ROBERT J. STERNBERG in The American Interest:
Examples of foolish behavior in smart people abound. Bill Clinton, a graduate of Yale Law School and a Rhodes Scholar, compromised his presidency by his poor handling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other scandals with women from his past. The antics of Silvio Berlusconi, one of the richest men in the world and the Prime Minister of Italy, at times seem to defy belief (at least, my own belief), such as his claim that Mussolini wasn’t responsible for any of the deaths of his countrymen; he only sent them “on vacation.” And lest all this seem recent, we only need to go back to Neville Chamberlain and his slogan of “peace in our time” as a means to appease Hitler to realize that smart people can act very foolishly.
Such behavior is not limited to politicians. Some of the world’s smarter and better-educated businessmen brought us the scandals and fiascoes that led to the bankruptcies of or debacles in major U.S. corporations such as Adelphia, Arthur Andersen, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, and others. Such scandals are not, of course, limited to the United States.
Wisdom can be defined as using one’s academic and practical intelligence, as well as one’s knowledge base, for a common good over the long and short terms by balancing competing interests through the infusion of positive ethical values. Schools need to place more emphasis on teaching wisdom and less on the learning of facts, many of which will be out-of-date or irrelevant shortly after they are learned. We test for many unimportant things that crowd the important lessons out of the curriculum.
If there is one conclusion that seems clear, it is that smart people can act foolishly. If foolishness is in some sense the opposite of wisdom, it means that intelligence is no protection against it.
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Robert J. Sternberg is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University