Is the US education system producing a society of “smart fools”?

The great thing about headlines as questions is that responses to the article can use the same headline. Though I’d be tempted to reframe it: is America a  minmaxing RPG character? (Jargon time: in roleplaying games, minmaxing is the character-building strategy of maximizing a specific desirable ability, skill, or other power of a character and minimizing everything else, seen as undesirable. The result is a character who is excessively powerful in one particular way, but exceedingly weak in others. As an example, it’s pretty common to trade off wisdom for intelligence.)


0. The article is here.  A summary:

This is an interview with psychologist Robert Sternberg, about the risks of standardized testing. In particular, he argues that they’re overly narrow, and develop intelligence at the expense of creativity, common sense, and wisdom. He cites the 30-point rise in average IQ scores over the 20th century (the Flynn effect) as evidence in favour of this narrow focus. He notes a lack of focus on wisdom – which he defines as working with other people’s interest to a common good – and noting the lack of famous wise people or of practice in ethical reasoning. His career has included some initiatives to train these skills, and has found that they are much more predictive of college performance than standardized tests.


  1. My issues with what it says: There are so many of them. The challenge is coherence.

I’ll start with the statement that “it’s really hard to think of wise people”. Regardless of what definition of wisdom you’re using, I don’t think that it involves seeking fame and recognition. I am fortunate to know grandparents, former teachers, mentors, and other figures I’d call wise; I think it’s the same for many of my friends.

For that matter, I’m not entirely on board with the definition of wisdom. I think that wisdom includes such other traits as foresight, judgement, experience, and emotional control. It’s not that these aren’t important in working together on a common good, but I do think the definition in the article is a bit narrow. Furthermore, I think this definition is tilted liberal. Even if it may not always be demonstrated, I would hope that wisdom is a nonpartisan trait.

I very much support at least the broad idea, captured in the reference to McGuffey readers, of teaching content at the same time as teaching reading. I would say that one of the major failings of modern education is an overemphasis on reading for the sake of reading scores, which is really boring and devoid of content that could be built into it, such as history or, as Sternberg argues, wisdom.

However, I would be extremely cautious of this kind of moral curriculum. I have not read the McGuffey readers, but it is deeply ironic to rail against tribalism and “people who view the world as being about people like themselves” while praising 19th-century moral education. From Wikipedia: “[McGuffey] attempted to give schools a curriculum that would instill Presbyterian Calvinist beliefs and manners in their students. These goals were considered suitable for the relatively homogeneous America of the early- to mid-19th century, though they were less so for the increasingly pluralistic society that developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century.”

Finally, so much of the article’s claims of lack of creativity and of wisdom are incredibly anecdotal. Though the article doesn’t single out young people, the tone still reads as “kids these days/millennials are ruining everything”. Like so many such articles, there’s a glaring opportunity for a lack of historical perspective. Consider the examples of Greg Gianforte’s election after according-to-the-courts-I-must-say-allegedly-assaulting a reporter, or violence at campaign rallies. In terms of political violence, 1921 alone was orders of magnitude worse than the 2010’s, with both the Tulsa race riots and the Battle of Blair Mountain. I am not a historian, but I would say these low points of American wisdom were induced and not prevented by 19th-centuy moral education.


Next up, I want to write about what I wish the article had said instead. Because I do agree with the premise, at least enough to think it’s worth talking about. America may be becoming less wise, and there’s a lot to tease out about incentives in education and society, which rests on a much firmer foundation than anecdotes. But that’s a project for another day.