Positive Transformations: A Key Goal of Education

Along with such phrases as “leadership qualities” and “critical and creative thinking,” the term “transformation” is often invoked in discussions of the possible and of the positive effects of higher education. I’ve been known to utter and to type this buzzword as well.

By definition, most experiences cannot be transformative. The vast majority of our experiences maintain the current form of experience, or tweak it a bit, rather than altering its form radically—the literal meaning of “transform.” Also, and importantly, while there is the very occasional rapid transformation—of larva into butterflies, of flowing water into solid ice—most transformations on earth occur more gradually; nor, underscoring the point, are they visible or otherwise noticeable at the time.

There’s the considerable challenge of judging whether a transformation has in fact occurred. We run the risk of declaring something as transformational—“I’ll never be the same after this experience/meeting/ trip/encounter”—only to be unable to find the slightest trace of the experience half a year later. In fact, I’m convinced that experiences that most merit the descriptive “transformative” or “transformational” are rarely recognized at the time. Only with the advantage of hindsight—the passage of years or even decades—is one likely to avoid “false positive” or “false negative” judgments.

As observers, biographers, or historians, we can certainly make judgments about which instances merit the term “transformational”—for example, the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648; philosopher Immanuel Kant’s reading of the works of David Hume; Charles Darwin’s five year voyage on the Beagle; physicist Francis Crick meeting biochemist James D. Watson on the eve of their discovery of the structure of DNA; the first performances and recordings by The Beatles. In reflecting on one’s own life, it may also be possible to identify those experiences that seem to have been transformative.

In a series of related blogs, I reflect on which encounters and events appear to have been transformational in my own intellectual and scholarly life (I leave for another venue those experiences that may have been transformational in my personal life). The first blog focuses on teachers whose effects have been transformational. Subsequent blogs will cover a variety of transformers—books, travel, classroom experiences, personal encounters—that merit the descriptor transformational. In each case, I suggest some broader principles, ones that apply to my own life and, perhaps, to the lives of others in the scholarly world.

Before Secondary School

Of course, the individuals who most influenced me in my early years were family members, neighbors, and close friends—both friends of parents and friends at school (what a three year old told me casually the other day were “my classmates”). To this list, I would add a few school teachers, a few counselors at the two camps which I attended, and two piano teachers—Geri Berg, who started me off as a six or seven year old; and Harold Briggs, a spry man in his nineties (!!), who had studied with both Clara Schumann and Edward McDowell (!!). After a few years, Mr. Briggs told me that I had to decide whether I wanted to pursue piano seriously, which meant travelling to New York City for lessons and practicing three hours a day… at which point, for better or worse, I decided not to. Perhaps this was a potential transformation that I actively declined. (And then, as a young adolescent, I returned to play duets with Geri Berg, with whom I remain in touch today.)

Also as a boy, I attended religious lessons and services quite regularly and was presumably affected by my teachers and rabbis. But since I have not maintained any religious affiliations for decades, it’s hard to maintain that they had a transformational effect on me.

I’ve thought a great deal about my classroom teachers (at Wyoming Seminary, a high school near my home in northeastern Pennsylvania, and at Harvard College) and whether they—individually or collectively—had a significant, perhaps transformational effect on me. I’ve concluded that they have; and I believe that I know why.

High School (1958-1961)

Among my teachers in secondary school, there’s no question that the biggest influence came from Edwin J. Roberts, my Latin teacher. I liked Latin and was reasonably proficient at it; but what influenced me was Mr. Roberts’ ability to talk about personalities and events from thousands of years ago and relate them to current events and personalities. When the Russians launched Sputnik, did that alter the balance of powers as happened in the Punic Wars? Did John F. Kennedy aspire to be a Caesar? What would it have been like to live near Pompeii in 79 A.D. when Vesuvius erupted? How did Aeneas’ relationship to his father differ from my own relationship to my father? To my grandfather and my favorite uncle?

Mr. Roberts also took a personal interest in me. I look forward to occasions when we shared a meal or took a walk across campus. I was pleased when he agreed to write my letter of recommendation for Harvard College. After submitting the requested letter, he said to me, “I told them that they should not admit you because I want you to go to my College (he had been to Wesleyan, Class of 1921). I hoped that he was joking, but I was never quite sure.

College (1961-1965)

As a freshman at Harvard College, I was most influenced by Stanley (Stan) Katz, who taught a freshman seminar on “original documents in American history.” This was the first time that I got to know a “professor” face-to-face.—interacting weekly with him and a small group of my classmates. Stan, with whom I have remained friendly until today, let me know gently but firmly that the days of “coasting” through a semester or year were over. When I got back my first paper with the note, “Isn’t this a first draft?”, I realized that I had to think and work much harder. I had to attempt to come up with an original perspective—not just parrot back what he had said in class and or paraphrase what I had read on my own (in pre-Google days, to be sure). And so I proceeded henceforth to read and to think about documents about the Salem Witch Trials with a depth, an inquisitiveness, and an imagination that I had never before exhibited.

For my “big paper” in the seminar, I decided to carry out research on the attitudes prevalent at Harvard during the famous Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920s. I read through old newspapers and other documents and arranged to meet a professor, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., who had been at Harvard during that period. (He was very kind and somewhat helpful.) Except for experiments in chemistry and biology labs, this was my first experience in carrying out actual research, and I both enjoyed it and learned from it. Discovering something which may actually be new—certainly for oneself, and perhaps, just perhaps, for others—is an exciting experience, and one that I’ve cherished over the years.

