Robert J. Sternberg weighs in on ’What Universities Can Be’

Robert J. Sternberg, professor of human development - with a research program in intelligence, creativity, wisdom, thinking styles, leadership and ethics in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology - talked about his book, ’What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership? (Cornell University Press, 2016).

What’s the point of your new book?

The main point is that all universities have a mission, and that mission - should define everything they do. I talk in the book about what I believe is one particularly good or even optimum mission, and that is developing active, concerned citizens and ethical leaders, which I refer to as ACCEL.

If you look at leadership today, starting with the 2016 election but in any field, you have smart people - in the sense of IQ or SAT scores - leading things. But there is widespread and understandable dissatisfaction with the quality of leadership we have - not only in politics but in business and even science and elsewhere. In business there are frequent scandals, and in science there are some serious replicability problems.

Don’t we need some objective basis for college admissions?

We have built a society where you need high SAT scores and ACT scores to get into college. To get into graduate school you need to do well on [standardized tests]. We have built a society on IQ test proxies - .

Historical experience suggests that is a bad idea. The two studies that looked at what happens to people distinguished primarily by their high IQs - one by Lewis Terman at Stanford and the other by Rena Subotnik at Hunter College - showed that people with high IQs tend to be more successful in a variety of ways. But they are often not the people who change the world.

Just looking at IQ isn’t going to tell you squat about whether a person is going to make any positive and meaningful difference in the world. All standardized tests tell is: Do students have the kind of smarts to have a good income and, basically, to look out for themselves - . And recent developments in politics have almost made a mockery that goal. We have many politicians who seem to be entirely self-preoccupied - whose ethical principles got lost somewhere along the line. - The current presidential election, for example, is an international embarrassment.

How would your ACCEL mission for universities change things?

If you want to develop active, concerned citizens and ethical leaders, you need a different approach. You can’t just be measuring how much knowledge they have, because dictators, thieves and other assorted scoundrels can be very knowledgeable. Fraudulent scientists can be very knowledgeable. Plagiarist writers can be very knowledgeable. What you need are people who are creative but also, most importantly, have common sense and who are wise and ethical. - They’re not adequately being developed in the colleges and universities.

We’re not doing enough to develop ethics, which is using a code of behavior to ask yourself what the right thing to do is. And we’re not adequately developing common sense. ?

How about a standardized test for the capacity to become an ethical leader?

We’re doing the research on that in my group at Cornell right now - devising tests of ethical reasoning. I have one group developing tests of ethical thinking for medical school admissions, and another group working on new measures for graduate admissions that look also at things like scientific reasoning and judgment. We also successfully have developed tests for undergraduate admissions, measuring creative, analytical, practical, and wisdom-based skills, which are described in my book.

What should someone who wants to be an active citizen look for in the college experience?

The way you develop wisdom is by having role models for wisdom. One of the questions being asked about this presidential election is: Do you see these candidates as role models for your kids? That’s what professors need to be. I think the way you develop wisdom is by confronting the hard problems the world is facing - climate change, how to achieve peace, how to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, how to deal with terrorism.

If you’re not doing it through your classes, do it through your extracurricular activities. Do it through your reading or writing for the school paper. Try to think about what you’ve learned in your classes - whether philosophy or psychology or sociology or literature or biology: How can I apply the knowledge I’m getting in college to make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world?

H. Roger Segelken is a freelance writer.


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