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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Truth, Beauty and Goodness: an Interview with Dr. Howard Gardner

By Peter DeWitt — August 09, 2011 7 min read
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We live in an increasingly complicated world. Some of us have a moral compass that is shaped by our experiences. We all have our own opinions on what truth, beauty and goodness means. However, we also meet people who have diverse opinions of those three virtues and thus problems ensue.

Our society has changed a great deal. The implementation of technology and the need to remain connected 24/7 has many implications for all of us. In addition, in order to meet the demands of mandates and high stakes testing, some of what we taught to students that offered a liberal arts education has been thrown aside to prepare students for a faster-paced society. Unfortunately, although I like to stay connected through social-networking sites, I enjoy listening to classical music and going to art museums. I worry that our students are missing out when they do not get exposed to these experiences.

When I was a young teacher in a small city school, I was idealistic and wanted to do things differently. I wanted to question the old guard in an effort to educate students in a way that would engage them. As a former struggling learner, I knew the importance of differentiating my instruction to better meet the needs of my students. However, I also know that I did not always meet their needs and trying wasn’t good enough.

I began to read books about Multiple Intelligences by Dr. Howard Gardner and instantly fell in love with his ideas. It was almost as if he gave me permission to teach in more than one way. This may not not sound like a groundbreaking concept but during the times of whole group teaching in every subject, it was groundbreaking and still is today. It helped me realize that all students have strengths and weaknesses. Some are more musical, while others are good with words. To be perfectly honest, it gave me hope as I entered my classroom each day.

In April, Dr. Gardner’s new book entitled Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century was published by Basic Books. Gardner brings us back to the importance of those three virtues. In reading the book, I reflected on times when I would have experiences when time seemed to stand still. I worry that we are losing those precious moments where we can have conversations with our students about truth, beauty, and goodness.

Although I do not support high stakes testing and the pressures it puts on our young students, I’m trying to find common ground between our mandates and exposing students to important real-life experiences, and I wanted Dr. Gardner’s advice on how to move forward.

PD: Do you feel high stakes testing has had an impact on the teaching of the three virtues you highlight in your book? If so, how can we, as educators, find common ground between high stakes testing and the teaching of things that are truthful, beautiful and good?

HG: High stakes testing is no friend of the traditional virtues. Probably the virtues do not lend themselves to short answer tests, and the notion that the tests are ‘high stake’ only muddies the water further. I have sometimes quipped that the behavioral change most directly tied to high stakes testing in the U.S. is an increase in the amount of cheating by students, teachers, and, we are now learning, of administrators as well.

I am relieved that, in my own teaching, I don’t have to moderate between high stake teaching and education for the virtues. If I did, I would give students the tools to take the tests but not spend an inordinate amount of time on test prep nor on ‘teaching to the test.’ If the students, or their parents, want drill in testing, they’d have to go elsewhere. As a professional, my most important obligation is to teach the topic, skills, and methods in ways that I feel are intellectually legitimate.

PD: You wrote that there is no single truth or absolute truth. How do we teach students about finding the truth given the barrage of media such as blogs, newspapers and television?

HG: There is no single truth, but each of the scholarly disciplines has methods which lead one ever closer to the truth. Students need to be apprised of this state of affairs and be given the tools to both judge and add to current knowledge. In some ways, the Internet makes the task harder, because there is so much garbage out there. But the chances of discovering truth, or getting closer to it, is actually greater than ever before--if you are willing to take the time. Increasingly, classroom time should be devoted to giving students the tools for ascertaining the truth value of propositions.

PD: In Chapter three you state, “Beauty reveals itself in the course of an experience with an object.” How do we expose students to the beauty of their situation, whether good or bad, if the adults around them cannot see it?

HG: While truth is ultimately convergent, beauty is ultimately divergent. No one can and no one should tell anyone else what that person should consider beautiful. Our job as teachers is to help students distinguish among experiences in the same genre--two paintings, two poems, two discussions, etc.--and then, if we like, indicate why we prefer one rather than the other.

I actually think it is great if students discern beauty where adults don’t. We should then turn the tables and ask students WHAT differences they are noticing and WHY they value one object more than another. In the book, I encourage each of us to assemble his/her own evolving portfolio of ‘what is beautiful.’

PD: You mention that an individual can be a good person without being a good worker or a good citizen. Why did you feel it necessary to make this distinction?

HG: A good person is one who follows the Ten Commandments and the golden rule. There is plenty of precedent in history to guide us and we probably evolved to be sensitive to Bible-Golden Rule situations. But the dilemmas faced by a worker--a journalist, an architect, an auditor--or by a citizen (what position to take on stem cell research, whether to run for office, what is the proper balance between taxation and social nets)--are not questions that can be answered by traditional texts or precedents. And so I call for the establishment of ‘common spaces’ where workers can tackle ethical dilemmas with other workers in their trade, and where citizens can communicate their positions and have them critiqued by other citizens.

PD: I feel that we do our best to teach students to be good citizens. However, the internet has caused many cases where students can be mean to each other anonymously. How can we best teach our students that it’s important to be good in both areas?

HG: It is true that students tend not to attach the same weight to behavior on the internet that they do to behavior offline. That may change over time. In the meantime, it is important that respected role models or mentors (of any age) indicate what is acceptable behavior, what is not, and why. We have developed a curriculum called Our Space which deals with the major ethical dilemmas that arise in the use of digital media. You can learn more about the curriculum at goodworkproject.org. especially the entries on the Good Play project.

PD: How do you incorporate these virtues into your Project Zero Schools?

HG: We don’t have Project Zero schools. But each summer we have a number of Institutes at Harvard in which we discuss such issues with educators and also suggest best practices. You can learn more about these institutes, and other Project Zero events, at pzweb.harvard.edu

Dr. Gardner explores the three virtues in depth and provokes the reader, as he always does, to look at their definition of what truth, beauty and goodness is, and consider how others can see the same virtues in a much different way.

Just like all of Dr. Gardner’s books, this is worth the read because he once again forces us to step outside our own thoughts and find new ways to approach our careers and lives.

Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds positions as Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Senior Director of
Harvard Project Zero. Among numerous honors, Gardner received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981. He has received honorary degrees from 26 colleges and universities, including institutions in Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, and South Korea. In 2005 and again in 2008, he was selected by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world. The author of 25 books translated into 28 languages, and several hundred articles, Gardner is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be adequately assessed by standard psychometric instruments (retrieved 8/05/11 from howardgardner.com).

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Gardner, Howard (2011), Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century. Basic Books.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.