Reflections on Transformations

In several blogs I this series, I have written about the transformative powers of education. Drawing on my own experiences over a long life spent almost exclusively in educational institutions, I have recalled mentors, books, travels, and meetings—usually ones that had a positive transformative effect, but also mentioning at least one transformational experience that was decidedly negative. I have not yet written about family, friends, colleagues or, indeed, enemies that have also had major influences on my development. Perhaps someday…

It’s opportune to step back and to think more broadly about the meaning of transformation and the processes by which it may occur. I’ll approach this in a somewhat schematic way—with the thought that I and others can fill in the blanks, or, if more appropriate, leave them blank!

Size of Transformation

As one who has spent much of every day reading, I have little hesitation in saying that becoming literate is a Big T Transformation. (Indeed, it has been for the species, as well as for billions of individuals.) Writing belongs in the same category.

But there are also smaller transformations in the realm of literacy. When I learned to dictate essays, rather than scrawling them by hand, that prosthesis certainly changed my life in significant ways—but I would not consider that to be a major transformation. By an analogy, being able to navigate via driving a standard car constitutes a major transformation in the lives of most young people—but then, learning to drive a truck or even a bus is not nearly so great a leap. (Driverless cars may constitute a different kind of transformation!)

Length of Time for Transformative Effect

Take teaching as an example. I have always wanted to be a teacher and, indeed, began to teach others when I was very young (no doubt making a mess of things). A major transformation occurred when I was able to prepare a lesson plan and then, if something unexpected but promising occurred, to toss the lesson plan aside and, so to speak, go with the flow. This transformation required both mastery of materials and the flexibility to juggle priorities, while honoring the broader aims of the lesson or the course.

Speaking of teaching, I can point to a transformation that took much less time. For years, in any big course assigned to me, I simply lectured for most of an hour—as I like to quip, “easier for the teacher, easier for the students”. But about 20 years ago, when video became widely available, I decided to record all of my lectures; to ask students to view the videos prior to class (most did); and then to base the class on a discussion of the recorded lecture (and associated readings). This shift took time to effect—but I would say that after one year (which would be 10-20 recoded lectures), I became able to lead comfortably what we now call a “flipped classroom.”

Areas of Transformation

Those who know me (which includes faithful readers of this blog) realize that I focus, probably too much, on academic and intellectual matters… the likely fate of a professor, I suppose. But in conversations with Rakesh Khurana, the remarkable Dean of Harvard College, I’ve become convinced that higher education in the liberal arts and sciences should strive to bring about three changes (in students and others):

1) changes in how one conceptualizes the world of ideas and associated practices;

2) changes in how one relates to peers and other individuals; and

3) changes in how one thinks about oneself.

Like the trio of good worker, good citizen, and good person (see, one can achieve one “good” without nudging the others. It is certainly possible that a college (or a high school or even a summer camp) can affect one of these spheres without affecting the others. As examples, there are certainly students whose way of interacting with peers or teachers can be significantly affected in one way, without there being comparable shifts in the other spheres—and vice versa. Moreover, in any particular case, there may be good reasons not to change the way that one thinks about others, nor the ways in which one interacts with others. But in most cases, young people benefit if all three modes of being are changed in a significant way—hopefully, of course, in a productive direction.

Let me be concrete—and personal. I would like young people to attend schools which strive to bring about these transformations. Along those lines, I hope that most young people will have the opportunity to consider—and perhaps pursue –career paths other than the ones that they (and, most probably, their hovering parents) had thought were their “chosen” trajectories.  I am not so pleased when such young people had embraced a passion or a mission, only to delete that worthy goal in favor of pursuing the easy way or the most lucrative way. By the same token, one could have arrived at college as a genuine democrat (small d!) and leave as a snob, a non-caring member of an elite—a less than happy transformation, on my values.

Deceptive Transformations and Non-Transformations

Though we have learned to give tests or award badges for many skills, we are far from having reliable ways of ascertaining whether transformations have taken place. All of us can think of experiences which seemed very important at the time—a first date, a first love, a first trophy, a first public embarrassment—but whose distinctiveness seems to have faded or disappeared over time. Call this a false positive.

