Lifelong Learning: A Confession

I’ve given my blog in education the name of Life-Long Learning (the acronym LLL for short). Clearly I think that LLL is a good idea and, by implication, I’ve sought to exemplify it. Yet, looking at what I myself have done recently and peering clearly in the mirror, I feel the need to add, “Lifelong learner: Heal thyself”!

For the past two years, I have taught a course called “Understanding Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.” This course builds on the ideas presented in my 2011 book Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the virtues in the age of truthiness and Twitter.

As the subheading indicates, I consider these three perennial virtues in light of the rise of social media, on the one hand, and the postmodern critiques of these virtues, on the other. Put succinctly, I look at the virtues in relation to the disruptive forces of philosophical challenges and technological innovations.

I think that the course is a good one; students seem to like it and learn from it. So I have incentives to continue it much as it is. And yet, this year I realized two things;

  1. The reading list is heavily skewed toward white American and European males, with hardly any writers from the rest of the world, and not many women authors.
  2. While the reading list contains many recent articles from the press and some recent scholarly writings, the key texts come from decades ago.

In reflecting on these tendencies—one might properly call them biases—in the reading list, I made a revealing discovery. Most of the key texts are writings that came to light when I myself was a student in the social sciences, fifty years ago. To be specific:

  • When studying truth, we begin with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962/1970); and we review the debates between linguist Noam Chomsky and behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner from the same period.
  • In our study of beauty, the key texts come from philosopher Nelson Goodman (1968) and art historian E. H. Gombrich (1960). I should mention that we also read two more recent treatises authored by Elaine Scarry (2001) and Kirk Varnedoe (2006).
  • As for our examination of goodness, the key texts are both from the same period: John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) and A. O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970).
  • Finally, in our quick survey of developmental psychology, the students read Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, both born in 1896, and review key writings from Lawrence Kohlberg in the 1970s. One exception again: Alison Gopnik’s book The Philosophical Baby (1999).

I can’t avoid the inference that students are being asked to relive my own experiences as a student: to read the texts that were intellectually formative for me half a century ago and to critique them as I have over the years. Or, in the spirit of earlier blogs in this series, I am suggesting that the ideas that transformed my thinking should also be the ones that transform the thinking of my students, who are considerably younger, to say the least. There’s also the inference that there’s “nothing new under the sun” and that, with few exceptions, the relevant field was formed and has not changed materially since I occupied a student seat several decades ago.

Of course, I can come up with counterarguments:

  • The benefit of distance: These readings are not fly-by-night; they have stood the test of time. Indeed, during the last week of the course in both years, we read a synthesis from the tail end of the 20th century (E. O. Wilson, 1998), but I have already shifted the second work of synthesis from Sean Carroll (2017) to Harari (2015) because Carroll did not pass the test of time… and perhaps Harari won’t either.
  • Each field has its formative texts which everyone should encounter first hand: This is a somewhat more convincing argument. If you are to study sociology seriously, you need to read the writings of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Though these were written over a century ago, subsequent sociological writings build upon or challenge these foundational thinkers. One can make a similar case with regard to Freud in psychoanalysis, Chomsky in linguistics, or, in my own field of developmental psychology, Piaget, Vygotsky, and a few others.
  • Exposure to what students are unlikely to encounter otherwise: Because the social sciences are decidedly trendy, most graduate programs focus on recent empirical articles. And so it is possible—if not likely—for a student to get an advanced degree without ever encountering these key foundational texts. I have enough authority—or am bullheaded enough—that I can induce students to read Piaget’s writings rather than empirical studies which, whether or not the author is aware of it, are based on issues and concepts developed by Piaget (and his collaborators, notably Bärbel Inhelder).

And I can also be defensive:

  • My shifting interests: Unlike many of my teaching colleagues, I have wandered over a wide academic turf. As a result, I have not kept up with the most recent theoretical and empirical writings in each field and have to depend on older knowledge. As a compensation, students are exposed to a teacher who can make links and offer syntheses that may be less available to a more focused scholar.
  • Insider knowledge: Because I have lived with these texts for a half century (and in some cases, knew the authors reasonably well), I have intimate knowledge of the arguments. I can point out weaknesses and contradictions as well as brilliant insights that changed parts of a field or perhaps launched a new one.
  • This field of study is not natural or physical sciences: Were I teaching chemistry, physics, or biology, I would necessarily have to focus on works written in the last few years—even ones that have not yet been published. But social sciences develop much more slowly and, in my own view, they don’t establish permanent truths—they provide data-based reasons for proposing certain organizing concepts, frameworks, and theories… as I put it, “ideas that change the conversation.”

So much for pros and cons.

Should I to continue to teach this course in the future, I’d consider several changes:

  • Diversify the demographies and backgrounds of the authors. Insight and wisdom are not confined to white males who lived in the 20th
  • Choose more key texts of recent vintage. The books and key articles do not need to come from 2020 but some should bear a more recent date of publication.
  • Inform myself of some of the recent trends in the field. I have already decided to consult colleagues who are more current and find out what works they are reading and assigning.

