Associate Professor of Psychology Michel Ferrari
On Teaching for Wisdom
Michel Ferrari is an Associate Professor in the Department of Developmental Psychology & Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also director of Wisdom and Identity Center. His research interests include personal wisdom in people of different ages and from different cultures around the world. He has also edited a number of important books in the field, including The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom and Teaching for Wisdom. He spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about teaching for wisdom and creating wisdom-nurturing classrooms. He also talked about importance of the narrative mode and the role of experience, the many different faces of wisdom and the importance of seeking the broadest cultural frame in our conceptions of wisdom.
On the Scientific Study of Wisdom
How did you first become interested in the study of wisdom?
I did a postdoc with Robert Sternberg in the mid-90s and he was already working on this at that time. My thesis was actually on expertise and various manifestations of that. My PhD was about how people who are more or less expert in Karate learn Tai Chi. That seems a little obscure and unrelated, but it’s related in this way which is ‘What does it mean to be an expert?’ You might understand things differently, that is what a lot of Expertise studies are about, but you have to act differently and you have to have the skill to accomplish certain kinds of things. That’s what really makes you an expert. It’s not just knowing something, but you have to be able to do something. That’s what struck me about wisdom. Wisdom involves people that are able to be successful in managing their own lives and helping other people do the same, raising quality of life for themselves and everyone around them. That’s at least the way I’ve understood it. I really liked his general approach that really is in that line. Here in the University of Toronto, we’re always developing different lines of research, and I thought this would be something interesting to do, especially if you consider it more broadly. Toronto’s such a multicultural city it really strikes you that you have people from all around the world who come with different ideas, different understandings of what it means to live a fulfilling human life. So what would these different groups think about wisdom? Would they mirror our North American understanding or would they have something unique and different in their way of understanding wisdom? So that’s how I got to the sort of things that I’m doing now.
Wisdom involves people that are able to be successful in managing their own lives and helping other people do the same, raising quality of life for themselves and everyone around them.
Whenever I talk to people about wisdom, there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement over its importance, but people are often sceptical about the possibility of actively nurturing wisdom…
We’re also victims, to a certain extent, of our methods. There’s metaphysics and epistemology that goes behind different ways of studying something scientifically, and it’s like ‘This works great for something like Physics, but does it work equally well for something like wisdom?’ But then if you start looking, then you realise there is a huge range of methods available, and then the question becomes ‘What’s the most promising one?’ or ‘What do we want to conclude from that?’ or ‘How generalised do we want to be with what we find?’
On Teaching for Wisdom
Does your research suggest that wisdom can be taught or rather can it only be acquired through direct experience?
I struggle with the question because it seems to me that, in some ways, wisdom is an attribution that’s attached to you by someone else. If someone does something that you didn’t think could be done and it seems like a marvel of insight, then you could say ‘That seems really wise’. Had they failed, you would have said ‘Well, that was a great effort but….’. It could have still been the wisest action if you go into their intent, but part of you feels that it’s not a perfect expression of wisdom. So, if that’s the case, then you can only teach people to approach a situation with the best resources they can. When I say wisdom, I mean some sort of critical insight or maybe even just rational approach to the situation that you’re trying to handle, which is both socially sensitive and engaged. Those all seem like important aspects of wisdom. As I’ve looked into this, I think that there are programs in schools that increasingly deal with these different elements. For example, through Philosophy for Children they’re introducing critical thinking. Social and emotional learning is an overarching theme which is brought into projects like Project Wisdom or Wise Skills. In another vein, you’ve got Positive Education that’s got its own set of 6 Virtues, one of which is wisdom, but the other 5 altogether are what most people in a broader sense would consider wisdom. Or Contemplative Education, in that case they have a focus on mindfulness. All of these things seem like they’re promising elements of what you’d want to teach for wisdom, but it’s coordinating them in a way that would be both sensible to deliver on a mass scale, but also that you would be able to assess it in some way, to show that you really have taught something, as opposed to simply reinforcing what people knew already.
When I say wisdom, I mean some sort of critical insight or maybe even just rational approach to the situation that you’re trying to handle, which is both socially sensitive and engaged.
There’s also the fact that schools can’t do everything. If you say ‘Can wisdom be taught?’ It’s not quite the same as saying ‘Can literacy be taught?’ Some people will drop out of school and they won’t actually learn literacy, or they might have some deficit which might make it extremely difficult for them to learn to read and write. If you use the same logic for teaching for wisdom, then you’d say maybe you could design a program that seems the most promising and would be useful for many students, but not everyone would benefit equally. Some people will come in already predisposed to be successful. Other people will struggle and some people may not be able to really make much use of it. So, can it be taught? I think that all the elements that can be learnt informally if you’re able to be really clear about what they are, often can be taught in a more formal setting, even if it’s through simulations or games set up in the classroom, or simply the way the classroom is organised. Increasingly I’ve been thinking about alternative education programs, like Montessori or Holistic Education. They’ve redesigned the educational experience in ways that seem like they would tap into many of the dimensions that are identified as important to wisdom – be actively engaged, be curious, think deeply about things, be socially coordinated, be sensitive to others, understand themselves and their own abilities. All those things are integral to what it means to be wise. For holistic education it’s about building these types of connections between yourself and others and the world.