Of course, most professors at major colleges and universities write articles and books regularly; it is hard to know in such case whether you are influenced by the personality of the teacher, the books, or some combination thereof (I’ll write about this in subsequent blogs).

For present purposes, I mention three other teachers at Harvard who influenced me, even though I was unaware of or did not read their works at the time:

  • George Wald, who taught my introduction to biology, a course called “Nat. Sci. Five.” Wald made intriguing and understandable the many new findings emerging in genetics and molecular biology—concepts and processes that we could not have known about in high school because they had not yet made their way “into the textbooks.” Wald was a bench top scientist—he eventually won the Nobel Prize, an event that many of his present and past students (including me!) applauded in class a few years later—and was also a spell binding lecturer. When one student challenged him about whether reductionist science was undermining the marvels of religion and nature, Wald said, “I am not here to denigrate God; I just want to glorify molecules”.
  • John Finley, classicist and master of one of the undergraduate houses, taught “Hum 2”—a study of classical texts, ranging from the Iliad and the Aeneid to Milton’s Paradise Lost and the plays of Ibsen and O’Neill. Finley had the same gift as Mr. Roberts, my high school Latin teacher. Not only did he explicate and give us insights into sometimes challenging texts (which we read in English); even more so than Mr. Roberts, he drew broader lessons, both from history and from the contemporary scene, which in his case included and sometimes foregrounded Harvard past and Harvard present. One never knew which lines or personalities or scenes Finley would connect and how he would manage to connect them—but they were often illuminating. We saw at work what I would later term “the synthesizing mind.”
  • Walter Jackson Bate, professor of English literature and expert on the 18th Bate introduced undergraduates to “the Age of (Samuel) Johnson.” He knew the texts of Johnson’s major writings and could quote them at length. But what drew hundreds of students to his course each year (including me, as an auditor) was our sense that Bate strongly identified with Johnson, felt his pain and anguish, as well as his occasional pleasures and triumphs, and in a sense, became Johnson as he led us through the writer’s tumultuous times, as well as those experienced by his friends.

Themes and Threads

As I reflect on these instructors of my high school and college days, I find some common thread: in each case, they took a topic in which I might not have had an intrinsic interest and made it come alive for me (and for scores of others). They did so, not only by immersing me in a world with which I had little familiarity, but also by, in a sense, becoming that world and thereby opening it up to me. There were American history teachers and classical music teachers who did this as well—but because I already had interest in these topics, I think of them as confirming rather than as transforming me.

It’s no accident that henceforth, the science to which I was attracted was biology, rather than astronomy, geology, chemistry, or physics. And it’s no accident that when I went to Europe after my graduation, I visited those sites and went to those theatrical productions which were associated with classical times and with England in the period of its glory… for example, hanging out at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the pub that Samuel Johnson apparently favored.

Just as these teachers connected me to worlds with which I had no prior connection, these classroom instructors also demonstrated how they were connected to those worlds and how that connection had enriched their lives and their scholarship. Stan Katz was a practicing historian who probed colonial history (his specialty), as well as legal history and the history of education. George Wald was an award-winning biologist specializing in vision who continued running his laboratory until old age and was also a political activist; while “Jack” Bate probed the lives of admired English authors.

I cannot claim to have become an historian or a biologist or a biographer, but in fact I was able to engage in some original research in each of these areas. I always strive to place issues into historical context, and in 1985, I published The Mind’s New Science, the first history of the cognitive revolution in the sciences. Around 1970, I made a commitment—which lasted for decades—to carry out research in neuroscience. As a student of aphasia and other cortical disorders, I joined with colleagues to demonstrate hitherto underappreciated aspects of linguistic capacities of the right cerebral hemisphere. And in studying creative individuals from the last century, I was able to work with some original documents—notably literary drafts of T. S. Eliot, musical sketches by Igor Stravinsky, and rare films of Martha Graham, the pioneer in modern dance.

And so, at least in these cases, the opportunities to learn from and interact with outstanding teachers, to observe the original work that they carried out, and to have the thrill of a genuine discovery or two were educationally transformative experiences.

You are likely to have noted that nearly all the people I mentioned were white men, mostly middle aged—that was, for the most part, the Harvard Faculty in the early 1960s. I regret that I had few women teachers, and few teachers of color or less familiar ethnicities.

But another set of teachers, whom I began to read as an undergraduate or a young graduate student, had enormous impact on me. Interestingly, most of them were Jewish, and often of European background. And I am pleased to say that the first and most influential of all was a woman, named Susanne K. Langer. More on her in a forthcoming blog.


My friend and colleague, Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College, often speaks about three desirable transformations during the college years:

  1. who you are as a person;
  2. with whom and how you interact socially; and
  3. the ways in which you think about and come to know the world.

These are commendable goals. It’s important to add that sometimes one does not need these transformations; sometimes the transformations can be destructive; and in many cases you won’t know for many years whether these transformations have transpired.

Tags: ,

One Comment on “Positive Transformations: A Key Goal of Education”

  1. Washirasorn Saengsuwan October 3, 2017 at 12:25 pm #

    This is inspirational. Thank you Dr.Gardner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s