By the same token, we can certainly think of experiences which, at the time, seemed casual or unimportant but whose significance looms larger as our lives unfold. For example, when, in the spring of 1967, one of my teachers suggested that I drive out to Brandeis University to meet Professor Nelson Goodman, I had no idea that this meeting would lead me to help launch an organization—Project Zero– that has been central in my life for a half century. Nor when on short notice I decided to hitch a ride to Ann Arbor, Michigan, did I have any idea that a chance conversation with the driver—a young scholar named David McNeill—would lead me both to a new field of study (cognitive psychology) and introduce me to Judy Krieger, the fellow student who became my wife and the mother of three of my children. Call these the “hidden triggers” of life-changing transformations.

As we think about transformations, some other questions arise. We think of transformations as moving forward—but there are certainly regressions. As individuals become older, and, in less happy cases, begin to dement, they can revert to thinking in a qualitatively more primitive way. There is also the question of whether societies can actually mandate transformations. Of course they can do so in a legal way (for example, “I now pronounce you husband and wife”) or via a dramatic experience (for example, circumcision as part of an initiation rite). But it is less clear that you yourself are changed by such legalistic process–though the ways in which others treat you may well alter significantly (in which case we can say that the others have been at least slightly transformed!).

Disciplinary Transformations 

And as a scholar, I should mention the transformation of fields of knowledge—as described dramatically by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Any field can be so transformed—think Darwin, think Einstein, think Picasso (or Virginia Woolf or Duke Ellington), think Stravinsky (or The Beatles). The fields may be transformed but not necessarily their long time practitioners—as has often been quipped, “In the academy, change occurs one funeral at a time.”

Closing Challenge

If you accept my claim that transformations are important—indeed, that they constitute a central goal of education—you need to confront a dis-settling situation. At present, we have few if any systematic ways of studying transformations. Models occur to me—models from biology (morphogenesis—my dictionary says “a transformation by magic or sorcery”), models from mathematics (chaos theory), or models from physics (change of state). But when it comes to transformations of human beings, we remain moored to far older methods—introspections, observations, and an occasional low-key measure. Indeed, in our study of higher education, we attempt to determine whether an individual has learned to think in a liberal arts way… certainly not a way that is embedded in the genome, nor, indeed, available in most cultures across the centuries. Another story, another time.

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5 Comments on “Reflections on Transformations”

  1. Bakshi Ji February 8, 2018 at 1:02 pm #

    Written in a very beautiful way. Transformations are part of life and they are necessary . My own opinion is that the most important transformation I consider is the transformation of a normal man to a decent, kind hearted , helpful , peaceful human being . Loved your blog sir. 🙂

  2. joshlange February 8, 2018 at 5:02 pm #

    Thanks for posting on this important topic and staying so connected! Regarding Your comment
    “Though we have learned to give tests or award badges for many skills, we are far from having reliable ways of ascertaining whether transformations have taken place”
    I’d like to present you my own research in this exact area, at the nexus of higher education and social entrepreneurship, relying on rigorous multiple stakeholder longitudinal analysis to identify transformations across time, place, and perspective. A lot of good work in this area :

    Thanks again for all you do for education

  3. Daniel de la Maza February 8, 2018 at 11:45 pm #

    So interesting. Transformation will be an priority “transformation “.

  4. Mel February 14, 2018 at 8:23 am #

    Very thought provoking Dr Howard however I think we all organically and naturally transform as we get older and hopefully wiser? I have certainly transformed over time and now in my fifth career am contemplating what to learn in my retireship for another transformation! So maybe the life transformational process is like a tree aging or an organism growing/changinjng! I don’t think it’s static or stage like as often you don’t notice the changes unless you reflect and look back? Thanks for your blog and I will follow with interest

  5. Howard Gardner March 13, 2018 at 4:33 pm #

    glad to see that this blog generated some interest–it’s motivated me to take a more serious look at the issue– and to try to find support for a study of transformations, particularly viewed retrospectively– would be fascinating to compare individuals who went to liberal arts schools, those who went to vocational institutions of higher education, and those who did have any tertiary education

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