They’ve redesigned the educational experience in ways that seem like they would tap into many of the dimensions that are identified as important to wisdom – be actively engaged, be curious, think deeply about things, be socially coordinated, be sensitive to others, understand themselves and their own abilities. All those things are integral to what it means to be wise.
So then the question is ‘Can we scale it up in the kind of formal education system we have in North America?’ Britain might be quite similar. That seems to be a little trickier but, in principle, equally possible. Even in the very way the school is organised – you’ve got grades, you’ve got a path, there are state-wide exams that everyone’s got to do more or less well on. That sets up a kind of individualistic frame of reference that can undermine efforts to say ‘You’re all working together and need to support each other!’ or something like that. ‘You’re all working together – except for this exam when you’re working by yourself, and don’t look at anybody else’s paper!’ So I think some elements of the system are designed in such a way that they work against the kind of things that promote wisdom, but at the same time, that doesn’t have to be the last word. In other aspects you really could emphasise these things that are wisdom-promoting.
I see how assessing people individually can work against some of these social ways of working that might promote wisdom. Are there any effective ways of assessing students whilst they’re working in groups which might be helpful in this situation?
Kurt Fischer has a theory of development about how you work independently on a functional level and how you work optimally when you have social support. That introduces ideas like Dynamic Testing in which you say ‘Okay, What can you do on your own, and what can you do when there are other people supporting you?’ Those are all ways that you could still make the point that, if we get some support – we can do better. So even if you graded each person on their own, but under conditions like that, that could work. It’s also important that the grading is not about ‘You’ve passed, so you get to advance, but you’ve failed so go back to square one.’ That type of summative assessment can be demoralising if you’re not one of the winners. Rather it’s important that it’s a diagnostic assessment in which you say ‘Okay let’s see what you could do with some support on. I think I see what you’re main problems are – these two areas. Let’s continue to work on that.’ It’s important that you have a set-up in which you’re combining both critical engagement, and a kind of social sensitivity, as we said before. Here in Ontario at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), Marlene Scardamalia has been working for years on a program called Knowledge Forum – I actually included that as one of the chapters of the ‘Teaching for Wisdom’ book – where the aim is to get children to start from their own ideas. So for example, you’ll have a question like ‘Why do leaves change colour in the fall?’ They then get to explore that question but also their own answers or other people’s answers. They can say something like ‘I think it’s because when it gets cold, they change colour’. Then another student said (this is an actual example of hers) ‘Well I put some leaves in the fridge and they didn’t change colour. That can’t be the answer, so we’re going to have to keep looking.’ So they have a whole discussion like this where they’re mutually supporting each other, and you get great comments like ‘Hey! Newton was working on your problem!’ They become the authorities in trying to generate or create new knowledge, but they’re also part of a community within the classroom that’s able to track how far they’re advancing on the question. Teachers could still have an impression about what each child is contributing in that type of a system and know if someone’s having trouble or struggling with something. That type of approach it seems to me is really very promising.
On Creating Wisdom-Nurturing Classrooms
Have any studies been done which suggest certain courses of teaching or programs lead to a sustained increase in students’ level of wisdom?
I don’t think so. I think the closest we find is something like Igor Grossman’s work with Self-Distancing, which is integral to his understanding of wisdom, but it hasn’t been done in the school setting. Although it hasn’t been done with a wisdom measure, it has been done with other measures that would really map on very closely to wisdom. Something like Philosophy for Children, there’s a UK-wide study report I was just reading that has shown that it really did have an impact on student performance along some dimensions. There’s a meta-analysis of social and emotional learning that shows those types of programs really do benefit student’s academic performance, for example. Mindfulness programs, for example, like MindUP and other programs like that, have shown that they do have a positive impact on both students’ anxiety levels, and also their academic performance.
Some researchers stress the importance of living in a culture that nurtures virtue or wisdom, and this may be more important in developing wisdom than passively listening to stories of what wise individuals have done in specific scenarios in the past.
What you’re getting at is the importance of not just what you’re being told within the curriculum, but in fact the whole way the school day unfolds – how you’re treated, what’s expected of you. All these types of things are integral to what you’re really going to learn there.
That sounds difficult to scale up. I can see it working in a small school environment, like a Montessori school, but to scale it up across North America, wouldn’t it require changing the whole structure of how schools are run?
Maybe, but it might just require a change of frame of mind in what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’ll do it. There are many examples given in studies that show that there’s something about the whole way in which students move between classes and set up relationships with teachers that could actually be altered, and maybe not with some radical transformation of the whole school, but just by the way that people are relating to each other. In other words, these examples say to me that there’s a lot of potential within the system as it stands to develop something closer to wisdom and really the art is going to be finding the right kind of policies. Just the way that harassment policies can be set in place that have really transformed the way that people deal with each other person-to-person, there might be other guidelines or policies that can be put in place to really change what’s expected of teachers. Teacher training programs can be rejuvenated so that they emphasise these themes more and maybe even cultivate personal maturity or skillsets that are needed to engage students in this way.
If you look at bullying, that used to be something that was just considered part of school life. Teachers nowadays are on the whole very well trained to deal with it, and even pupils have a good understanding and vocabulary around bullying, so I can see a parallel there to what you’re suggesting.
Exactly, and I think that’s a much more hopeful way to think about it. If you say ‘We’ve got to change everything everywhere!’ that would never happen. If you think of it more like an evolutionary change. We need to go from where we are. How can we evolve in ways that are more likely to generate more wisdom?
