Practical Wisdom and Professional Life

Cover of Practical Wisdom[This is a guest post by Janine Utell, who is an Associate Professor of English at Widener University in Pennsylvania.  She teaches composition and 19th and 20th century British literature; she has also facilitated a number of on- and off-campus workshops on writing, critical thinking, and general education.  You can follow Janine on Twitter: @janineutell --@jbj]

One of the things that attracted me to a career as an academic was the autonomy:  the discretion to shape my time, my work, and my purpose.   Readers of ProfHacker will know that its writers are committed to helping us manage the autonomy we are (hopefully) lucky to have, and to helping us make the most of what brought us to the profession to begin with.  Posts like this one show us the value of making time to reflect even as we look for ways to manage our time for greater productivity.  Or this one which argues for respecting other people’s time and recognizing how performing meaningful service is an obligation we have to our institutions and our colleagues.  This blog is a space that treats its readers as professionals who possess the wisdom to manage their time, effort, and expertise for the good not just of their careers but of their students, their schools, and their fields.

Such spaces and the ethos they try to foster, unfortunately, seem to be threatened.  From workers in Wisconsin to teachers in Pennsylvania, it seems to be getting harder to practice professional life with fulfilling and meaningful purpose.  An audit culture is creeping onto our campuses, making it more difficult to teach and learn and assess what we’re doing in ways that make sense.  For all of the valid points they make, books like Higher Education? and Academically Adrift—both of which have gotten a lot of play in the media beyond academe—exemplify deep discontent with higher education not unlike what has been confronting K-12 (as well as the legal, medical, and financial professions) for quite a while.  This discontent is not just coming from those outside the field who feel like its workers aren’t fulfilling their obligation to the public good; it is felt on the part of the practitioners themselves.

This is the state of affairs described by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe (both of Swarthmore College) in their book Practical Wisdom:  The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (Riverhead Books—fans of TED can check out Schwartz’s talks on practical wisdom and how we’ve lost it; these videos provide a good capsule of the book’s contents).  Schwartz and Sharpe base their conceptualization of “practical wisdom” on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, but their approach is geared much more towards contemporary professionals than philosophers.  Using case studies from a wide range of fields, the authors argue that our institutions, structured as they are around incentive and punishment, prevent us from good practice, from doing our work with purpose, empathy, creativity, flexibility, engagement, and temperance.  In a word:  wisdom.

For Schwartz and Sharpe (and Aristotle), all meaningful work has a specific purpose intrinsic to it, and good practice—practical wisdom—is the way to fulfill that purpose.  Professional life, at its best, combines a sense of mission with wise practice.  Professionals who have the “will” and the “skill” to do both good and well—and are given the discretion to deploy effectively their expertise and sense of calling—are those who are most fulfilled in their work, who are happy with what they do and whom they serve.  Schwartz and Sharpe write, “We are happiest when our work is meaningful and gives us the discretion to use our judgment.  The discretion allows us to develop the wisdom to exercise the judgment we need to do that work well.  We’re motivated to develop the judgment to do that work well because it enables us to serve others.  and it makes us happy to do so.”

What cripples this judgment, and makes us unhappy in our work, is a culture of rules, one based on audits, incentives, and punishments.  Schwartz and Sharpe show how this rules culture demands universal principles and scripts no matter the context, and marginalizes imagination, empathy, and courage.  On the other hand, a culture that fosters practical wisdom allows individuals to use empathy, imagination, and determination to perceive and appreciate different contexts and to find balance between counsel and care.  Anyone who has spent time in a classroom knows what the tension among these impulses looks like, and Schwartz and Sharpe devote a great deal of good writing to the teaching profession; readers may want to look especially at Chapter 9, “Right by Rote:  Overstandardization and the Rise of the Canny Outlaw.”  Their focus is K-12, but I found much of what they said applicable to the higher ed context.

Schwartz’s and Sharpe’s “canny outlaws” offer hope for our institutions.  “Canny outlaws” are creative, flexible, improvisational individuals who find ways around the rules that constrain their professional practice.  Yet they alone are not enough; we need “system changers,” people who find new ways of doing things and are able to implement them on a broad scale.  Practical Wisdom gives us a rather inspiring framework and set of strategies for finding those new ways, and it might persuade more than just canny outlaws that doing so is pretty necessary if we are going to continue to find value in our work.

Have you found yourself in professional situations where your judgment came into conflict with a culture of rules?  How did you use practical wisdom to maneuver?  Where in your institution do you see room for some of Schwartz’s and Sharpe’s ideas?  How might you think about your own purpose and practice in these terms?

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