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Teachers College Record Review

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century

Reviewed by William Proefriedt

Title: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century
Author(s): Howard Gardner
Publisher: Basic Books, New York
ISBN: 0465021921, Pages: 256, Year: 2011

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The young are adrift. In his latest book, Howard Gardner worries that they grow up in a cultural context which leads them to see the search for truth, beauty and goodness as fruitless, and to embrace a superficial relativism or even nihilism. The culprits in the creation of this context are the postmodernist thinkers who have, in various ways, questioned traditional beliefs, values and practices, and the digital media that, with its sheer multiplicity of voices, shakes our confidence in any one of them.

The great merit of this book lies in Gardner’s ability to talk plainly to teachers and teacher educators about the complex conceptual and technological world we live in and to explain what that complexity means for how we go about aiding students in inquiring into truth claims and making moral and aesthetic judgments. He seeks new understandings of the virtues of truth, beauty and goodness, and outlines ways in which contemporary teachers might effectively teach towards them. In separate chapters on each of the virtues he describes the cultural situation in which we find ourselves, and the philosophical difficulties we face in arriving at truths, becoming engaged with aesthetic objects, and making moral decisions. In the second half of his book, drawing on his long interest in developmental psychology and learning theory, he offers practical suggestions for teachers to engage students at various developmental stages with these virtues, talks about the conditions necessary for lifelong learning, and addresses the matter of the specific gifts older colleagues bring to inquiry into these virtues.

In his chapter on “Truth,” Gardner argues it would be “catastrophic” if we believed with the postmodernists that truth was only a reflection of power, or that it cannot ever be established with any validity, or that it was “only a majority vote on a webpage” (p. 20).  He acknowledges postmodern skepticism forces us onto a warier and more critical path in our pursuit of the truth. He points to the crafts, from journalism to jewelry-making and to disciplines like history, mathematics and the sciences as allies in the search for truth. We must be knowledgeable about the powers and limitations of our own senses and what is taken as the common sense of the crowd. We are to understand the methods of the disciplines and what counts as evidence within them. We are to sort out the validity of the various claims and counter claims in the digital media. Gardner, to his credit, worries that some may not be up to the task.

His chapter on “Beauty” is longer than those on “Truth” and “Goodness.” The prose is livelier, filled with detail and with anecdotes of his changes in taste in the various arts. While he doesn’t abandon the concept of “beauty,” he does dispose of the notion that there is an ideal of beauty against which we can all measure works of art and our experiences of them. He is interested in objects and experiences that “engender interest, are memorable, and invite further exploration.” (p. 76). The chapter is engaging less for its aesthetic theory as for the tour he takes us on: we learn of and want to know more about the musical compositions of Elliot Carter, of Rodney Graham’s film of an old typewriter being covered in a snowfall, and of the desiccated landscapes of Anselm Kiefer. After reading Gardner, I want to return with my granddaughter to the MOMA and be less the Philistine, and more the explo rer. For him, the twists and turns of art history unlike the history of science, are unique, idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Without Darwin, Wallace or someone else would have advanced the theory of evolution; but without Picasso and Braque, Pollock or Warhol, who could say that “our sense of art, beauty, or awe would have developed along lines that are familiar?” (p.62)

The task Gardner sets for himself with “goodness,” as with the other two virtues, is to rethink and preserve it in the face of postmodern thinking and the digital media. He makes a distinction between the concepts of “moral” and “ethical” in which “moral” is used to talk about neighborly morality, the sort of code embodied in the golden rule, or in the Ten Commandments, a set of attitudes which enable less complex societies to survive and prosper. As societies become more complex, the ethics of roles emerges. One attains an abstract perspective and technical expertise in the role of citizen, worker, or, importantly, as a member of one or another professions.

Drawing on interviews with young workers and students, Gardner concludes they are all too willing to cut corners to achieve success. They are unwilling to articulate judgments on the unethical behavior of others, either peers or public figures, and are rarely outraged. He worries over increased incidences of academic cheating and petty theft among the young. One of the contributing factors to this situation may be that, “we elders have failed to provide convincing responses to critiques that embody a postmodern perspective” (p.99). Digital media also play a role in undermining the search for the good among the young. The sheer multiplicity of views offered is overwhelming. Issues of identity, trust, privacy, ownership and authorship of intellectual property, and participation in a community take on new forms in the digital media and in the online communities to which the young now have access. They are not ready for the more sophisticated mor ality evolving within these larger communities. Hence, we elders have a responsibility to acquaint ourselves with this new world and to bring our wisdom to the task of redefining the “Good” in a postmodern and digital age.