On Wisdom and the Narrative Mode
In your research, do you have a definition of wisdom that you find the most helpful?
I’ve been trying to put together that kind of a framework, and I’m not 100% satisfied with what I’ve got, but I feel like I’m getting closer. I guess my broadest frame is a sort of narrative understanding, coming out of narrative psychology, where you’ve got human actors confronting situations, and they have certain resources, which can by psychological or physical or social and they use those to overcome some sort of trouble. Heroic narratives are ones in which you’re successful, and tragic ones are ones in which you fail. Wisdom is a certain kind of heroic narrative. It’s a narrative in which the heroism is on an internal plane – how you deal with things, how you understand things. Also it coordinates with the external – how successful you are, how well you’re able to accomplish things that other people were not able to accomplish. So that is a sort of broad frame, but I’m also interested in the way that wisdom intersects with insight and self-regulation, in particular self-regulation of learning. All kinds of models have been developed that include attributions that you have about your own capacity to succeed at things, or your own ability to refine and have foresight and monitor what you do. Considering wisdom in that way allows us to coordinate a lot of the other models and definitions that are out there. So that’s the way that I’ve been thinking about it.
Wisdom is a certain kind of heroic narrative. It’s a narrative in which the heroism is on an internal plane – how you deal with things, how you understand things. Also it coordinates with the external – how successful you are, how well you’re able to accomplish things that other people were not able to accomplish.
There’s a lot of discussion around whether wisdom is a character trait or a rather a temporary state – trait or state. But you are saying that it’s about both – a wise person has certain stable characteristics but wisdom then requires these traits translating into certain actions…
You can imagine stories where people who normally have those characteristics don’t have them any longer under certain circumstances! Even the social psychology studies where you’re in a rush and although typically you’re a very nice person, you walk right by this person on the side of the road (click here for details of the 1973 original ‘Good Samaritan’ study). You could even ask ‘What’s the frame of the story?’ Sometimes the story is ‘I can’t be late’ and that’s framing my action, so someone needing help is actually a problem for me. If I’m not in a rush, then maybe helping the person by the side of the road – that’s the story! We have quite a capacity to flexibly alter the kind of stories we tell ourselves. Maybe for wise people, stories of compassion are front-of-mind and trump other ones.
Sternberg talks about wise people seeking ‘the greater good’, looking for a good outcome for a greater number of people, not just yourself. Is that a way of framing your stories to include other people and their interests?
Well, the nice thing with stories is that they’re dramatic and you can have lots of different characters in them. His Balance Theory of Wisdom seems correct, apart from the part when you’re determining ‘Who are the stakeholders? What is the balance?’ because who’s going to be the judge of it? It’s also going to be set within a story that will involve your understandings of people, and what is in people’s best interest. Even like ‘Who should I be accounting for?’
Right – how big does this circle go…?
Exactly! Think of the Buddhist meditation practice where you start with the people next to you and then you expand to all sentient beings. Then you have to ask ‘Is my cat sentient?’ ‘Is this mosquito sentient? How about this microbe?’ We can’t escape the fact that we’re importing all of these other understandings into whatever we think is a wise action, even with Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom. Going back to the cultural reference, I think that’s what’s interesting about cross-cultural studies. If forces you to consider what other people are going to answer, in the light of the way they’re framing the question. They could agree with you in the abstract, but when it comes down to cashing it out, then you can get very different types of wise figures or different types of actions.
Could adopting a narrative lead you to think of yourself in fixed and limiting kind of way?
It’s not ‘narrative’ itself that is wise or unwise, but it’s the kind of narrative you tell. It’s the whole way in which you understand what it means to be a human being – what sort of stories are important and are to be nurtured and which other ones are limited or misguided or something like that. In that sense, thinking of yourself as a certain kind of person with certain features would itself be problematic. That’s kind of the Buddhist view, that there is no ‘self’, no anchored character that is unchanging, with attributes that are fixed. Whereas if your view of ‘self’ is much more interdependent and connected to other people and to the context in which you’re acting, then that’s really the way you’re going to tell the story and that will reflect a certain kind of wisdom.
So wisdom doesn’t rely on having a narrative mode, rather it relies on having a specific kind of narrative?
The narrative mode to me invites more interdependence and selflessness into your broader conception of what’s going on, so in that sense it invites something that is often characteristic of wisdom, a kind of self-transcendence, because the moment you’ve told a story, it makes you think about all the other people and the entire context within which whatever you’re doing is taking place. It becomes very hard to maintain that it’s just you – ‘If only I’d been different!’ That’s true, but on the other hand, if you’d got there 10 minutes earlier, it would also have been a different story. It’s something that’s not entirely within your control. Maybe a woman crossing the street with a baby carrier to get to the daycare centre held me up by 5 minutes. It’s not my fault, but I am 5 minutes late and maybe that was critical, and had I been there 5 minutes earlier, it would have been a very different story. The point is, it gives you lots of different stories in which way the story could unfold. I think that reflecting on that, and considering alternate types of stories that are possible out of all the same elements is a way to cultivate wisdom. I guess that’s where I think the narrative mode is helpful, as opposed to a thinking of it as a set sort of trait. ‘Oh, you’ve just got to be more open. You’ve just got to have more gratitude’. Although those are important, they’re important within the kind of stories. You appreciate for example that it’s not just up to you. You can be very grateful, but you can imagine circumstances under which gratitude is actually the wrong response. If someone cheated to get you to bypass the most worthy candidate for a job, you could be grateful, but maybe you shouldn’t be grateful. You could be thinking something more like ‘I should be ashamed of that!’
