Valuing Practical Wisdom

In this last post, I will outline how community-university engagement can be a vehicle for learning and teaching the qualities of phronesis or practical wisdom, an intellectual virtue first identified by Aristotle. I view the capacity for phronesis as being central to the practice of global citizenship.

The rhetoric about preparing students for lives as global citizens has provoked a debate about what global citizenship is and what it entails. Scholars in many jurisdictions have examined the concept and its relevance to post-secondary education. Two Canadian scholars (Jorgenson and Schulz 2012) have provided an excellent overview of the debate. Green (2012) offers a perspective from the US. Caruana (2009) focuses on the UK context and explores how teaching might change to incorporate global citizenship. For a more pragmatic perspective, see Oxfam’s resources on global citizenship.

My purpose here is not to expand on the debate. Instead I want to suggest that educators use the concept of phronesis to re-focus our attention on what I see as the underlying goal of the invocation of “global citizenship,” i.e., that graduates feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to the common good and have the capacity to work with others to achieve it (no matter where the work is located geographically). I see phronesis as the intellectual virtue that underpins this impulse and capacity.

Aristotle defined phronesis as prudence or practical wisdom or practical common sense. It involves deliberation about values and ethics as a precursor to action. It entails knowing how to act in particular contexts to achieve what is “good” or “right” in that context. It requires judgment that can only develop through experience.

Why phronesis matters

I’ll give an example of a situation where a student needs to draw on phronesis. Many students who do Community Service Learning in public schools develop close relationships with the kids they work with. When it is time for the students to end their project or placements, kids often say to their university student mentor, “I love you. When are you coming back?” What might be a wise, skillful response to this question?

Science can tell the student that mentoring relationships are important. Rules and protocols such as “Don’t tell the child you are coming back unless you definitely will come back,” and “Don’t give the child your personal contact information,” can provide parameters for the student’s response. But neither science nor standardized rules can help the student know how to respond to this particular child in this particular moment.

The response will depend on what the setting is, how much time is available, the level of verbal skill of both child and student, and how much the student knows about the child’s history or family context or personality traits. The response also depends on the nature of that particular relationship. How can the relationship be brought to a close in a way that acknowledges what the two have meant to each other, the experiences they have shared, maybe the challenges they have faced together, and what they have achieved?

If students know that phronesis is required in a situation like this, they will understand that it is appropriate to draw on their own values and beliefs as well as lessons learned from similar previous experiences or stories of others’ experiences. They will be influenced by instances of caring, helpful interactions they have witnessed (e.g., between children and teachers in the school). They may also be able to draw on examples of behaviours in similar contexts that were not helpful.

Students will know that their own emotions, intuitions, and visceral reactions can serve not only as valid data but as sources of inspiration. Further, knowing that phronesis is learned through experience, the students will be careful to observe what happens when they take action and will reflect later on their observations so they can incorporate this experience into their knowledge base about what actions are effective in which contexts.

Teaching and learning phronesis

I believe post-secondary instructors can do a better job of educating students to be responsible citizens if we pay more explicit attention to phronesis as a particular capacity that needs to be cultivated. Phronesis directs attention to the question of how to act in order to contribute to the well-being of others. It assumes this question will be surrounded by ambiguity. Formulating an answer will require discernment and wisdom not just information.

Understanding that phronesis can only develop through experience, community engagement becomes an essential element in students’ learning. Working in the community teaches students that “the real world” is more complex than they imagined, that truth is subject to interpretation, and that despite being surrounded by uncertainty, you have to act, sometimes quickly.

Community members who practice phronesis every day as they respond to challenges in their particular environments can be essential participants in the teaching/learning process. They have the experience to act as role models and mentors. But thinking that every person who works in the community is automatically an expert in knowing how to take wise action to serve the common good is naive. So people from academia also have to practice phronesis as they develop relationships with community partners.

If the development of phronesis becomes a valued learning outcome, a legitimate pursuit for post-secondary educators, perhaps community engagement and the aspiration to graduate students committed to lives of engaged citizenship will move from the margins to the centre. And maybe the world will become a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful place.

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.

For more on practical wisdom and its application, see Learning to be a change agent.