A special edition of the Israeli periodical Educational Echoes devoted to thinkers who have helped to shape educational discourse in Israel and internationally features an interview with Howard Gardner. The interview probes Gardner’s current thinking on issues like good workers and citizens, liberal education and its goals, and opinions of educational policies. To view the published Hebrew excerpt, click here to see a PDF. Below is the text of the article in English.
1. I personally think that these three questions about the quality of man, worker and citizen are the most important (and forgotten) questions in education. Could you tell us briefly what are the main characteristics of them?
Gardner: The reason for this distinction is that one can be a good ”X” without necessarily being a good “Y” or “Z.” Members of the Mafia may be wonderful family members—hence, good persons—but terrible citizens. Mahatma Gandhi was an exemplary world citizen but not a particularly good husband or father.
On my analysis, the good person is one who behaves in a moral manner toward those around him. Morality is well captured in the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and other long-standing sets of precepts.
My own work is focused not on “neighborly morality” but on the “ethics of roles.” The good worker—more precisely, the good professional—is technically Excellent; Engaged in his or her work; and carries out that work in an Ethical manner. (We speak of the “three Es.”) The good citizen – of his/her community, nation, world—knows the relevant rules of the community; cares enough to be involved in the community; and tries to realize goals for the general welfare, not just his or her own personal goals.
Of course, there is much more to say on these topics. I refer interested readers to the chapter on “the good” in my book Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed; and to our website, thegoodproject.org.
2. It seems to me that good man, good worker and good citizen need different – and contradictory – types of educations. A good man needs a liberal education, the one you had described in your book The Disciplined Mind (by the way, we had translated it into Hebrew and now raising some money in order to publish it) . A good worker needs a good training to equip him with relevant skills and character traits. The leading idea of the first education is seeking the truth, the just and the beauty. The leading idea of the second one is skillfulness and efficiency (the good citizen falls in between). In short, you can’t educate good man and good worker simultaneously. In our capitalistic society lead by technical rationality, by skillfulness and efficiency, education, in my opinion, should concentrate on developing good human being (and not good worker). What do you think?
Gardner: You raise a good question about whether there is tension in the education of these three “goods.” It’s the job of local institutions—above all, the family, but also schools and institutions charged with religious training—to nurture good persons.
The work of these local institutions is relevant for good workers, but the most important forces are the messages and models at the workplace itself and in direct training for the work place (e.g. law school, medical school, engineering school).
How we nurture good citizens is a challenge, and especially so in the digital era. I should point out the ‘citizen’ is not an ancient concept, except perhaps for Greece and Rome. It is really a product of modern society, influenced particularly by the ideas that led to the French and American Revolutions, and the British parliamentary system. If, in a society, we have mature citizens who act in the public interest and who nurture younger persons to do the same, then there is a chance for good citizens going forward. But, as we learned in the 20th century, there are powerful forces that can undermine or pervert any reasonable sense of citizenship.
3. What are the chances of the liberal education in our post-modern and late capitalistic era? The “post” made all values relative and arbitrary, and the late capitalism subjugated them to economic terms? (From our remote province, Israel, we are watching at the American education and do not get any pedagogical-liberal inspiration.)
Gardner: What I call “liberal arts and sciences” will not survive in the 21st century unless we have powerful examples of effective education, individuals who believe in that form of education, and will work to ensure its survival. I believe that such an education is the best form of education for youth in the adolescent and immediate post-adolescent years. But I also believe we cannot simply extend what was done in the 19th and 20th century; we need to transform or reinvent that form of education for our time.
And so, for example, while work in individual disciplines was foregrounded in the past fifty years, we may need to highlight work that brings together two or more disciplines (so called interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary work). Or, to use another example, while the values of institutions were transmitted by religions in the 19th century, we need to find equally powerful ways to transmit scholarly values in the 21st century, when most institutions are secular rather than sectarian.
4. The leading slogan of our new minister of education is “meaningful learning”. From your perspective, what is the meaning of “meaningful learning”? What should be taught and learnt meaningfully? And for what aim? (if for meaningful life – what is it?).
Gardner: Since no one would embrace “meaningless learning,” I don’t know what is meant by this phrase. I have less of a problem with the phrase “deep learning.” Such learning involves the mastery of a limited number of key ideas, concepts, and theories so that one can draw upon them in explicating a variety of questions, puzzles, and problems, while knowing their limitations. In my book The Disciplined Mind, I indicate how a whole curriculum can be devised around an understanding of the concept of “evolution” in biology. That would be an example of “deep learning”—as compared to an education where one would memorize a definition of evolution but be clueless about how to make sense of, say, a newly discovered species or the misapplication of the concept of “biological evolution” in understanding a political conflict.
5. How would you define the aims of education nowadays? To what extent should they be affected by the context in which we live – globalization, knowledge economy, democracy, etc.?
Gardner: I approached this question in three of my books. In The Disciplined Mind, I argued for the importance of mastery of a few key disciplines, best achieved through deep study of seminal ideas. In Five Minds for the Future, I described the importance of three cognitive capacities (the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind) and two capacities crucial in human relations (the respectful mind and the ethical mind—see my comments with respect to questions 1-2 above). And in The App Generation, co-authored with Katie Davis, I reflected on how learning may be quite different in a digital environment—either enabling fresh lines of thought, inquiry, and action, or making one dependent on the limited options offered by one’s digital devices.
Without question, the ideas in these books will be influenced by what is going on in one’s community and in the wider world. And yet, it would be parochial to abandon any of these ideas, just because of a change in current circumstances, or, alternatively, to focus entirely on one of these ideas, just because it seems to be particularly trendy.