The narrative mode to me invites more interdependence and selflessness into your broader conception of what’s going on, so in that sense it invites something that is often characteristic of wisdom, a kind of self-transcendence, because the moment you’ve told a story, it makes you think about all the other people and the entire context within which whatever you’re doing is taking place. It becomes very hard to maintain that it’s just you.
In the paper ‘Intellectual Aristotelian Character Education: An Outline and Assessment’ Matt Ferkany and Benjamin Creed at Michigan State University suggest that virtue is ‘uncodifiable’, meaning that the virtuous response depends entirely on the context, as you’ve just outlined with your example about gratitude. This ‘uncodifiable’ nature of virtue seems to be something shared by wisdom, and I imagine that is one of the challenges faced when ‘teaching for wisdom’?
The important thing that I find appealing, which is a very Aristotelian view, is that wisdom is doing something that transcends the narrative. It’s when set storylines don’t actually give you the correct response, and you need to find the best outcome that betrays important values as little as possible. The classic example is when you’re friend is shot before your eyes and critically injured. Should you care for them or should you run after the perpetrator and stop them? There’s actually no right answer to that, but you need to come to an answer. The wisdom will be in the quality of the answer that you’re able to generate, and your ability to tell a story in which that was the best expression of what matters most. It may well bring in things like balance, interdependence and the types of things that come up in other models, or compassion. The attributes that are important, that are going to be important trait characteristics will only be able to be understood within a context of a story, and often a story that requires some sort of on-the-spot creative engagement with what’s really the situation in front of us. That’s the Aristotelian point about wisdom too. It’s not something that will be, as you say ‘Codifiable’ or knowable even in advance. It’s about, given everything that’s happening right at this instant, all the constraints and possibilities that are there, what should be done? I totally agree with that.
That’s the Aristotelian point about wisdom too. It’s not something that will be, as you say ‘Codifiable’ or knowable even in advance. It’s about, given everything that’s happening right at this instant, all the constraints and possibilities that are there, what should be done?
On Wisdom and Experience
Accepting for the moment that the accumulation of life experience, perhaps adverse experience in particular, plays at least some part in the development of wisdom, are children equipped to make much sense of such kinds of wisdom-related questions at a young age?
For me, I guess I see it a little bit differently. Judith Gluck has said, and Ursula Staudinger has said this too (it comes out of the Baltes view) – part of what is involved in wisdom is life review. I guess Erikson would have said the same thing. It comes from reflection on your own life and the meaning you make of your own experiences. Adverse experiences are almost like a limit case to that. If it’s really disruptive to your whole understanding of yourself and the world, then you’ve really got to make sense of it to go forward. It forces you to think deeply, to maybe rethink your way of understanding things. Maybe it also will broaden your horizon. If you go back to the kind of story you’re telling, I might have had a story about myself advancing along a certain path, which seems very clear. That story can be quite narrow. It’s just me, and a couple of the things I was supposed to do. But a major adversity, imagine you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and you’re not sure to survive, for example. Something like that immediately broadens your frame. ‘What should I count as the most meaningful thing about my life story? Is it really what I had originally thought?’ I think that’s the sense in which adverse experiences could, of course, be the main driver in developing wisdom. Monika Ardelt made the point that a traumatic experience could be one of the quickest ways to shake you out of your complacency and give you more wisdom, but I think if you go back to children, even things like making friends or making sense of new settings, going to school for the first time. They’re not adverse in the sense of bringing harm, but they’re destructive in the sense that your whole life could now have a new set of contingencies or constraints that force you to redefine who you are and what you can do and what’s important to accomplish. Considered on that level, children can gain wisdom within their own life context and within their own capacity to understand things. I like the Baltes’ idea that development is a ratio of gains and losses and I think that works very well in terms of attributes that are characteristics of wisdom. So, if open-mindedness is a feature of many models of wisdom, children are paradigm cases of open-mindedness! They don’t have any preconceptions. They’re the ultimate beginner’s mind, because they’re just beginning. So in that sense they should max-out on that dimension.
For other things, like the ability to coordinate perspectives, to coordinate their understanding with other people’s understanding, that’s an accomplishment that takes many years and maybe even in to early adulthood before you’re really successful at doing that. So that’s something that you gain as you get older, but you might lose your open-mindedness then, because you get set in your ways, you get fixed ideas about things. So the trick in terms of developing wisdom might be to maintain or not lose certain capacities, whilst you gain others. That’s kind of the way I think about it, and that’s why some people do consider children to be wise or say things that are wise. Sometimes they say their honest unvarnished opinion about something and it just happens to be right and nobody dared say it – ‘the-emperor-has-no-clothes’ type of story. In so doing, they can actually speak the truth and that’s what was needed in that situation. It’s considered wise, because they’re not over-thinking it, really. Of course there are going to be other situations when they don’t appreciate the implications of what they’re about to do. They might be climbing on something thirty feet up in the air, sure that they could never fall, whereas we have a pretty good idea that they really could fall. That would then be reckless and unwise, because they’re not able to appreciate the whole context of what they’re doing.
