Correspondence with Jonathan Levy

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:

Jonathan Levy is an award-winning playwright, Distinguished Teaching Professor at SUNY Stony Brook and Visiting Scholar at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He has numerous publications in the fields of: theatre for youth history, criticism and theory; playwriting; arts assessment; and aesthetics.


Dear Howard,

Thank you for the copy of your wonderful book. I enjoyed it greatly and was stimulated to think once again about what Paul Tillich called “ultimate concerns”. For which, many thanks.

I think it is brave of you to take all the important issues on at once and remarkable that you have done so in such depth and scholarship, at the same time, with such a light tough. What you have to say is important. Even better, to my mind, it is useful. And a useful plan for teaching what most human beings don’t know and most need to learn is priceless.

I do have a few comments and queries. I’m sure I do, not because I disagree with what you say, but because, in many ways, you and I see the world differently. Therefore, the territory you describe so brilliantly is often not exactly the same territory I recognize. Here are a few examples.

Truth. The truth you talk about seems to be that truth that is available to the mind and is testable by the mind. Clearly, that is an invaluable and essential kind of truth. Perhaps it is the only kind of truth that can be systematically taught in a predictable (that is, a school-like) way. It is part of what I had hoped to begin to teach in the short course I sent you. 

But I believe there is are other kinds of important truth and other ways to reach it beside what can be ascertained through senses and tested by the mind – the truth of introspection and intuition, for example, and, in a more profound, ecstatic or nutty (depending on your point of view) the truth of the mediator, the visionary and/or the prophet. The instinctive, non-analytical road to truth is, of course, the chief and thought to be the best road in other cultures and other systems. This path to truth may be unteachable, but if it is, there are an awful lot of gurus (often originally Jewish psychotherapists) who are getting money for jam.

Goodness. I went to an Ethical Culture school. We did an awful lot of ethical case discussion. As I remember, it usually took on a Talmudic tone (who can split hairs best) or smart-kids’ school tone (who is cleverer than whom). 

The hard thing is, I think about real Ethical Education is how to teach students to act ethically before they have time to think a question through. (I have some thoughts about this).

Beauty. A small point and a query. To my mind, not all intriguing, exciting even life-changing artistic experience is beautiful. The “tingle” is, at least at the beginning, necessary but not sufficient. Beauty for me implies resolution (which of course doesn’t always, or usually, mean a C-major chord). When the “tingle” turns to something deeper and more permanent – on second, third and fourth viewings/hearings, for example — I would call it beautiful.

The query is about taste. You cite one aphorism about taste – “De gustibus non disputandum est” several times, which of course does not mean that taste that taste is not disputed. (V. Any academic literary journal, if you have the stomach). The other most –cited aphorism about taste – “There is no accounting for tastes” – seems to me to be at least as interesting a proposition, especially for psychologists. I am not talking about the general, evolutionary development of taste, which you talk about so interestingly in your book. I mean the development of individual, idiosyncratic taste; personal taste. E.g. Rubens is a superb painter. Updike is a masterful writer. Sondheim is a superb lyricist (though not composer). Do you like Rubens, Updike and Sondheim? No. I admire them but do not like them and do not seek them out. WHY? That is the question. The best I can do is say what the Quakers say: “It does not speak to my condition.” WHY?

In any case, those are a few peripheral thoughts. I congratulate you on your fine and important book. Thank you again for sending it to me.




Hi Jonathan,

Many thanks for reading my book and writing to me. I do believe that you are the first person—other than one of my sons—to have done this. 

Anyway, I’ve been in this business long enough to know that nothing is totally predictable. And I have enough self confidence to believe that, in the end, the people who would find the book of interest will hear about it—though, interestingly, that is more likely to occur in other countries than in the U.S., for reasons about which I could speculate endlessly.

Let me, then, comment briefly on your trenchant points:

Truth. I think that what you extent the term truth to, is what I call ‘authenticity’—the observations or experiences ‘ring true’ but not in terms of verifiable criteria. I speak about this as the ‘truth of art’ but of course it can apply to any domain.

Goodness. It would be interesting to know what sorts of things have changed at “Ethical Culture” or “Fieldston” as well as what has changed in the last several decades.  

There is a lot of evidence now that moral and even ethical behavior can become instinctual and not require conscious ratiocination. That supports your position.  However, what I’m interested in is precisely those vexing dilemmas where instincts are not helpful and can be dead wrong. Though not in the book, I call for the creation of a ‘commons’ where of these vexed issues (e.g. should one publish the Danish cartoons? Should one publish the photo of Bin Laden dead?), the pros and cons need to be weighed.   

We actually have a website,, where we try to discuss these issues regularly, especially on Facebook. 

Beauty. I think that we are on the same, or at least similar, pages here. One of my criteria for beauty is ‘inviting further encounters.’ I would be inclined to call an experience ‘not beautiful’ in the absence of further encounters or if the further encounters disabuse the desire to revisit.

Taste. Interestingly, my taste is almost identical to yours. I don’t like Rubens at all. I have to admit that I like the idea of Sondheim (and the musical about his work) more than his actual songs. And as for John Updike, I loved his writings, especially about art and life, and greatly miss his prose in the New Yorker. His poetry is light. Some of his stories are brilliant; but after the Rabbit Quartet, he never really gained his stride in novels, in my opinion.

One more thing – While Beethoven wrote great music, I am not a fan overall. There are many other composers—chief among them Mozart, Bach, and Mahler—whose overall oeuvres I admire much more.

Great to be in touch.




Dear Howard,

Let me comment on your comments.

Truth. “Authenticity” means something else than “truth” to me. As I think I told you, I did my doctoral thesis with Lionel Trilling who was writing his “Sincerity and Authenticity” at the time, so God knows I heard the word a lot. Authentic means to me “echt.” E.g. What annoys me about Bob Dylan (in addition to his purposely lousy voice) is what I like so much in Woodie Gutherie and love in Bessie Smith — the real thing at its source. The verifiable and reproducible truth you describe is great for science but I think it would mean that there could be no such thing as an historical truth excepts for facts and maps. It also means that most everything we live by is not true, except in occasional snippets the several sciences, yours particularly, happen to discover. 

Goodness. I have, alas, come to believe that talk, even expensive talk, is cheap. Good acts and policies can come from ratiocination. Good deeds rarely can. I have had some thoughts on ways to train the impulse to good reaction.

Beauty. “Inviting further encounters” only works part-way for me. (1) I think of Beauty as the opposite of Ugly, and ugly can be riveting, compelling, good-disturbing etc. and can give pleasure (Cf La jolie laide). (2) Re “absence of further desire to revisit:” In my twenties and thirties, I couldn’t get enough of Donizetti. I can’t sit through his operas today. His music has not changed. It is still beautiful. I changed and, alas, I am less beautiful but cherish Beethoven’s late quartets.

Taste. I think Updike is wonderful, perfect — too-perfect, in fact. I like his light verse and his criticism, not only because he is so acute but because he is so generous. His fiction I like less, as it has always seemed to me to be John Cheever without flesh. But, as the Quakers say, he does not speak to my condition. And by the way I like primitive cave paintings, the Douanier Rousseau, other primitive painters, Turner and Grosz better than I like better artists. I’m sure Bernard Berenson is rattling his Campari-soda in purgatory.



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