Teaching Smarts

October 01, 1999 6 min read


The Disciplined Mind | Brookings Papers on Education Policy 1999
Saturday School: How One Town Kept Out “The Jewish”

Ever since Gardner spelled out his theory of multiple intelligences in the 1983 book Frames of Mind, schoolteachers have been among his most enthusiastic disciples. Because teachers are necessarily optimists regarding their students’ potential, they embrace the Harvard psychologist’s suggestion that there are eight distinct intelligences rather than the old-fashioned two--the linguistic and logical-mathematical. If Johnny struggles to read or do long division, then maybe his intelligence is bodily-kinesthetic (he can play ball) or musical (he can play trumpet) or interpersonal (he can resolve playground disputes). Almost every youngster, it would seem, possesses intelligence of one sort or another.

Still, most teachers are not sure how to apply multiple-intelligences theory. Gardner himself has expressed frustration at some of the things teachers do in the name of multiple intelligences, such as having a child sing a song while filling out a worksheet. In The Disciplined Mind, Gardner attempts to dispel the confusion by proposing an education model. He begins by identifying three more or less universal concerns, or “realms,” that he believes should “animate” all schooling: truth, beauty, and morality. He then elaborates on how each of these might be explored through the study of a specific topic: For truth, he suggests Darwin and his theory of evolution; for beauty, Mozart and his music; and for morality, the Holocaust.

Explaining his selection of Darwin as a topic of study, Gardner points out that a knowledge of evolution is necessary for students to “understand the living world of which we are a part.” Without a grasp of its essentials, he writes, we cannot think about a range of issues that affect human beings, such as the merits and perils of gene therapy or cloning. Similarly, the Holocaust offers students a window into the nature of good and evil. “Every human being needs to understand what it is human beings are capable of doing, sometimes in secret, sometimes with pride,” he writes. “And if the Holocaust is mostly an account of unprecedented human evil, there are scattered incidents of goodness and heroism even in that grim chapter.”

Gardner emphasizes that there is nothing sacrosanct about his choice of topics. The point is to select topics--be it a Mozart opera or a Shakespearean play, the Holocaust or the French Revolution--through which students can explore a “set of key human achievements captured in the venerable phrase ‘the true, the beautiful, and the good.’”

Time and again, Gardner emphasizes depth over breadth. His goal is not to fill students’ minds with a “hodgepodge of concepts and facts,” he writes, but to “inculcate in students an understanding of the major disciplinary ways of thinking.” By studying Darwin and evolution, students come to understand something about how a scientist thinks; by studying the events preceding the Holocaust, they learn historical analysis.

How does all this tie into the theory of multiple intelligences? As Gardner sees it, the topics are so rich that they can be broached in numerous ways. He suggests, for example, that teachers might hook some students by spinning narratives about the lives of Darwin, Mozart, or Hitler. “People of all ages find stories inviting,” he writes. Mathematically inclined students may prefer to examine population shifts in evolving species, the rhythm patterns of “Figaro,” or the terrifying number of “Final Solution” victims.

Gardner’s ideas are certainly intriguing, but would they work in the nation’s schools? It’s hard to imagine many teachers knowledgeable and skillful enough to cover the suggested topics in such a deep, multifaceted way. In small, collegial schools with ample opportunities for professional development, teachers may have the means to nurture students’ “intelligences” on a range of broad topics. But teachers in schools with bulging enrollments and limited resources would find it much harder--especially those whose students lack even the most basic skills.

Interestingly, Gardner ends his book by highlighting six other “promising” approaches to schooling, some of them quite different from his own. Numerous “pathways” are necessary, he writes, because the United States is a heterogeneous nation requiring “different textures.” But perhaps, on a more subtle level, Gardner realizes that his pathway is too tough, requiring, as it would, a corps of gifted teachers able to transcend the difficult environments in which they work.

edited by Diane Ravitch. (Brookings Institution, $19.95.)

This 450-page volume from Ravitch, a conservative scholar, and the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, explores a compendium of “hot topics” in urban education, from privatization and accountability to the changing role of teachers’ unions. Of special interest are lengthy and well-considered discussions of school reform in Chicago and Houston, where varying degrees of progress have been achieved by giving individual schools autonomy for meeting specific achievement goals.

Also of particular interest-especially in wake of the Columbine massacre and a redoubling of school security-is Abigail Thernstrom’s examination of the way recent court rulings have made it difficult for teachers and administrators to discipline students. She points out, for example, that due-process laws now hamper many schools when they try to suspend or expel troublemakers. Some teachers, she writes, have even had to defend themselves in court for reprimanding students. One of the biggest problems, she argues, is that students labeled “emotionally disabled"-a phrase applied these days to many kids who were once considered merely difficult-are protected by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, making their removal from the classroom nearly impossible. By pandering to students’ rights, Thernstrom suggests, our legal system deserves as much blame for unsafe schools as dysfunctional families and our nihilistic entertainment culture.

How One Town Kept Out “The Jewish,”

by Tom Keating. (Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, $10.)

From 1902 until 1932, public schools in Decatur, Georgia, held classes from Tuesday through Saturday. Kids stayed home on Sunday and Monday. Keating, a Decatur resident, conducted extensive interviews with the surviving members of that generation and learned the reason for the unusual schedule: Saturday school would discourage Jews, who worship on that day, from moving to the community. Apparently, it worked; as late as 1998, only 20 Jewish families lived in the prosperous Atlanta suburb.

What’s fascinating about Keating’s short monograph is that it illustrates how this invidious school policy became part of the local fabric of life and hence required, as far as the board of education was concerned, no justification. Though a 1927 survey indicated that residents overwhelmingly wanted the policy thrown out, the board continued the Saturday school without so much as a word of explanation.

Using Decatur as an example, Keating shows us that public policies, once enacted, can take on unexamined lives of their own. This-is-how-it’s-always- been explanations, he warns, may conceal less-than-honorable intentions.

--David Ruenzel