So that’s something that you gain as you get older, but you might lose your open-mindedness then, because you get set in your ways, you get fixed ideas about things. So the trick in terms of developing wisdom might be to maintain or not lose certain capacities, whilst you gain others. That’s kind of the way I think about it, and that’s why some people do consider children to be wise or say things that are wise.
Some people, as they get older and believe they know themselves better, avoid certain types of experiences, and then live narrower and narrower lives. This reduction in new experiences doesn’t seem like it would nurture the development of wisdom.
Ursula Staudinger made the point that personal wisdom can decline in older age for just that reason. It’s much more threatening to accept ‘Everything I’ve been doing for the last 30 years is wrong’ than, ‘Everything I’ve been doing for the last year and half is wrong!’ The more invested, the more sunk cost, and the more habituated it becomes, and it makes it harder for you to break out of that, except under really extreme circumstances. Nic Westrate, who’s doing a PhD with me but has really been a leader on my thinking on this issue, has this idea that it can’t just be experience because everybody has experiences all the time, but it’s the ability to reflect and distil something from that experience that’s going to be critical to developing wisdom. Going back to something that you might teach for wisdom, Keith Oatley proposed that reading novels (click here to read details of the original study), and then really thinking about it critically is very useful in teaching some sort of lesson or getting you to really reflect on what matters about the way people relate to each other.
So you could definitely teach people ‘reflective skills’ that would enable them to benefit from the experiences they would then go on to have?
Right. Circling back to this idea of narrative, it’s reflecting on your experience, but it’s the kind of reflection – it has to be set within a broader narrative. ‘Who am I as a character, and what sort of stories matter to me? How should I deal with a certain kind of trouble I encounter in terms of issues and problems that arise? Will this lead to a better quality of life or more things that I value than some other way?’
On The Many Faces Of Wisdom
You recently published the paper ‘The Many Faces of Wisdom: An Investigation of Cultural-Historical Wisdom Exemplars Reveals Practical, Philosophical, and Benevolent Prototypes – Weststrate, N. M., Ferrari, M., & Ardelt, M. (2016)’. The paper suggests that when asked to nominate someone they consider to be wise, people tended to nominate ‘practical’ individuals more than individuals who had especially profound insight or were particularly compassionate people. Did this surprise you?
That was a little surprising. We thought it was going to be more evenly spread. Since we had all these different types of exemplars that people had mentioned, we thought that they would be more uniformly spread out across the sample. Thinking about it in the end, in a way it’s not that surprising because, having read the interviews themselves, which are the broader context of these nominations, you see that wisdom is often understood in terms of this kind of practical skill. One older Canadian woman, when asked to think of a moment when she’d been wise said ‘I’ve been wise all my life! You can’t get to my age without being a little bit wise.’ What does she mean by that? Well earlier on, when she was younger, there wasn’t much money to go around. Even people who were working didn’t have enough money to buy all the things they needed, so they needed to make their own things. They needed to think on their feet, and make do with what they had. All of that is what she’s counting to be wisdom, and that’s a kind of practical wisdom. It manifests politically, but also on a smaller scale such as managing your life the best that you can, with the resources you’ve got. That was a very dominant view of wisdom.
I find it quite an encouraging view, since it suggests that wisdom isn’t so much an esoteric, rarefied abstract concept, but that people really think of it much more as a practical tool, a compass for navigating their day-to-day lives…
When it was suggested that anybody can manage their day-to-day life, she replied ‘Not at all! Some people went bankrupt’. Being able to do that is an accomplishment and, as you say, it’s an accomplishment that manifests in day-to-day life. You don’t have to design a rocket to the moon or something. You can just manage what you need to be able to do, in order to have the best life that’s possible for you.
It also puts wisdom back at the heart of things, as opposed to something that is the preserve of people that meditate for hours, or study a lot. Framed in this way, it’s no wonder society keeps coming back to wisdom through the ages – it’s how you get through your life.
At the same time, it’s also more. I’ll tell you one of things that impressed me most whilst working on this international project we did. I did some interviews in Canada. One person I talked to – a 90-year old man – I said to him ‘Think of a moment in your life when you were wise.’ He said ‘Well, I was going to step onto the bus and I missed my step and I fell and broke my hip’. I said ‘So missing the bus was somehow wise?’ and he said ‘No, that was really stupid, but my whole life changed in an instant, and I realised that every instant of your life is like that. That’s wise.’ It’s not really practical in the way that the first example is. It’s more a perspective on every moment. It could cash out in terms of the way you might act. It’s an insight that’s closer to maybe Taoist insights that you read about, but also these are insights that everyday people have. He’s not citing some archaic text. He’s basically saying ‘This is something I realised that struck me, that I want to communicate to you about wisdom.’
It’s extraordinary to me that those two perspectives or experiences are even referred to with the same word, when they seem so different in nature – one being about managing resources in daily life and the other being one of the most profound insights into the nature of being alive.
They are different, but at the same time, and I think Stephen Grimm makes this point, they coordinate with each other, because of course if you have that kind of insight it will govern your attitude towards the way that you manage things, maybe even help you to accept the way things turn out, or don’t turn out. I don’t know if you need the second part for the first. It could be that someone is really, really skilled in a day-to-day way without having that kind of insight, and I guess that even with that insight, you might not be that good at managing your time, for example. They could be somewhat orthogonal but they do seem like they could work together, in terms of classic definitions of wisdom anyways.
