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Where is Aristotle When We Need Him?!

by Larry Susskind
August 2011

Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind

Larry Susskind

Aristotle said that wisdom is knowing the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance. Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe have written a wonderful book called Practical Wisdom (Riverhead/Penguin, 2010) that explains what this means. They explore what happens to doctors, lawyers, and bankers as well as teachers, hospital workers and government employees who depend too heavily on rigid rules and financial incentives rather than good judgment to figure out what the right thing to do is in particular situations. And, they raise a great many reasons why we should be worried about contemporary professional education that plays down the importance of empathy.

Schwartz and Sharpe point out that, "It takes wisdom -- practical wisdom -- to translate the very general aims of a practice into concrete action." So, when professional education emphasizes codified theory and analytical methods at the expense of guided explorations of the everyday dilemmas that practitioners are going to face, we make a big mistake. And, likewise, "the rules and incentives that modern institutions rely on in pursuit of efficiency, accountability, profit and good performance can't substitute for practical wisdom. Nor will they encourage it or nurture it. In fact, they often corrode it."

So, how can we help the next generation of practitioners learn what can't be taught, including the empathy it takes to be wise?" First, we need to stop "telling" our students what (we say) are the right answers to every question. They need to discover for themselves which answers "work" and how they can arrive at them. Second, we have to help newcomers learn to categorize and frame situations in productive ways. We can do this by modeling our approach to these tasks -- highlighting the value of carefully thought-out categories (that allow us to assess each situation on its own merits) and the importance of framing situations in ways that take account of conflicting views of reality. Third, we need to underscore the importance of empathy; ensuring as Schwartz and Sharpe say that, reason and emotion are allies rather than enemies. We want our students to trust their intuition and take heed of their emotions, not suppress them. Next, we want our students, through experimentation and feedback, to learn to trust their ability to see patterns and make moral judgments. They have this skill; we need to embellish it. Finally, we want to encourage them to be "system changers." They can do this if we help them to pursue the right objectives for the right reasons. This means talking a lot about what the right thing to do is, and making clear that professional success (especially happiness about our role in the world) is mostly a function of our ability to do the right thing for others.

Biography


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planningin 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School-- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.

 



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Website: www.lawrencesusskind.com

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