JB: Let's get more concrete about your present initiatives.
GARDNER: I'm a progressive in education ÷ a follower of Dewey and people like that ÷ but I want essentially to seize the initiative from the conservatives, who have dominated educational discussion in this country to its detriment. I'm selecting as my examples things which no conservative could possibly shake a fist at, but which would drive postmodernists nuts. Truth, beauty, and goodness. When I talk about truth, I'm talking about science but also folk knowledge; when I talk about beauty I'm talking about the arts, but it could be nature as well; when I'm talking about goodness and evil I'm talking about morality.
My specimen topic in truth is the theory of evolution; my topic in beauty is the music of Mozart; my topic in morality is the Holocaust. Getting even more specific than that: my example in evolution is Darwin's finches; within the music of Mozart my example is a trio in The Marriage of Figaro ÷ it's the 13th performed set piece in the first act; and in the Holocaust my example the Wannsee Conference is the place where the Nazis actually launched the Final Solution. These three things ÷ the finches, the trio, and the Wannsee Conference ÷ actually respond to questions that kids are interested in. (For example, why are there so many different kinds of birds on a little island?) They are what I call entry points to topics which are crucial if you want to think scientifically, historically or aesthetically. What I would do as a teacher would be to spend weeks, months, even years, really going into these things so that people will develop the habits of mind so they can think about topics like that.
If you asked me should people be studying physics, or chemistry or biology or geology in high school, I would say it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference. They should study some topics, of course, but the choice is wide open ÷ I'm interested in depth, not breadth. I'm not talking about college education; I'm just taking on K to 12. What I want when kids get through a K to 12 education is for them to have a sense of what their society thinks is true, beautiful and good; false, ugly and evil; how to think about it and how to act on the basis of your thoughts.
JB: Where is the Howard Gardner of multiple intelligences in all of this. Isn't this what you're known for in education?
GARDNER: There have been literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of applications of my ideas educationally, both in this country and in the world. I say that with as much mystification and embarrassment as pride, because I have had almost nothing to do with it; these are things other people have done. But one thing that struck me is how incredibly superficial most of the applications have been, and one obsessive thought that's stimulating me through this current work in education is this: I don't want to be part of the trivialization of education. What I'm arguing is that if you decide which things are important and which things are worth spending time on, like evolution and the music of Mozart, then you can approach such a topic in many different ways. Multiple intelligences can be useful in three quite interesting ways in dealing with important topics that are worth spending time on.
First of all by providing what I call entry points. Any topic that's worth spending time on can be approached in many different ways. I, in fact, have seven different entry points which roughly relate to my intelligences, but that's neither here nor there.
Second of all by providing powerful analogies or metaphors for what you're trying to understand. Again we don't know if there are seven analogies for anything you want us to understand, but there is always more than one analogy or metaphor.
Third of all, by providing what I call different model languages for understanding a concept. Let's take evolution. You can learn about evolution in ordinary language, you can learn about it through logical propositions; you can draw diagrams with the branching tree of evolution; you can do taxonomic classifications of various kinds of species. Many people (including experts) make the mistake of thinking that one of these languages is so to speak a privileged representation of a topic. I would say on the contrary that our understanding of a topic is rich to the extent that we have a number of different ways of representing it and we can go pretty readily from one representation to the other.
Here I become Howard Gardner the progressive. We need to take what we know about the different ways in which children think, the different ways in which people can make sense of the world, and really build that into the teaching of important topics. First of all we reach more kids, because some kids learn from stories, some kids learn from works of art, some kids learn from hands-on kinds of things. We also give kids a sense of what it's like to be an expert, because experts will think about something in lots of different ways. If you can only think about a topic in one way, your understanding is tenuous at best.
JB: What will parents think of this?
GARDNER: It's going to confuse some of them, because in a sense I'm trying to have the best of a progressive and traditional perspective. When we talk about the true, the beautiful and the good, that's very classical. Then you have multiple intelligences. I went on radio and talked about how you could teach the Civil War through dance. I received the most outraged correspondence from people on that topic, even though I just heard about a wonderful dance about the Holocaust that's really quite amazing, and powerful: and many of us understand the Spanish Civil War through Picasso's paintings or Andre Malraux's novels. So, it's really going to confuse people.