Some final notes: When something is going well, there is no need for radical alterations. Were I to teach this course for a decade, I’d hope that by 2028, the reading list would be quite different, and the class discussions and student papers would reflect those differences. But for 2019, I won’t blow the course up; instead, I will tweak.

An important goal of education is to give students the opportunity to have their own thinking challenged and perhaps transformed. It’s valuable to reflect on which works and ideas transformed you as a learner; but there’s no reason to assume that there is a single royal road to transformation. Indeed, across time and across learners, transformation can be catalyzed by many different texts, discussions, and experiences.

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5 Comments on “Lifelong Learning: A Confession”

  1. Devon Wilson April 30, 2018 at 11:09 pm #

    Professor Gardner, great to read some of your reflections from the course this year!

    I feel all in all this is a very self-aware piece that elegantly gets into the tensions between exploring the foundational texts versus picking more recent studies/pieces. I think that from a young age, we are trained to have as many recent articles and books on our works cited; perhaps this action subconsciously guides us to thinking new is inherently better. After close to 3 years in the HGSE community, I have come to value the works and contributions from Piaget – but I will be honest in stating that in my final semester here as a Master’s student, I realized I had an easier time understanding Eleanor Duckworth than Piaget, and an even easier time understanding Lisa Schneider than Eleanor Duckworth. Perhaps there is something lost in this cycling of ideas overtime, but I think sometimes the protégées or apprentices of some great academics can reach an extended audience, especially if they can help to make connections in practice and explain ways to enter into what may be a complex body of work.

    Reading your article makes me think of a discussion that was held relating to diversity initiatives at Project Zero a few months ago – where lecturers shared some processes they had established – essentially leading students to consider who wrote the weekly readings and what audience did the authors originally had in mind. After listening to this talk, and reading your piece, I’ll admit I still remain conflicted on this matter. There are undeniable benefits towards having a more diverse set of voices and I was looking at a chart saying in 50 years, white Americans will likely only represent about 35 or so percent of the population, so I think including a greater representation of what will soon be the majority in this country is essential. That being said, it pains me to think that an exceptional idea or practice might be thrown out because someone closes down to it too soon, saying this was written by a person I can’t identify with, or a person from a different context from me, when in fact it may have a piece may have far more relevance than the reader initially perceives.

    When thinking about pedagogical centered pieces, perhaps rather than stopping at a point that may create an unintended sense of “otherness” – ‘Who wrote it?’ and ‘Who was their intended audience?’: we can go further with students by asking them to consider ‘What is the relevance and possible applications of the piece?’, and ‘In what ways may the piece be adapted to better serve contexts where each of us works?’ With adequate time, educators would ideally be able to tinker with the relevant concepts in the classroom, try out adaptations, and explore the learning experiences further as a group.

  2. Luz Maria Gutierrez Vittini May 1, 2018 at 8:04 am #

    More than a confession you are exhibitting key attributes of a LLL: self-critical and reflective! Your students are privileged tou have you as a teacher. Wish I could be among them!

  3. Howard Gardner May 4, 2018 at 1:42 pm #

    thanks, Devon,and Luz Maria for these very thoughtful and respectful comments, much appreciated. The tensions between going to the original source, on the one hand, and to a more recent, and easier-to-decode source, on the other, are genuine– and there is no ideal solution. If one has time, it makes sense to consult both the original (in this instance, Piaget), and the more recent summary on the other (say, Duckworth or Gardner). I’ve often thought that John Dewey’s writings would be more often cited if he had been easier to read and understand– and part of Jerome Bruner’s appeal is that, while in the Dewey tradition, he is a much clearer writer. Still, even those acolytes who strive to be faithful to the original source, inevitably introduce some of their own ideas in their own language. And then it’s a challenge for historians of ideas to separate Freud, from the neo-Freudians, or Marx, from the neo Marxists. Best howard

  4. Juliana Valeria Viviani May 7, 2018 at 6:25 pm #

    Dear professor,

    I found out about your blog in an article (GRADNER BLOG 2.0) on a printed copy of Ed. Magazine at Harvard University in a recent visit to Boston. I felt absolutely amazed at the idea of being able to read your own thoughts on a daily basis and, if I had the chance, to comment on them as if I were one of your students.
    Here, in Argentina, teachers follow your lead, I myself grew up reading your books at teachers´ training college and thanks to technology I can read you now as if you were closer.
    Thanks for sharing your brilliant insights with us!
    Always enlightening … always challenging…
    I feel so grateful.

  5. Howard Gardner May 8, 2018 at 10:36 pm #

    thanks for your kind words, much appreciated. I contribute to the lifelonglearning blog every two weeks or so. Shortly, colleagues of mine will begin to contribute their thoughts about higher learning. From time to time, I also blog on and multipleintelligencesoasis. best wishes howard

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