On The Need For Wisdom Research
After being neglected for so long by the scientific community, why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive more attention?
My own personal thinking about it, and what I would infer from Robert Sternberg’s movement into wisdom as a topic, is that people have studied intelligence, or say leadership, or for that matter many other things, that seem like they’re optimising student performance, and then you can get people who are really successful in business, in politics and in day-to-day life that you meet on the street, and yet there are still problems like global warming that seem like they put all of humanity at risk. Also you have political conflicts that seem like they would be tractable if all the major players could just get on the same page and promote what’s for the benefit of the greatest number, but it doesn’t happen. It feels as though there’s something lacking. If the best and most powerful people we’ve got, who we admire in other ways, are not able to solve these types of problems, there must be something missing in our understanding of what it takes to be somebody to be admired and be successful. I think that is where wisdom comes in, because you can say ‘Sure. They’re very smart in a way that’s very intelligent or very crafty, and they’re able accomplish a lot, but they’re still lacking something that we’re going to call wisdom. They’re able to run a very successful company, but it’s by cracking the whip and scaring their employees and working them like slave drivers. So it produces a result, but not one we’d ever want to be on the inside of! Those types of things suggest that we would at least hope there’s a different way. It’s not true for everybody. For other people, it isn’t the case. They can be successful, but in a way that benefits everyone. You can say ‘That’s what we should be cultivating in people and our educational system!’ It sort of comes naturally out of that. As a scientific community we can say ‘Well actually we’ve got enough to say about many of the elements, so maybe we can now tackle this as a theme to be explored’
If the best and most powerful people that we’ve got, who we admire in other ways, are not able to solve these types of problems, there must be something missing in our understanding of what it takes to be somebody to be admired and be successful. I think that is where wisdom comes in.
On Wisdom, Technology and Culture
Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom in society? I suspect your answer may include ‘Education’ but, over to you!
I was actually thinking that! Some sort of public education that emphasises compassion and critical thinking and how these are coordinated. I think there are a lot of elements but I think that would be the overarching framework. The difficulty is that education itself is something that represents a value system. We can actually say that wisdom is something we value, but what we mean by wise is often at the very least culturally slanted. There is some sense in which you can look to Confucius, The Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, people in foreign cultures that really inspire people all around the world, so it’s not as though wisdom will be culturally specific in one way. In another way, what counts as an ideal of human flourishing is not always cashed out in exactly the same way in different cultures. So, I think that they can have slightly different conceptions of wisdom. Sometimes it could benefit us to look to other cultures and see ‘What do they mean by wisdom?’ In terms of designing an education system that will promote wisdom, it’s going to be a conundrum, especially in a place like Canada where people are coming from all around the world. Then, presumably, you’ve got to find a way that everyone can agree on, but is not as such a high level of abstraction that you can’t actually do anything. It can be an ideal aspiration, but it still needs to be cashed out in terms of what curriculum you’re going to teach. The single most practical change could also be something like ‘cultivating a mindset of selflessness or mutual interdependence.’ That stands behind someone like Robert Sternberg’s theory but other theories too, where to the extent that we can cultivate that, a lot of the other virtues associated with wisdom will naturally fall out. Like if you have that view, you just will seek a harmonious balance, or you will be compassionate, you will have gratitude, you will be open-minded. A lot of the other things that are associated with wisdom could come from that. So it could be that that might be a core thing to try and cultivate within education that most people would agree is positive.
The single most practical change could also be something like ‘cultivating a mindset of selflessness or mutual interdependence.’
Young people must be more aware than ever that our lives are more interconnected than ever. Do you think this intuitive understanding of interconnectedness could be part of the reason behind the growth of interest in wisdom?
We’re living in an interesting time where there’s a kind of paradox between nation states that have national interests, and corporations and the internet that are global. There are other things that absolutely cause all kinds of problems, but also all kinds of opportunities. You can have a very rare illness and find a community online. There might only be a 1000 of you around the globe but if you can find each other, you can all meet online. That kind of thing, as you say, really highlights the fact that there’s a connection that spans all types of different groups that otherwise would always have been considered separate. So it’s not just like ‘We’re all one family’ but also it’s like there’s a net of intersecting communities that invites a kind of complexity that you really wouldn’t have found even 50 years ago.
Some writers have suggested that the younger generation, which is constantly connected online, have a much clearer understanding of this interconnectedness than we do?
Isn’t it Marshall McLuhan’s argument that the true power and impact of a new technology is never appreciated in the first generation of use, which is why people called cars ‘horseless carriages’? They just had no concept of what this was going to do. I think you’re right. This type of technology can be really radically transformative at a much more fundamental level than just being a way to call a lot of people, or being part of a chat group as I would describe it. It might radically transform your conception of what sort of person you are.
What do you make of developments suggesting that, since many ancient texts and modern theories of wisdom have a lot in common, wisdom may have a biological basis in the brain?