JB: Is this approach for everybody? Have you tried it out on local boards of inner-city public schools, for instance?
GARDNER: I am not saying that everybody should study evolution, Mozart and the Holocaust. I'm saying everybody needs to work in his or her culture to figure out what are the important truths and beauties and falsities and uglinesses and moralities, and to spend time with those. And in the sciences there are hundreds of them. And if you don't believe in the sciences, then there are hundreds of them in folk knowledge. But the important point is to spend a lot of time on something, rather than just superficially sampling a lot of things. People say, well, you've got to read 500 books before you get through high school ÷ I say bull! You've got to read a small number of good books very carefully, and learn how to think about books. You have the rest of your life to read Moby Dick, or Silas Marner or The Color Purple.
At the "Gardner school," we're going to interest your son, Max Brockman, and my son, Benjamin Gardner, in these really interesting questions, which are human questions; what life's all about. Then you encounter these funny squiggles you've got to make sense out of ÷ the literacies. Why? Because we can't read those books and listen to those works of art and understand those machines unless we pick up some of those literacies. But the literacies are not ends in themselves. President Clinton said we want to have every kid reading by third grade. I say, we know how to teach kids how to read; the problem is kids don't read. Literacies have to be a means to get to the disciplines. The disciplines are the handmaidens to help us come up with reasonable first answers to all these essential questions. We can't do it on our own. But there are only three or four basic disciplines that we should worry about before college. One, how to think scientifically. Most people in America still believe in astrology; they're clueless of how to make sense of an experiment. They don't know what a hypothesis is. Two, they need to know something about the history of their country, something about the background, maybe a little about the rest of the world too. But again people don't know how historically; they think the Punic Wars occurred about the same time as the Truman administration. They don't understand the ways in which we are like and unlike other cultures, other historical eras; they tend to think the past was all different and all bad, the present is all good, they think history is progress ÷ they're filled with misconceptions. So you need to know something about history. Three, people need to know something about how to make sense of works of art, because those are treasures of the culture, and four, they have to know something about mathematics because it's the language of science, and they're going to be stuck if they don't know. The particular books they read, the particular science they learn, are completely irrelevant until you get to college. You're picking up some tools so you can enter into the conversations of the centuries on these and other important questions.
So what happens in this ideal school? Students have learned a lot about some very important topics that the culture cherishes. And they've secured some tools so if they want to know about something besides the things they've focussed on, they can study it in college or read about it on their own; they've got the rest of life there.
How do we find out what they've learned? We ask them to issue performances of understanding. We give them materials that they haven't encountered before, and ask, how can you make sense of it? You studied the Holocaust? I'm going to tell you about Bosnia. Or about what happened in Armenia in the first world war. And I want you to talk about that, or write about it, or enact it ÷ do a play about it. Help me understand what's going on and tell me in what ways Bosnia or Armenia is like what happened in Germany and in what ways it's different.
You've been studying evolution? I'm going to tell you something about virtual reality, if you're interested in that. I'm going to tell you about computers. Stretch. Use that knowledge in a new situation.
You've read and understood the George Eliot book? I'm going to give you a book by Jane Austen. I don't care which book it is, it's simply not relevant. And the students who get to go on scholarship to private universities are not the ones who can tell me when every battle occurred, or who can memorize every chemical formula. I'm going to admit those students who can show me how to think about issues in those areas. I'll give them a hundred choices. They have to perform their understanding on something which matters in the culture.
An anecdote: I gave a talk roughly like this in New Jersey, and a woman came up to me and began the following conversation:
"Well," she said, "your talk was interesting, but your examples bothered me." "How?," I said. "They're all Jewish," she replied. "Gee, that's odd ÷ Darwin certainly isn't Jewish, nothing Jewish about evolution. As far as I know Mozart never met a Jew and he certainly wouldn't have known what one was. Admittedly the Holocaust involved Jews, but it's about gypsies and gays and political dissidents and a lot of Germans." "Well, it's that Jewish thing," she said. I kind of did a double take. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, "did I hurt your feelings?" "I'm sort of upset that you would think that this is all about Jewish things, I replied." I guess as a Jew myself the thought of anti-Semitism certainly passed through my mind, but I talked to her a while, and at the end I thanked her, I told her it was useful for me to talk with you, because I didn't know how this was sounding, and it was helpful to me.