Education Letter to the Editor

Our Herd Mentality

September 27, 2005 4 min read
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To the Editor:

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect duel over the importance of international rankings in math and science than the essay and reportage that appeared in your Sept. 14, 2005, issue.

Howard Gardner passionately argues that these standings are the least-defensible basis for making accurate predictions about the future of the United States (“Beyond the Herd Mentality,”Commentary, Sept. 14, 2005). Bill Gates and the Business Roundtable, as noted in a Page 1 story, vigorously maintain just the opposite (“U.S. Leaders Fret Over Students’ Math and Science Weaknesses,” Sept. 14, 2005).

Which side is right? It all depends on the aims of education. If preparing students solely for economic realities is what education is all about, the technocratic model is valid. But if education has other purposes, then it is too narrow.

The enduring strength of America’s system of public education has always been its recognition that schools exist for moral and social reasons as well as for academic instruction. Thomas Jefferson made that point in 1818 in his “Report of the Commissionersfor the University of Virginia.” In 1918, the National Education Association echoed that position in its “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Gates and others insist that the country is doomed unless it produces technologically savvy workers who can compete with other countries. A democratic society, however, needs more than citizens who can make megasalaries and best others in the global economy. Time will show that Mr. Gardner was far more perceptive than Mr. Gates.

Walt Gardner

Los Angeles, Calif.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is not related to Howard Gardner.

To the Editor:

In “Beyond the Herd Mentality,” Howard Gardner again displays his propensity for making up lists of vague, empirically unexamined aspects of the learning process. Most Education Week readers are familiar with his ever-expanding tallies of different kinds of children’s “intelligences,” to which he insists teachers must closely tailor their instruction. Now Mr. Gardner proposes that the overarching goal of education is to develop in children “five kinds of minds.” As always, he is not interested in any consideration of how these “minds” can be created in the absence of reliable (that is to say, standardized) tests of whether or not they exist. His loathing for such assessments clearly continues to be monumental.

It is stimulating, at the very least, to imagine what a report card would look like if Mr. Gardner had his way. Presumably, these transcripts would indicate teachers’ nonobjective judgments of how much their students knew about academic disciplines, their ability to synthesize this information, and whether pupils were creative, respectful, and ethical. In short, teachers would be encouraged to exaggerate wildly about the quality of their teaching, since there would be no way to contradict their opinions of it.

Patrick Groff

San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

Howard Gardner’s Commentary is significant for several reasons. First, it creates a paradigm for setting education goals. Second, it illuminates a problem faced by many urban school districts.

In our zeal to improve our practice and the success of our students, we succumb to political pressures and focus our assessments on what is most easily measured and reported: standardized tests. That focus becomes our primary preoccupation, and we lose sight of the broader picture of educating a whole child and creating critical thinkers who use creativity to think.

If we continue to develop students whose focus is on results rather than integrating content, we run the risk of making content extinct.

Peter Kaufman

Director of Education

Adelphi University

Manhattan Center

New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Howard Gardner shows himself to be an impressive satirist in his piece about the “herd mentality” in education. Imagine, a seasoned professor of education and cognition from the leading research university in Massachusetts finally realizing, after a lifetime of research and reflection, that the current testing-and-ranking regime is not what it seems to be. It was hilarious to read his sendup of the old and dead liberal-arts tradition, which suggests that discussions of education ought to begin with “serious consideration of the kinds of human beings we would like to have and to be in the future.”

Three cheers for the sarcasm of elites from our No. 1-ranked university, lauded for its highest percentage of this and that and students whose IQs put them at the top of the academic charts. Let the losers learn to deal with their pathetic lives.

Steve Cohen

Scarsdale, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Howard Gardner’s comments should be read with caution. He only raises questions about the prevalent uses of standardized testing. He does not (or should not) intend to suggest that the United States is doing an adequate job in teaching and assessing student learning in mathematics and science. A rigorous math and science education will have a strong impact on all the qualities of mind he wishes to develop in students.

As one who has experienced both American and Asian teaching methodologies, I sense that Singapore and Japan—countries that do well on international assessments—are at one end of an instructional continuum, with the United States at the other. The truth lies somewhere in between. We can learn from one another.

Mr. Gardner could do the American education system a greater service by comparing, qualitatively, what the strengths in both systems are, and making some relevant policy or practical recommendations beyond criticizing standardized tests.

Yuhang Rong

Marlborough, Conn.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2005 edition of Education Week as Our Herd Mentality Debating Howard Gardner’s Stance on International Rankings


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