Maybe I’m Kantian in this way that I think you can never have a purely biological understanding of people, because anyone we meet is a person that has been raised in a human culture. In that sense, the cultures that we’re encountering have something shared. Even if you go back to ancient India, you still have urban environments. I suppose some of the sages lived in the forests, but even then they were on the outskirts of cities. There could be commonalities that come from the synthesis of the biology and culture that still speak to us thousands of years later. I’m sure that’s true, but I wouldn’t want to go with a purely biological argument for that reason. I do think that we don’t want to totally erase the differences between cultural visions of wisdom, because I think on a very high level they might resemble each other but the closer you get to the ground to the actual instances, you might find examples that surprise you in different places. You can’t have a theory of wisdom that is divorced from your general understanding of what it means to be a human being in your broader metaphysics about the ultimate nature of reality. That’s why I think it’s interesting to look at different religious perspectives. In a project we are running now, we’re comparing Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Atheists in Canada and South Korea. It invites the question ‘Is there something about the national culture of Canada and Korea that might differ? But is there something about the Christian way of understanding the world vs The Buddhists vs Atheists or Muslims – does that actually alter?’
You can’t have a theory of wisdom that is divorced from your general understanding of what it means to be a human being in your broader metaphysics about the ultimate nature of reality. That’s why I think it’s interesting to look at different religious perspectives.
So you could establish if the cultural or the religious factor has the biggest impact on their views regarding wisdom?
We’ve had trouble finding Muslims in South Korea actually, but in the current times it would be one of the most interesting to find out about. Canada came out of a Christian culture, coming out of European colonisation, which was very broadly Christian, and yes, Buddhism is here to. In Korea, although I’m sure there are Christians that have been there for at least a hundred years, broadly speaking it has much deeper roots in Confucianism and Buddhism, so that’s part of the question we’re going to ask. Even if you’re an atheist in either of those countries, you might end up looking more Christian or Buddhist, depending on where you’re raised. So the question would be ‘Is your wisdom going to be different, in you day-to-day dealings with people?’ That’s what this study is going to try and illustrate. Part of me wants to say that people are wise in similar ways around the world. It could also be that people differ. Take something like music. You’ve got different musical systems. You have entire systems that have developed in, say China, or India or Europe. They all make use of patterned sound, and you can appreciate when you listen to it how great it is. You can appreciate the beauty of it, the complexity of it, even though it’s very different. To my mind, I’d be much more comfortable with that view of wisdom, where people come up with something and you think ‘Wow, that’s really fantastic, but it’s not necessarily something that I would have thought of or would have come out of my way of thinking of things.’ Hopefully it will work in reverse too. They might go ‘Wow that’s really amazing’ from the other side. ‘We hadn’t thought of it that way.’ Maybe a sort of fusion of horizons is possible. Historically we have our own horizon of understanding, but the more we bump up against other ones, the more opportunity then to broaden and integrate those.
Maybe a sort of fusion of horizons is possible. Historically we have our own horizon of understanding, but the more we bump up against other ones, the more opportunity then to broaden and integrate those.
Doesn’t something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights suggest that, although there are of course cultural differences, ultimately there are some core universal values, which all societies agree on?
Theories of wisdom like Monika Ardelt’s theory in which you’ve got these aspects like the cognitive depth of understanding, and a sort of reflective coordination of perspectives and a compassionate aspect, the synthesis of all those three, that would be an example of some sort of ‘universal declaration.’ Everyone can sort of buy into that, but it’s when you come to cash it out in terms of ‘What exactly do we mean by that? How exactly are we going to achieve that?’ Then I think you can really find divergences. Maybe that’s what we need. Something that allows us to have something universal at a very broad level, but still appreciate cultural nuances. It’s like saying that everyone can agree on what’s edible for human beings, but we can still have different national cuisines. ‘Sure I could eat ants. There’s nothing stopping me. There’s protein and vitamins but I’d rather not, but that could just be my upbringing. In fact it’s entirely my upbringing’ By analogy, there could be certain styles or ways of doing things that count as wisdom in certain places, that you might think ‘I just really wouldn’t operate that way, yet I can appreciate that it’s effective and it accomplishes something.’
Maybe that’s what we need. Something that allows us to have something universal at a very broad level, but still appreciate cultural nuances.
To suggest wisdom could be completely extracted from culture would suggest that you’re operating as an individual. If you think about what Sternberg says about wisdom, that it’s about optimising the best outcome for the group, then it seems unlikely that the same action in two different cultures would be able to optimise for two very different groups.
That’s true and I think we need to be careful in terms of ‘what’s our unit of analysis?’ It’s almost implied that the unit of analysis is always the individual. You could imagine a much more collective view of wisdom – the way different corporations act in the world or what kind of responsibilities they take, or different nations, or even different cultural communities and how they relate to each other or to minorities within their communities or people in poverty – ‘How do we as a community handle problems that arise that affect all of us within our community but also affect our dealings with other communities? So I think there’s a place for considering wisdom at that level.
On Building Wise Societies
If you start to think of wisdom on a societal level, there must be ways of structuring institutions that would nurture or lead to wiser behaviour?
I think, for example, Bhutan is sort of leading the way in this type of thinking. People can argue about how they’re implementing the details of it, but their aim is to promote not just the Gross National Product, but Gross National Happiness and they’ve got various indicators of what that would involve – spots tests with the population as a kind of census measure etc. I found that really inspiring. And they’re trying to tailor the education system to cultivate the sort of virtues that would lead to a way of life that would contribute to that sort of society. I think that’s a fascinating way of thinking about the whole issue of cultivating wisdom.
Well, could you imagine a ‘Gross National Wisdom’ index at some point?
