Seminar program focuses on wisdom

by Paulomi Rao | 5/16/17 2:05am


As an undergraduate student at Dartmouth and later at the Geisel School of Medicine, Daniel Lucey ’77 Med’81 wished he had had an environment in which he could learn from his peers, mentors and professors. As an alumnus, he helped found the Wisdom University Seminars to ensure that faculty and students can learn from those who came before them.

Last week, 20 undergraduate students participated in a discussion dinner with Lucey and Geisel professor Joseph O’Donnell as part of this new seminar program sponsored by Provost Carolyn Dever.

Usually meant for faculty, the dinner allowed undergraduate students to participate in a panel structured the same way as the Wisdom University Seminars for faculty. Due to the success of the discussion, Lucey and O’Donnell hope to arrange further follow-up discussions with pre-health undergraduates in summer and fall of 2017.

In 2013, Lucey initially reached out to faculty, classmates and O’Donnell, his former professor, to discuss the creation of a seminar focused on wisdom. His inspiration to create the seminars was catalyzed by listening to College President Phil Hanlon’s inaugural speech in 2013, in which Hanlon emphasized the role of wisdom in a Dartmouth education.

The first seminar was a panel for a senior class reunion. English professor Donald Pease worked with visiting professor Kenneth Sharpe to find a way to turn the contents of the panel into a full-fledged course, called “Doing the Right Thing,” for graduate students on practical wisdom. Following the success of the course in the Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies graduate program, Sharpe taught the course again in winter 2016.

After teaching the course, Sharpe created the Wisdom University Seminars to address the importance of wisdom discussed in the class in a more accessible manner.

Initially, the seminar targeted College faculty in order to help them recognize the importance of the wisdom initiative and communicate its significance to other faculty and administrators, particularly at the Thayer School of Engineering and Tuck School of Business.

“We are hoping to bring together people from different departments who wouldn’t normally talk to each other on a subject of mutual interest,” Sharpe said.

The seminar series has offered four dinner discussions so far, each with 15 to 25 faculty and facilitators in attendance. While faculty from a variety of departments have participated, most of them were affiliated with Geisel.

“I think the need to exercise judgment in complicated situations and the need to do the right thing, when there is really no clear rule to make a choice, really resonates with what doctors face with patients,” Sharpe said.

In the coming months, Sharpe hopes to reach out to various humanities departments to integrate issues of ethics and wisdom into the medical curriculum.

“You can make doctors much more sensitive to understanding the perspectives of other people,” Sharpe said. He added that teaching doctors empathy can help them care for patients throughout their diagnosis and treatment.

Currently, efforts inside Geisel have already begun to teach wisdom through stories and experiences in classes.

The only way to learn how to exercise that kind of judgment is through actual practice, and part of that practice is getting people to step back and reflect, Sharpe said. The process of continual reflection is actually what teaches people how to practice better, he added.

“I think this is a time in the world where we can all use a lot more wisdom, so if we can build that into the undergraduate level, you all would be better prepared when you go off into the world,” Pease said.

Pease also noted that regardless of career path ambitions or academic disciplines, any kind of learning or life activity is going to “demand” the exercise of tough judgment in tough situations where there are no formal rules.

In total, the seminar organizers have collected 33 stories from Geisel students who graduated or will graduate from 1955 and on. Last month, organizers collected stories from current fourth-year Geisel students to give to second-year students in a transitional ceremony.

Each seminar starts as a facilitated conversation and then is opened for discussion among faculty.

“We are trying to be inclusive,” Lucey said. “There is no set answer of what wisdom traditions we should be following.”

Sharpe said he hopes to develop an undergraduate course that models the Master of Liberal Arts course or work with Lucey to develop an institute that is dedicated to the initiatives of the wisdom project.

According to O’Donnell, one of the best parts of the seminar series are the relationships that have been developed among faculty who otherwise might have never gotten to know each other.

“The goal is to get people to understand how to do the right thing and the right time for the right people,” O’Donnell said. “When you get to my stage of my career and look back, you think about all the things you wish people helped you with or mentored you with or you had time to reflect about.”

Ultimately, O’Donnell hopes that the ability to reflect on wisdom will help those in the Dartmouth community become wiser, more compassionate and provide them with the tools to have the difficult conversations found in everyday contexts.

“A lot of it is about creating space for reflection, conversation, group work and mentoring and all of this is really the subject of the seminars — to encourage wisdom in the environment,” Lucey said.

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