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Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: An Education For All Human Beings
A Talk With Howard Gardner

JB: What is education? Are you talking about a metaprogram? Is education a discipline? Is it a science? What happens at Education Schools?

GARDNER: One mistake that many people make, including me, is to equate education to school. Of course schools are only one of many institutions involved in education. In the United States the media probably do as much education and miseducation as the schools; there are messages on the street, there are messages in the family, church, all those other institutions. A graduate school of education ought to be concerned about all of those institutions which transmit what the culture, or some part of the culture, values sufficiently that it wants its young people to have. Richard Dawkins makes the distinction between genes and memes; I suppose education doesn't have much to say about the genes, but it has a lot to say about the memes; sometimes the memes become the goal, sometimes they're incidental. For example, I want you to buy something, but in the course of trying to sell it to you, I may teach you lots of other things, for example how to mount a persuasive argument. That entails a hidden curriculum.

Education entails many disciplines. There's certainly a lot of knowledge and lore over the millennia about how you transmit culture. Indeed if you go back to the Bible and Confucius, you discover education is cumulative in that sense. But education is also a metadiscipline. It's a discipline which is so to speak parasitic to many other disciplines. In this country education has been parasitic to a degree upon psychology I don't think particularly to its benefit. But psychology has been a major discipline in schools of education, with anthropology, sociology, economics, political science being less important players, plus administration or management, which is maybe a doubly parasitic kind of thing. This approach draws on the social sciences to figure out how to run things, whether they're schools, or businesses, or even countries. But to get more concrete, what you have as a faculty at this graduate school of education are largely social scientists interested in the issues of education. Sometimes we are quite second rate. Sometimes, I hope, we are not. I could just mention a few intellectuals associated with my own school: Pat Moynahan, Nathan Glazer, Carol Gilligan, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, and Robert Coles.

JB: Sounds like education departments have a complex of some kind.

GARDNER: I'm trying to give you a straightforward description; a disinterested one.

JB: Could you get a job in another department?

GARDNER: I like to follow problems wherever they go. I've been studying extraordinary minds; I wrote a book about creativity, a book about leaders, and in that I'm trying to be a naturalist and figure out if extraordinary people represent a species as a whole, what are the subspecies? There's not a department where you can do that sort of stuff. I'm also working on the relationship between creativity and responsibility; that's my major research project at present. There are few funders who really understand what we're talking about, so we've had to prevail upon their trust in us. To go back to the start of our conversation, I'm writing a book about how everybody in the world ought to be educated.

JB: How you educate everybody?

GARDNER: I want people at the end of their education to understand the world in ways that they couldn't have understood it before their education. In speaking of the world I mean the physical world, the biological world, the social world their own world, their personal world as well as the broader social and cultural terrain. I believe that these are questions that every human being is interested in from a very young age. They're questions which kids ask all the time: who am I, where do I come from, what's this made out of, what's going to happen to me, why do people fight, why do they hate? Is there a higher power? Questions like that they don't usually ask them in their words, they ask them in their play, in their stories, the myths they like to listen to and so on.

These are also the questions that historically have been looked at in religion, philosophy, science. While it's great for people to ask these questions on their own, and to make use of their own experience, it's crazy for people not to take advantage of the other attempts to answer those questions over the millennia. And the disciplines represent to me the most concerted efforts to provide answers to those questions. History tells us where we come from. Biology talks about what it means to be alive. Physics talks about the world of objects, alive or not.

It's important to emphasize the role of disciplines when you're talking about precollegiate education. Some people think the disciplines are irrelevant, and some people think all the interesting work is interdisciplinary so you can kind of jump right into that. I reject both of these claims. Disciplines are what separates us from the barbarians; I don't think you can do interdisciplinary work unless you've done disciplinary work.

The people who defend disciplines often go to the opposite extreme; there's a joke in my field which is in elementary school we love the kids, in high school we love the disciplines, in college we love ourselves. I don't think disciplines ought to be loved for their own sake; they ought to be seen as the best way to answer questions that human beings are interested in. Therefore I see the purpose of education as helping people understand the best answers that cultures and societies have come up with to basic questions, what I would call essential questions. So at the end we can form our own personal answers to those questions, which will be based to a significant extent on how other people have approached them, and will at the same time allow us to make our own syntheses.

The word understanding is very important here because I would say the overwhelming part of what we do in schools has nothing to do with understanding. It has to do with memorizing material and feeding it back in the form of short-answer tests. Understanding for me, on the other hand, is taking something that you've learned, a skill, a bit of knowledge, a concept, and applying it appropriately in a new situation. We very rarely ask students to do that. The most interesting finding of cognitive science for education is that when we ask even the best students in the best schools to make use of the knowledge in a new situation, they don't typically know how to do it.

JB: Maybe the premise of schools should be how to take tests. I became very good at it I'm not being ironic.

GARDNER: What you're saying is more true than you may realize. By and large throughout history, schools have not known exactly what it is that they want to do, but those who fund and operate schools have known that they want to have people who are responsible, and show up, and can master a task. So over the years they have developed what we might call ersatzes. If you wanted to go to Harvard College a hundred years ago, you had to be able to read Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Nobody went out and did a job where they had to read Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Nowadays it's mastering a certain amount of mathematics, even though almost nobody will be using that mathematics when they go on. They are hurdles which we set up to discover whether somebody has the Yiddish word is yechas, the German word is sitzfleisch to sit down and do something they don't really want to do.

Suddenly the notion of seeing whether people can memorize lots of stuff and can sit down and study becomes irrelevant. Because we can get computers and other kinds of instrumentation to do that for us. We don't need to remember the capital of Montana because it is likely to be at our fingertips. When I talk about being able to understand the discipline so that we can approach fundamental questions, I mean that we need to be able to train ways of thinking, so when new stuff comes along, people will be able to say, "Gee, I know how to approach that because of some ways of thinking that I've learned;" or if not, at least I have some recourse where I can go to figure out what to do. And this can be other people, or books, or some kind of training that you do yourself or with a simulation there are many options.

The notion of coverage, of going through a bunch of disciplines, and learning facts and concepts, is assessed by schools all over the world. It's never been a very good idea, but now it's really irrelevant. I would throw away 95 percent of the coverage that we do; figure out really important questions and issues, and give people lots and lots of time to learn about how disciplined minds think about those issues, and then to practice those disciplines themselves.


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