As just one example, the digital world—the web, social media, etc.—raises new questions about how we determine what is true. On the one hand, the abundance of messages (many of dubious quality) may make it more difficult in the short run to figure out what is true. On the other hand, it is almost impossible nowadays to hide any information permanently (as Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have demonstrated), and so those who are willing to devote time are more likely than ever before to ascertain what is true.
6. What do you think about your two last Presidents – No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top? Where the American education is heading to? What are the main forces and trends that push and direct it?
Gardner: The two political parties in the U.S. agree about very little. Yet since 1989, at the presidential level, there has essentially been a single educational policy, epitomized by such programs as Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top. It would take a book to discuss each of these and to describe my attitude toward them.
Suffice it to say, I don’t think that quality education can be legislated from the top. Both the U.S. and Britain embrace the belief that you can regulate quality. Yet, research from Finland—as well as evidence from other countries that have evolved much better educational systems in the last few decades—calls into question this “global education reform mentality.”
For me the most important issue is how teachers are selected, educated, and persuaded to remain in the profession. At a time when talented individuals have many options, unless teachers are respected, well-compensated, and work in a supportive community, they are unlikely to remain as teachers.
As for the Common Core, about to be adopted in most American states, in general I believe it is a good idea to lay out educational goals, so long as they are not overly prescriptive. The problem in the United States is that we want to have education of the quality of Massachusetts (reasonably good) while only spending budgets at the Mississippi level (very low). That won’t work!
7. What do you think about the PISA and other international tests? Do this race to the top of the international educational league does good to education?
Gardner: If we did not have tests like TIMMS or PISA, we would have to invent them. In this day and age, metrics are ubiquitous. And so I always ask, are we looking at the right capacities in the right way, and what is being left out? And can we—indeed, should we—measure what is being left out? Personally I am most interested in the ethics of future citizens, and that is not measurable by a standardized test.
To take one example, in every country of which I am aware, there is an epidemic of cheating among students. I would like future citizens not to cheat. And I would like them to be accountable for their own work—not because they would be punished if they were caught, but because cheating is wrong and hurts everyone in a community.
High PISA scores in a society where cheating is tolerated should not be acceptable!
8. Suppose you are the minister of education, what would be your main lines of educational policy?
Gardner: Anyone who knows me knows that I would and could never be a minister of education. I am basically a thinker who tries to push things in a positive direction and not someone involved in politics or in full-time action.
That said, I think a good minister needs to:
- Have a clear set of goals and values (including what the educated person should know and be able to do).
- Identify examples, in the country or in the world, of places and persons who embody quality in goals and values.
- Scan the world for the most effective ways to achieve these examples. (In the case of the United States, we often assume that we have nothing to learn from other places. This is completely wrong, and we have paid a high price for arrogance.)
9. Could you describe the contours of a good school – its goals, curriculum, pattern of teaching, method of assessment, organizational structure, culture and climate, etc.?
Gardner: I think that there are many kinds of good schools, and I would avoid the trap of outlining a single good school. In The Disciplined Mind, I argue that in any sizeable country, there should be 6-12 educational tracks, extending from Kindergarten through secondary school, each with a distinctive set of goals, philosophy, and means of assessment. Citizens should be able to choose the track for their children and the choices should be available across the country. And so, for example, one track might be more progressive (e.g focusing on good questions and how to tackle them), while another track might emphasize cultural literacy (the books that everyone should read and be able to discuss).
And so, referring to the previous question, I don’t think that the minister of education should embrace a single “best school,” not even in a country much smaller than the U.S. The goals, values, and methods to which I refer should be available across a suite of choices.
10. Do the digital technology changes or will change education in essential ways?
Gardner: I consider the panoply of digital innovations (hardware, software, internet, web, social media) to constitute the greatest change in global culture since the invention of writing three millennia ago and the invention of printing seven centuries ago. As with writing and printing, it will take time to gauge fully the nature and extent of changes in education.
For the most part, digital education has enormous potential. So much is now available at our fingertips. It is possible to individualize education much more than ever before. MOOCs will permit people all over the world to have contact with and learn from eminent scholars and high quality demonstrations.
But it would be disastrous to assume that technology can ever replace human interaction, particularly in the education of young persons. Human beings need human role models—especially if (to return to the first questions) we are to have good persons, good workers, and good citizens. Human beings need to be the sources of what is to be taught and the deciders of the ends toward which education should be directed. If we ever try to replace human beings completely with technology, we will encounter the dystopias anticipated almost a century ago by Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (1984), or, more recently, in David Egger’s The Circle.
11. What are you doing today? What is the research and theoretical project that occupies you most?
Gardner: Most of my intellectual energies now are devoted to an empirical study of liberal arts and sciences in the 21st century. With a wonderful research team, I expect to study in detail 6-10 diverse campuses in the United States. We are intent on discovering the “mental models” of various constituencies in these colleges and universities; in which ways these models are consistent with or in conflict with those of other constituencies; and which current programs and approaches are most successful at bridging the gaps between these conceptions of why one should devote up to four years in a residential setting in order to be a broadly and deeply educated person.
The rest of my energies are devoted primarily to the pursuit and support of the various kinds of “goods” that we have been probing in The Good Project. We are continuing our research. But we are also devoting considerable energy to developing programs that can be useful in various institutional settings; and in making strategic links with other organizations that are also trying to inculcate the knowledge and skills and values needed to be good workers, good citizens, and good persons.