Correspondence with Shirley Brice Heath

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:

Shirley Brice Heath is an American linguistic, anthropologist, and Professor Emerita, Margery Bailey Professorship in English, at Stanford University. A MacArthur Prize Fellow winner, she is the author of Ways with Words: Language, Life, And Work In Communities And Classrooms.

Dear Howard,

Your book has, over the past weeks, been a great welcome series of short breaks. This is my favorite book among all of your books, and I managed to agree, argue, sigh, and laugh in almost equal proportions in every chapter. With Chapter 4, I had the heartiest conversation, but when I reached Chapter 6, my back-and-forth thinking started anew. Chapter 4 resonates closely with several themes in my book regarding young people. You and I are the only scholars I know of who take so seriously “the ethics of roles.” Through this chapter, I thought of the many ways in which kids who have come through the toughest circumstances to claim promising futures have been those who had in their childhood and adolescence either multiple household roles or several roles within a hierarchy of leadership in a youth organization. The switching across roles bring critical practice in understanding “practical work” and the kinds of planning strategies critical to accomplishing such work satisfactorily. Have you seen Elinor Ochs’ article on practice work in Ethos, volume 37, no. 4? Well worth reading. 

You seem to accept (hope?) that when families do not socialize with an understanding of “the ethics of roles”, the community will. I wish that were more often the case. I wanted you to push harder on the application of not only goodness but also the other attributes in the book’s title with respect to widening circles of interest beyond the personal. The debt crisis debacle certainly illustrates the extent to which your hopes on p. 87 come up short in national leaders these days. It helps to compare Everett Dirksen as a Republican with Eric Cantor! Had we not had Dirksen, we might never had gotten Civil Rights legislation. 

You have probably noticed the abundance of writing these past months on truth. Ellen Winner and I were talking, when I last saw you, about Steven Shapiro’s book on a social history of truth and civility in 17th century England. Not surprisingly, this work makes it clear that as our reliance on techno-science increases (especially in medical sciences), the invisibility of trust relationships accelerates. 

Your points on adolescents of today make me want to disagree, but, alas, in the main, I cannot. I would urge all of us, however, to find some substitute for the term  community when we refer to cyberspace. The interconnections offered by the internet, though certainly sufficient in the kind of deliberation that a community has to practice, do not encourage this kind of interaction. Hence, the decency, trust, responsibility, and on-going engagement that sustain community become improbable if not impossible. 

In your chapter on lifelong learning, I so appreciated your attention to how much synthesis relies on time as well as timing. A subtext of that chapter bring along the increasing demands that information across fields make on images and their layering with one another as well as with extended texts originating from different sources. Since modeling still matters to the young, what they see in their elders is a narrow admission of what serves as “facts”, and the young therefore orient themselves to the world with filters of which they are not even aware. Have you seen the weird book by Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods?.

With warm regards,


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