish to develop your wisdom, learn the role values play in guiding human behaviour. Recognize the values operating in organizations and how they interact and conflict. Develop your capacity to manage value conflicts productively.

To develop your wisdom, gain knowledge about your discipline and the world around you. Recognize, though, that our understanding is limited and flawed. Therefore, strengthen your ability to think critically so you can navigate through uncertainty. Recognize that rationality takes many forms–different disciplines learn different things and see the world in varied ways. Be willing to learn from others. The solutions to our hardest problems come not from asserting our knowledge over others but from creatively combining knowledge to produce innovations.

If you aspire to wisdom, know that you must act. To act effectively requires that you understand how power operates in organizations. Develop your political savvy and strengthen your social and emotional intelligence to manage conflicts and facilitate collective action.

 

Key Takeaways

Wisdom itself cannot be taught because

  • It is impossible to emulate real-world complexity in the classroom.
  • We rely on wisdom when knowledge is insufficient, so who is to say what is “wise.”
  • Wisdom is subjective
  • People acquire wisdom over a lifetime of experience.
  • Wisdom is doing the right thing in the real world, not the classroom.

You can develop the skills upon which wise people rely.

  • Learn the role values play in organizations and how they interact
  • Develop critical thinking skills and awareness that different people understand the world differently. Be willing to learn from others.
  • Understand how power operates in your organization so that you can act effectively

  1. Weick, K. E. (2007). Forward. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. ix–xiii). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
  2. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  3. McNamee, S. (1998). Reinscribing Organizational Wisdom and Courage: The Relationally Engaged Organization. In S. Srivastva & D. L. Cooperrider (Eds.), Organizational Wisdom and Executive Courage1 (pp. 101–117). San Francisco: The New Lexington Press.
  4. Pitsis, T. S., & Clegg, S. R. (2007). Interpersonal Metaphysics--"We Live in a Political World": The Paradox of Managerial Wisdom. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. 399–422). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
  5. Sampson, E. E. (1998). The Political Organization of Wisdom and Courage. In S. Srivastva & D. L. Cooperrider (Eds.), Organizational Wisdom and Executive Courage (pp. 118–133). San Francisco: The New Lexington Press.
  6. Kessler, E. H., & Bailey, J. R. (2007). Introduction--Understanding, Applying, and Developing Organizational and Managerial Wisdom. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. xv–lxxiv). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
  7. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  8. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

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Can we teach wisdom? by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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