Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Re-Reframed

In January 2015, Howard Gardner gave a three-part lecture series at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on the topic of the virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness. Based on his 2011 book Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, Gardner shared his current thinking about how to impart the virtues in a postmodern, digitally-saturated era. After each of the three lectures, Gardner and Ashim Shanker, a Master’s student at HGSE, held discussion sections with students to talk about the ideas from the presentations.

Below is a summary of the lectures and the experience, written by Shanker (originally featured in the Good Project’s February newsletter):

In January, Howard Gardner delivered a series of three lectures entitled “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed” at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Based upon his 2011 book of the same title, Gardner articulated definitions for each of these virtues, explored their tendency to shift according to evolving norms, and outlined the threats posed to them by postmodern criticism and the proliferation of digital media.

Describing truth as being “about the accuracy of statements and propositions,” Gardner contrasted the public trust once instilled in 20th century newscasters, such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, with the cynicism of 21st century audiences, who are more skeptical than previous generations and more likely to get their news from late night comedians, such as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. While audiences of an earlier era might have been satisfied by Cronkite’s nightly affirmation, “That’s the way it is,” audiences of today are more inclined to embrace a term popularized by Colbert to highlight the subjectivity behind political constructions of reality: truthiness. Further blurring the lines between truth and “truthiness” are online games, Wikipedia, and social media (such as Twitter), which offer platforms for the “viral” dissemination of information, which could well be misinformation. Acknowledging the importance of the truths accessible through the scholarly disciplines (such as science and mathematics) and the practical truths of professions (such engineering and medicine), Gardner highlighted the need for educators to focus students on the appropriate methods for converging as much as possible on the truths discovered by these pursuits.

Gardner characterized beauty as being “about experiences…primarily of nature and of the arts.” A beautiful experience must meet three criteria: (1) it should evoke interest, (2) its form should be memorable, and (3) it should invite revisiting. This definition could apply to art and nature just as well as it might to the experience of a meaningful conversation, a pleasant walk, or a satisfying meal. Referring to the article “When is Art?” by Project Zero founder Nelson Goodman, Gardner reflected on the importance of context, placement, and timing in defining in what manner an object or experience might be perceived as beautiful. Since one’s perceptions of how an object or phenomenon is beautiful can change over time, Gardner recommends that educators encourage the creation of an individualized portfolio of what one deems beautiful, “recording changing tastes and discrimination of differences.”

Drawing on examples from recent world events, as well as from his work on the Good Project, Gardner conceptualized goodness as being “about the quality of relations among human beings, those near to us as well as those more remote from us.” In view of the threats posed to our constructs of goodness by the proliferation of morally relativistic perspectives, it becomes more important than ever to find common ground between conflicting ethical paradigms. While “neighborly morality” remains an essential characteristic of goodness, the ethics associated with one’s roles, as a citizen and worker, are also equally important in complex modern societies. As indicated by the 3 E’s of the Good Project, a good citizen and worker must be ethically responsible, personally engaged, and technically excellent. In order for this to be possible, individuals require vertical support (from mentors, role models and paragons), horizontal support (from peers), and periodic booster shots (from reactions to the good, the bad, and the ugly).

Following each of the three lectures was a 90-minute discussion seminar facilitated by both Howard Gardner and Harvard graduate student Ashim Shanker. These sessions, in addition to addressing topics from the lectures, deeply integrated the philosophical treatises of Thomas S. Kuhn, Israel Scheffler, Kirk Varnedoe, Nelson Goodman, John Rawls, and Albert O. Hirschman. Seminar discussion topics ranged from the subjective selection of epistemological paradigms (frameworks of “truth”) to the ethical tensions individuals might face as a consequence of situational roles and/or institutional groupthink.

Extending beyond the ideas developed in his 2011 book, Gardner addressed in both the lecture and seminar sessions the ways in which truth, beauty, and goodness can be pursued and cultivated throughout one’s lifelong learning. He hopes to develop these ideas in future publications.

The lecture series was also featured in two Harvard publications. First, in the Harvard Gazette article “Truth vs. ‘truthiness,'” Gardner explains how the meaning of truth and how to verify true statements is in flux in modern society. Whereas in the past particular journalist were responsible for conveying truth to the masses, today’s landscape necessitates that the public investigate the evidence behind the “truth” in order to discern whether they are in agreement or not. Read the full article here via the Harvard Gazette.

Second, in an op-ed that appeared in Harvard Magazine entitled “‘Beauty,’ embodied,”a Harvard student describes the impact of Gardner’s lecture about beauty on her understanding of beautiful experiences and things. The full text, including Gardner’s response to her in the comments in which he clarifies particular points, is available here via the Harvard Magazine‘s website.



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