Gardner’s Morning Address at Memorial Church

On Friday, April 10, 2015, Howard Gardner spoke at Harvard’s Memorial Church as a part of the daily Morning Prayers session. Speakers are invited to Morning Prayers to discuss a topic of their choice, particularly one that has meaningful implications for the lives of listeners. Gardner’s talk focused on truth, beauty, and goodness, and the responsibility that Harvard University has to foster these virtues across the campus community in the 21st century.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of Gardner’s address (find April 10, 2015, in the playlist; the address begins at the 7:44 mark). 

Gardner’s remarks have been reprinted in full below:

Memorial Church: Morning Address
April 10, 2015
Howard Gardner

The well-known verse from John Keats:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

When I was a student at Harvard College in the early 1960s, Memorial Church was a frequent visiting spot. This was not because I was religious—I am a ‘secular Jew’—but rather because I belonged to the Crimson Key, the group authorized to give tours. Most visitors wanted to go into “Mem Church,” and I regaled them with stories, some no doubt apocryphal.

Being at Harvard was important to me. I particularly valued the motto “Veritas.” I saw us—the students—as searching for truth or truths, in class, in the library, in research, in our personal relations. My strong commitment to Veritas helps to explain why I get so upset when anyone in the community passes on the work of others as his or her own, or, at least as bad, when a member of the community massages or fudges data. These acts violate the soul of the academy.

This is my 55th year at Harvard. I love what Harvard stands for… at its best. But with due respect to Veritas, I have come to embrace the motto of my high school—Verum, Pulchrum, Bonum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness.

Education everywhere should encompass the appreciation and cultivation of truth, beauty, and goodness. We should pursue the discovery of the truths of the scholarly disciplines—of physics, philosophy, psychology, poetic analysis—and seek to determine the extent to which these several Keats-like truths converge.

Equally important should be the creation and the appreciation of beauty. We associate beauty with the arts—music, dance, literature, the works on display at the new Harvard Art Museums; or with nature—the Arnold Arboretum, the scenery around Dumbarton Oaks or I Tatti. But on my definition, any experience can be beautiful, be it a conversation about the day’s news, a well-crafted meal in Annenberg Hall, or an encounter with classmates of different backgrounds. If the experience is interesting, memorable in form, and worth repeating, I consider it beautiful.

Which leaves goodness, at least as essential. I define as good the positive relations that can obtain among human beings, be they neighbors or individuals scattered across the globe. On the whole, it was a desirable outcome that higher education became secular in the 20th century. Prioritization of one religion or even of religion in general tends to be exclusionary. I can’t help mentioning that Nathan Pusey, president of Harvard during my student days, would have preferred if Jewish persons did not get married in this, a Protestant church.

And yet, the disappearance from campus of religion or religions is not without cost. It has made it more difficult to speak of value, and of any kind of shared values. Indeed, those campuses that have maintained a religious foundation have an advantage when it comes to the articulation and perhaps even the realization of shared values.

Let me be clear: I am not calling for a reinstitution of Puritanism, Protestantism, or even Abrahamic religions at Harvard. That time has passed. I mean something else.

The college of the 21st century should be the apotheosis of Verum, Pulchrum, and Bonum. We should honor these virtues and, more important, strive to realize them every day. Those of us who remain at the University—in my case, for almost 55 years—have a special obligation—indeed, a special privilege—of ensuring that these virtues are at the forefront of our daily words and deeds.

Memorial Church has come to exemplify the virtues. At the start of the Capital Campaign, many of us gathered in the Church to hear leading professors talk about their work—the truths that they pursue.

On many an occasion, be it a morning service or a commencement, we have gathered here to listen to pitch-perfect choirs, hear stirring words, and enjoy the sounds of the magnificent organ. All experiences, beautiful in their own way. And after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Lawrence Summers asked us to gather in front of Memorial Church, to hear the words of religious leaders of all faiths—and, yes, for each of us to pray in our own way.

Certainly no individual, group, or institution has the monopoly on the cultivation of goodness. But American colleges and universities, blessed with talent and resources, ought to lead the pursuit of positive relations among groups, be they as small as those in a college residence hall, or as large as the billions on our planet. Keats was not literally correct—all virtues are not equivalent. Yet if we at this university set a stirring example, perhaps, just perhaps, there will be the convergence of truthful statements, beautiful experiences, and good relations.


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