JB: You're too civilized, Howard. Too many years in Cambridge.
GARDNER: I then wrote something about this; I wrote an Op Ed piece. It was rejected over the phone by The New York Times, rejected after being held for two weeks by The Washington Post, rejected to my surprise by The Chronicle of Higher Education. It got to the point I said well maybe this isn't publishable. I wrote to a friend of mine and said what do you think of this, but I was also going to England, and I took it with me because I thought I'd work on it there. I happened to meet the editor of The New Statesman, and I said, what do you think of this, and he ran it the next week.
JB: Interesting. My original essay on "The Third Culture" was commissioned and accepted as an Op Ed piece by the Times. But they buried it in "inventory." The New Statesman picked it up and ran it.
GARDNER: I don't know if this is a story about England and the United States, but let me tell you the lesson I came up with. This woman was not making a statement about the mothers of Darwin or Mozart. What she was saying was serious for me to hear, because while she used the word "Jewish" I believe she meant intellectual stuff.
The examples I use are ones I'm comfortable with, and ones presumably my own kids would be more comfortable with than someone who came from a very different background. But my point is not those examples; my point is to pick stuff that's important. And she, in her community, needs to say what are the important truths you want your kids to know about, and how do you think about it? What are the important art works, nature works?
JB: Some people don't know from nature, and they don't know from art, period. They would not be able to articulate a question like that. A lot of people don't see nature the way you're talking about.
GARDNER: I disagree with you here. Gerald Graff, who teaches English at the University of Chicago, points out that one of the interesting things about the United States now is that the same conversation is going on in two places, and neither side is aware of it. There's the conversation about canon, the curriculum and postmodernism that takes place at the universities among tenured professors and in the columns of Lingua Franca, and then there's the mass market talk radio stuff and the Oprah stuff. Superficially they seem to be very different, but in fact people are talking about many of the same issues, and they are talking about what they consider beauty. What should kids be allowed to watch on TV, and why? Why do you go to Disney World? Those are questions about people's esthetics. Should you have abortions? What about Euthanasia? Those are questions of morality and they're being discussed in similar ways but it's a different discourse: hierotic and demotic, as they used to say. The worst thing would be for people to think that I care whether people know about Darwin's finches ÷ I couldn't care less. But I want them to know about how what is valued as true in their community is arrived at.
JB: Your examples are templates.
GARDNER: An invitation. But then when you get to talk about it in your community, you discover where the real issues are.
JB: What did you learn from this woman?
GARDNER: I have not changed the examples I use, but I want to make it as clear as I can that they're only illustrative. And so when I talk now on this topic, I list other kinds of scientific findings, I cite artists from all different groups, and you can study slavery, the Inquisition, Gandhi ÷ there are lots of examples of morality, it doesn't have to come out of the Holocaust. A lot of professors who heard what I have to say, a lot of academics, would be disturbed by it, because for many of us ÷ I'll speak here as an academic ÷ what we're really trying to do is to figure out how to make students into little "us-es." So the graduate curriculum hands down history and science to the colleges, and the colleges hand down history and science to the high schools. And people are saying, how can we get the best graduate students eight years later? And I'm saying no.
What we need to talk about is what the citizens in our communities need to know. And they're the ones have to be able to pick up a newspaper which has an article about cholesterol, or E. Coli, or some new kind of contraceptive, and be able to say, is this something credible? Should I change my behavior on the basis of this? And similarly, you want them to be able to decide in a plebescite in the community about how they should be voting about something, whether it is a sewage plant or the budget for a new arts center or term limits for legislators. They need to be able to understand enough about analogies and dis-analogies from previous periods in history, so they can make a judgment about it. That's what public education before the college and university should be about, and not figuring out exactly what the best prerequisites are so you can take Chem II rather than Chem I.
JB: What about resistance from people who are in the education industry ÷ teachers, among others?
GARDNER: For one thing I'm calling on people to change what they do. For another, coverage is very comforting. One of the reasons why E. D. Hirsch is so popular is you can say, god, they knew 300 things last year, now they know 600. Now they know 300 things more. But I say facts are completely discipline-neutral. If you don't learn how to think and speak differently about things then you really haven't been schooled at all. You remember the old $64,000 Question? Jeopardy and the $64,000 Dollar Question forms the American consciousness about what it is to know things. Other countries aren't much better, but international studies bear me out, that the kids in East Asia and Western Europe who do better in science and math, are the ones who attend schools where they actually do more uncovering and less covering. They go more deeply into topics and they build up more habits of thinking; they don't worry about spending ten seconds on many different things.
In fact a lot of my ideas have been less confusing to people in other countries than they have been in the United States. Our education discourse is so primitive. If you compare, for example, writing about science in our newspapers, to writing about education, writing about science has really improved over the last 20 years ÷ if you read Science Times and the science pages of other papers, you learn something in areas where you are not an expert.
In writing about education, everything is about test scores, and every six months about some cute place where they're teaching kids something in the arts ÷ but there's no cumulative knowledge there, there's no Wall Street Journal for people who are interested in education. Yet in the rest of the world nearly everybody realizes that education is what it's all about.
The irony is that in countries that are very resource-rich, like the United states, Argentina, maybe Russia to a certain extent, one is able to get away with an education system that has just been okay for a small percentage of the population, because there are so many resources. That's not going to be true forever. It's individuals who will be better at problem finding as well as problem solving who will be better at working together at groups, who'll be able to be very good at troubleshooting, who will be able to take these disciplines and bring them to bear in new areas. They're the ones that will be in power 50 years from now. While there's some aspects of our society which are very benevolent with reference to those things, our schools aren't one of them. Our schools are behind except for very few schools which the elite get the chance to send their kids to, but that's not where the future's going to be cast. What's going to happen to the 75 percent of our population that doesn't have high-quality education? That's the question.
JB: How do you see these ideas playing out over the next years? Implications of this new book in terms of what you might do with it, or other people might?
GARDNER: I've already given part of the answer to this; these ideas will fall on more receptive ears in other parts of the worlds, where not only is education taken more seriously, but where it's possible to have a more unified kind of national conversation. We may not like the French system, but when they make a decision, it gets implemented very widely. There are many countries which no longer are part French colonies which still run their schools the way the French ran their schools 50 or a hundred years ago.
JB: We're too patchy for that.
GARDNER: The interesting thing will be to see whether individuals who are traditionally oriented, whether scholars or lay people, and who like the goal of a traditional orientation, will be drawn to the notion of deep uncovering, rather than covering superficially, and of being very imaginative and flexible in how you present such a curriculum to a very diverse population. That's what the issue is going to hang on. It could be that it'll serve as a meeting ground for people who have hitherto thought they were at each other's necks ÷ but it could also elicit a "plague on both your houses" reaction. The people who are more liberal/progressive, will say, God, Gardner's really lost it, because he's talking about "pale stale males," whereas the people on the right will say, well, granted he wants to talk about some things that are worth talking about, but first of all there are thousands of other things that the kids have to know as well, and he won't tell us what they are, and second of all what is all this nonsense about teaching things in different ways; there's one way to teach, the right way, and either the kids will learn it or it's too bad.
JB: You're right. People might think you're losing it.
GARDNER: Maybe I am!
JB: It's a departure.
GARDNER: I probably feel more of a personal commitment to this than anything else I've ever undertaken ÷ it really comes from my soul. I have been deeply involved in school reform for at least 15 years. I've been very frustrated by the superficiality of the discussion, and by my perception that people don't really get down to the basic of what an ordinary citizen ought to be able to know so that he can cope with a world that's changing very quickly and is very confusing.