Correspondence with Harry Lewis

In April 2011, Howard Gardner published Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for Virtues in the Twenty First Century. The book received positive reviews, the fullest one by Alan Ryan in the New York Review of Books. A paperback version of the book, with a new preface, and a new subtitle, “Educating for the Virtues in the Era of Truthiness and Twitter” is being published in the fall of 2012.

In addition to reviews, Gardner has received provocative letters from colleagues. From time to time we will post these exchanges:

Harry Lewis is the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Computer Science at Harvard University. Lewis served as the Dean of Harvard College for eight years.

Harry – Howard, just read – and enjoyed – Truth, Beauty and Goodness. It meshes with some thoughts of my own and as I try to frame my next             writing on the state of the world it has given me some things to think about. Perhaps you’ll be interested in some of my specific reactions. Overall, you are more optimistic than I about the inevitability of progress toward the truth. I went to the national bison range yesterday and wondered at the proto-bison skull on display, with much bigger horns, and the explanation that it had been excavated from the bering strait where it had been deposited perhaps 100,000 years when the bison ancestors were making their way to the new world. I could see an American in which such fantastic claims about the age of things are removed from public sites, or “balanced” with competing explanations of their origins.

Howard – The chances for getting it wrong are always prepotent, but there is a much greater OPPORTUNITY if not PROBABILITY of getting it right. To use a demotic example, if you watch FOX, MSNBC and 1-2 more centrist media, it is less likely that you’ll miss something important. And when Murdoch goes too far, there is at least a prayer of a chance that he will be knocked down a few pegs.

Harry – I wonder about your 3-pronged criteria for beauty. Seems to me that horror films have all 3 properties. I think you may need to get that hormonal “rush” you mention in there as a primitive.

Howard – I suspect that my view of beauty will be the hardest to swallow. I am suggesting that beauty as a consensual standard or goal is over for all intents and purposes, and we each can and should develop our own personal sense of beauty and let it evolve. Horror films are fine so long as they encourage cognitive and emotional growth, rather than pornographic stasis or regression. I suspect that there is an aesthetic of the grotesque, just as there is of the romantic or the minimalist. 

Harry – I was surprised to see so little in here about gender (except for the use of female pronouns in random places, as though to emphasize that everything you are saying is gender-neutral). For example, it seems to me that one of the advantages of single-sex education around puberty (there are certainly plenty of disadvantages) is that given the current social structure, it makes it easier for boys to experience and articulate beauty (just as it makes it easier for girls to be scientific and technological). 

Howard – Interesting point. Because of my multiple intelligences work, and the way it has been exploited and distorted, I stay away from gender comparisons for the most part. But of course, as a scholar, parent, and citizen I am interested in gender differences and what brings them about.

Harry – I also might have hoped to see the subject of assessment mentioned. It is hard to see how one would know whether some of your educational ambitions are being achieved. I don’t love this subject, but everybody else seems to these days!

Howard – I have written an enormous amount about this but in other places. Interestingly, whenever I publish a book, the first reaction in the US is — what about assessing?

Harry – I imagine you meant FDR rather than TR as the guy who overcame physical disability.

Howard – NO actually I meant Theodore Roosevelt who was sickly but engaged in manhood training. But I can see why one would think of FDR.

Harry – Your passage about freedom of the press seems to me to be dangerously unclear about laws vs. norms. I trust you would not want the printing of offensive cartoons outlawed, merely condemned. (What about Jefferson Hemmings?) Even so, it seems to me almost inevitable that what is really driving your logic is that people got killed as a result of the publication. Problem with that is it encourages people with grievances to be more violent, as that becomes the social standard for getting their opponents to shut up. I tend to be an absolutist about this stuff.

Howard – Fair point, but I stopped being absolutist once I became convinced that in a truly global world, what works in an American-European context may need to be suspended or softened, at least for a few centuries 🙂 but I continune to wrestle with this conundrum and freely admit I could be mistaken.

Harry – I am quite unpersuaded that enlightenment needs globalization. I think the Palins and Bachmans of the world are doing exactly that — grafting Taliban thinking on enlightenment rootstock. Don’t you think these people satisfy your definition of fundamentalism? More generally, I inclined to be much less accommodating than you are of religion. I agree that religion should be left alone — except when it wants to have an influence over the way I live my life. In other words, it’s harmless when it’s weak. That is true of most tyrannies. I actually think religion is much more dangerous today than postmodernism, to which you devote so much attention.

Howard – Another VERY sticky wicket — you notice that I do leave religion out, because I have the same view as you do, but worry that most of the world, and especially the US, has a different view. I want to convince and perhaps provoke rather than alienate (the Dawkins Hitchens option). As for my new Enlightenment, I do disagree there. I think that there are things to be learned from the other great traditions, small as welll as large, and even— and here you will want to hit me over the head — from Singapore, if not China. 

Harry – A couple of times you refer to Darwin and Einstein. I think you mention early on that if we didn’t have Darwin then Wallace would have gotten us to the same place, whereas later you say how different the world would be without Einstein (sorry, I am reading the Kindle edition so no page numbers). Actually the inevitability of such discoveries is quite astonishing. Kevin Kelly (in an otherwise sometimes silly book, What Technology Wants) documents many instances of these independent discoveries and near-discoveries. Really quite amazing, they do seem to have a life of their own.

Howard – Einstein vs Darwin is an interesting case comparison. In both cases, they put their personal mark on their discoveries, but at least special relativity and probably general relativity would have been discovered within a generation– but Einstein’s role vis a vis the A Bomb would NOT have been duplicated, had the discovery been made in Germany or even in France.

Harry – Re: figure 3.2, etc. You might have mentioned Magritte and his non-pipe.

Howard – Magritte (and Duchamp) anticipated conceptual art in many ways. There is more interest in my book abroad than in the US, but unfortunately the images wont be reproduced in most countries. I just finished preparing image-free text. Fortunately, I can supply urls in all cases.

Harry – Pretty depressing picture of the “I’ll be moral once I get rich” philosophy of youth. I think this is part of the larger problem of temporal myopia. We have stopped telling young people that they will not sit under the shade of the trees they plant, and hence they believe that trees are not worth planting, if there are other competing and more immediate demands on them.

Howard – And this the issue on which I spent my time these days. It led to my work in the Freshman Reflection Sessions at Harvard and increasingly, in other places.

Harry – Now I have to get down to work writing up what I think rather than critiquing what you think!

Howard – THANKS AGAIN as you know, feedback from thoughtful colleagues makes ALL the difference.

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