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Economics, Procedures & Wisdom

April 18, 2011

You know, the greatest satisfaction you’ll ever get out of having knowledge —whether you’re aged 23 or aged 45— is that you can exercise wisdom.

That’s why one of my favourite films of recent years is Gone Baby Gone (2007) directed by Ben Affleck. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, and stars Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris. Doing my best here, not to be a plot spoiler, I’ll just sketch you an outline.

Rodin's The Thinker.
Wisdom vs Knowledge

The story’s set in a tough Boston neighbourhood and focuses on the disappearance of a 4-year old girl. The police aren’t making any noticeable progress, so her family hires two private detectives.

The drama is built around the central idea that the detectives are a couple, young and inexperienced. Yet they manage to solve the case.

And that’s when they’re faced with a moral dilemma: either ‘lawfully’ do the right thing or trust their senses and bend the rules —only a little.

The film’s dilemma grips me up to this day. It ruffled my beliefs in what self-righteous-me conceived as ‘doing the right thing’.

What I took away from the story is that ‘doing the right thing’ isn’t always equal to ‘doing the best thing’ for the parties concerned.

Knowledge is power…?

Modern education and business life teaches us that ‘Knowledge is Power’ and that ‘Rules are Rules’. We’re also taught that following procedures guarantees efficiency, high productivity and meeting scheduled targets.

In hard economic times with harsh financial cut-backs on education, this line of thinking is spooned to educators by overpriced consultants and ditto (ad interim) managers. What these economics/stats gurus conveniently neglect to tell us though, is that knowledge of ‘rules and regulations’ is only a fraction of what really matters.

Do the wise thing

Barry Schwartz is a choice (online) lecturer, who explores the link between economics and psychology and I’ve cited him before in All learners need a fish bowl. Contrary to the gurus mentioned earlier, Schwartz plainly tells us that ‘having knowledge’ is just the basics; what counts is how and when you execute that knowledge. He calls this Practical Wisdom.

In his TED Talk Schwartz teaches us the difference between ‘blindly following rules and incentives versus choosing wisely’. He gives graphic real life accounts of how ‘having knowledge’ gradually became synonymous to ‘being profitable’.

We learn from him that to truly ‘do the right thing’ often means to ‘do the wise thing’. Moreover we learn that in today’s world of economics and procedures, it takes courage to be wise.

Wisdom is making a difference

What both Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and Schwartz’s Practical Wisdom show us, is that knowledge in itself is meaningless and powerless. And being only knowledgeable doesn’t differ much from being a breathing clueless robot.

So, what can we as educators learn from Affleck and Schwartz? I reckon you’ve probably chosen to be an educator because you love to ‘contribute to society’; ‘working with people’ and ‘making a difference’. However, as a consequence of cutbacks, you’ve been negatively balancing what you love doing against imposed procedures and regulations. And nine chances out of ten, the effect on you has been demoralising and dissatisfying.

The way I see it is that we need to return to our cores —aka our passions— and remind ourselves of why we became educators in the first place. I strongly believe we need to do this on a regular basis. For regularly reminding ourselves of our ‘love of teaching’, helps us to concentrate on that what really matters.

Following this, we must understand that knowledge of procedures and regulations can only take you so far. You know this as well as I do. It’s the moment when you exercise wisdom —aka use your knowledge well; that’s that wonderful moment when you ‘contribute’, ‘interact’ and truly ‘make a positive difference’ in some else’s life.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

TS Eliot, The Rock 1934

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