That would actually be interesting but it raises the question of whether wisdom is a means to an end of something like happiness. What is wisdom supposed to accomplish? I guess it could still be interesting. If happiness is a balance between doing better and also feeling better about whatever the actual situation is – improving things to the exent that we can and accepting that is the limit of what we can do for now – if that’s integral to what we mean by wisdom, then maybe that would contribute to or even be synonymous with what it means to be happy. I think that’s exactly the sort of conceptual work that needs to be done. What is it that is going to be a marker of wisdom and how will it relate to other things that seem like ultimate core values that we’re trying to cultivate?
I find it really encouraging to consider how fields like emotional intelligence or, even more broadly, mental health have moved from the edge to the centre of public discourse. It suggests that there is the potential for the frameworks and ideas that we have been discussing here to be central to public debate in the years ahead.
What we valued in our education system was economic at first and that is important. Then you can say ‘Well we’ve accomplished more or less that objective. Now what else can we add in that will further improve our quality of life and society?’ I think that’s where Bhutan is heading but I think you can imagine that becoming a universal practice.
What we valued in our education system was economic at first and that is important. Then you can say ‘Well we’ve accomplished more or less that objective. Now what else can we add in that will further improve our quality of life and society?’
What do you think is the most pressing priority or most fruitful line of inquiry for the wisdom research community over the next few years?
I think that one of the main things that is going to be required is conceptional coordination of all the models that are on the table, even if there was a taxonomy outlining that we understand wisdom in different senses. There’s Personal vs General Wisdom that Ursula Staudinger has proposed. Roger Walsh came up with definitions of wisdom in a paper last year, that go from practical to various levels of conceptual insight into the fundamental nature of reality and what it means to be a human being in that context. Already you can say that coordinating those two is not obvious, but if you then extend it out to other models that we’ve been talking about in this interview… I think one of the things we need to do is get a handle on ‘What are we talking about exactly?’ Part of the way that that can be done in my opinion is, which is some of the work that we’re doing, is looking at what wisdom means in different countries at different ages and actually at a limit case in atypical populations, like people with Autism. We’re asking people with Autism in Pakistan and Canada what it means to be wise and give examples from their own life. Something like that gives you a chance to explore the range. A lot of these explicit theories, knowingly or not, come out of the implicit ideas people hold about wisdom but often, because we’re scientists, we’re coming out of very similar contexts. We may not be attuned to other possible theories that are out there that we would need to account for, certainly if we were going to talk to people from other places, but even to get the broadest understanding about what wisdom is. So I think that’s important. I also think there’s the relationship of wisdom to other value systems, whether they’re religious values or national cultural values. That seems like an important thing to be exploring. So that type of work to my mind is very important.
To my mind wisdom is often a marker for what we most admire or aspire to – some sort of synthesis of intellect and character. But I think it’s also important to say ‘Do we have any proof that we really can cultivate these?’ I was saying that Igor Grossmann’s Self-Distancing studies are very interesting, as an example of a practice that people can do that seems to really benefit them. Also we want to know ‘Does it benefit them in their lives in some way?’ It’s a pretty utilitarian way of thinking but we want to show that it does something – makes them more successful in their engagement with the world, in their problem solving, or it changes their attitude so they suffer less in some way. It seems that he is able to show that there is that kind of positive effect with self-distancing but conceptually we could ask what’s involved in this practice – ‘Are you really distancing yourself from yourself or are you rather connecting yourself to others?’ So we can do experimental studies like that and see how they relate to wisdom.
Also we want to know ‘does it benefit them in their lives in some way?’ It’s a pretty utilitarian way of thinking but we want to show that it does something – makes them more successful in their engagement with the world, in their problem solving, or it changes their attitude so they suffer less in some way.
Why not have a look at the following videos, papers and books to learn more about Michel Ferrari’s research?
Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum 2016: “Wisdom Exemplars” by Michel Ferrari, PhD – Video of Michel Ferrari’s talk at the inaugural Center for Practical Wisdom research forum in July 2016. The talk ask the question ‘Do other cultures have different kinds of wisdom exemplars than we do and if so, what might this mean for using North American wisdom frameworks for measuring wisdom in cross-cultural research?’
The Many Faces of Wisdom: An Investigation of Cultural-Historical Wisdom Exemplars Reveals Practical, Philosophical, and Benevolent Prototypes – Weststrate, N. M., Ferrari, M., & Ardelt, M. (2016) – In this paper, Ferrari and colleagues demonstrate that, when asked to nominate someone they consider to be wise, people tended to nominate ‘practical’ people more than people who had especially profound insight or were particularly compassionate people.
Interdisciplinary Moral Forum: “Motivating the Self to Virtue in Western and non-Western Countries” by Michel Ferrari, PhD – Video of Michel Ferrari’s talk at the Interdisciplinary Moral Forum on March 12-14, 2015 at Marquette University for the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project, in which wisdom is proposed as a key factor in motivating the self to virtue.
The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom: From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience (Ferrari & Westrate, 2014) – This volume contains a broad overview of many different approaches to the scientific study of wisdom, from a diverse range of fields including Gerontology, Developmental Psychology, as well as Philosophy and contemplative traditions.
Teaching for Wisdom: Cross-cultural Perspectives on Fostering Wisdom (Ferrari & Potworoski, 2008) – This book contains a range of chapters addressing the eternal question of whether wisdom can be taught. Specialists from a broad range of disciplines including Anthropology, Psychology, Religion and Philosophy contribute unique and diverse perspectives.
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