Gardner is sure-footed in his next three chapters as he looks at what developmental psychology and recent learning theory can contribute to our redefining of the trio of virtues and to the roles of teachers and schools in our contemporary situation. He knows these fields well, has contributed to them, and is able, like William James in Talks for Teachers, to present vividly and clearly useful ideas for teachers engaged with the goals outlined in his book. He talks of engaging students with inadequate folk beliefs, assessing evidence and the reliability of sources, and mastering current models of scientific thought.  For all three virtues, Gardner argues, younger children are essentialists. They buy into what the adult offers as true, good or beautiful. With adolescence, things change; rebellion occurs. Cynicism and relativism, exacerbated by postmodern beliefs, set in.

Gardner offers useful suggestions to teachers for encouraging student engagement with beauty. He urges wide exposure, and a stretching of the sense of what young people consider beautiful; he speaks of building portfolios of works of art considered worth preserving.  Students should learn to note differences between works and to articulate why they are moved or unmoved by particular experiences. We are not looking for convergence here. Gardner traces cognitive development through “emergent adulthood” (the kids haven’t moved out yet), adulthood, a third stage of adulthood (50-75, where one becomes a wise mentor and moral visionary distanced from one’s own agenda), and an early old age (active retirement). He believes we can escape the aversion to the new, turn in our old paradigms for fresh ones, expand our notion of who our neighbors are, and serve a complementary role as wise mentors to our technically savvy younger colleagues .

Gardner frames his argument throughout with a comparison of two books: Henry Adams, Mont St. Michel and Chartres and David Shields postmodern novel, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.  The former describes a time that embraced a unified view of his trio of virtues and the latter embodies a postmodern approach. I would have gained a better idea of the contrasting world views depicted had Gardner, instead of comparing the two books, cited and commented on a variety of representative statements from each era. We need to know just where the postmodernists have lapsed into a shabby relativism or even nihilism and where they have made valuable contributions toward our inquiries into the virtues. Gardner does himself a disservice when he characterizes his book as a “sustained argument against the hegemonies of biological determinism and/or economic determinism” (p. 14). That argument strikes me as muddled and not relevant to the book’s more significant practical contributions.  Moreover, what starts out as a complaint against economic determinism becomes a grumbling against quantification, against “the application of mathematical and statistical models to real world problems,” against allowing market values to determine what is beautiful, and finally against any form of causal explanation which calls into question unpredictability, individuality, accident, or cultural differences (p. 15). Gardner is reacting to the propensity of some social scientists, biologists and evolutionary theorists to place unwarranted confidence in the explanatory reach of their often reductionist theories. He points out the recent neglect of the study of the humanities as a way of engaging with truth, goodness and beauty.

We educators understandably like to believe we are effective actors, that e.g., we can close the achievement gap despite economic realities, or we can teach most of our students to reflect critically on the culture which engulfs them. Gardner is no exception. He speaks of an almost limitless set of possibilities for all learners, including adults. “We have little reason to believe in biological constraints on the acquisition of new knowledge, tastes and values” (pp. 162-163). Even when he acknowledges that many adults early on cease embracing new ideas and values and that many societies do not nurture such growth, he still asserts his hopes and illusions about and prescriptions for a far better world than we have ever known. Gardner wants so very much for things to turn out well in the perennial tension between universalism and pluralism, he announces a convergence toward an emerging set of universal values that won’t be purchased at the cost of local practices. He wants to expand the too narrow universalism of the enlightenment to include the insights of Islam, Buddhism, secular humanism, and the precepts and practices of the “indigenous people of several continents (pp. 196-197).  Desire trumps good sense again. Some values in the world in which we live are incompatible; this incompatibility cannot be wished away. Universalism is, in the end, at odds with pluralism; the world’s various religious and philosophical traditions, thankfully in my eyes, are not moving toward some distant ultimate convergence.  As Isaiah Berlin insists, “We must say that the world in which what we see as incompatible values are not in conflict is a world altogether beyond our ken; that principles which are harmonized in this other world are not the principles with which we, in our daily lives, are acquainted; if they are transformed, it is into conceptions that are not known to us on earth. But it is on earth that we live and it is here that we must believe and act” (1990, p.13).

Whatever complaints I may have about some of the arguments in Gardner’s book, I am glad he has, for the moment at least, given us teachers and teacher educators some respite from the endless chatter about accountability, high expectations, data driven practice, and American competitiveness in world markets. His clearly written and jargon-free book introduces us in a lively way to some age-old thorny problems surrounding inquiry into “truth,” “beauty,” and “goodness”; calls to our attention salient features of the context in which we presently operate; and offers us some rethinking of this trio of virtues and a set of practical suggestions for their pursuit in classrooms.

References

Berlin, I. (1990). The crooked timber of humanity (Henry Hardy, Ed.). Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2012, p. –
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16883, Date Accessed: 10/9/2012 8:02:50 PM

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