Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century

Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century

Howard Gardner [3.9.16]

It is going to be much more of a Wild West—what sorts of things get tried in education. The notion that we’re all going to be singing out of the same hymnal is just not going to be the case. And it may not be bad. The American federal system has been very effective in certain areas, but not in policies of higher education.

HOWARD GARDNER is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Gardner also directs the Good Project. Howard Gardner's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Douglas Rushkoff, Patricia Churchland, Mark Pagel, Roger Schank, Neil Gershenfeld, Cristine Legare, David Myers, NEW Howard Gardner response


I think of myself as doing projects. Some of them are bigger than others. My first project was trying to understand the way in which knowledge about the brain might inform how we think about cognitive capacities. This research ultimately led to my work on the theory of Multiple Intelligence—the work of mine that got the most attention; my fifteen minutes of fame, so to speak. One reason why "MI" got a lot of attention is because you can summarize the idea very quickly: Rather than intelligence being a single thing, of which you have some, or a lot, or not much, we have a set of distinctly different intelligences. You can be very strong with musical and not with spatial or vice-versa, and so on.

Psychologists have never liked the theory particularly, but it caught on with educators. A lot of my work subsequently has been in the area of education—mostly kindergarten through 12th grade, but recently in higher education. I don’t have much interest in MI theory anymore but 80 percent of my mail (today, email of course) is still from people who want to either explore the ideas, or set up a school, or want to know about curricula, pedagogy, assessment, online applications. The "MI Man" probably will be on my gravestone, whatever I might think about that form of commemoration.                

As I got more interested in education, I began to think about my own educational philosophy. We all have educational philosophies, whether they are implicit or explicit. I eventually wrote a book called The Disciplined Mind. I made a straightforward argument in that book that the purpose of education should be to learn the ways in which people have thought about their work in the major disciplines: sciences, the arts, the humanities, and so on. I still believe that should be the purpose of education. Or as I now put it, I am interested in education that takes places between the attainment of the literacies, on the one hand, and the acquisition of a job or vocation, on the other.            

Some years later, I wrote another book called Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed where I sharpened the argument: In education between literacies and livelihoods, we should learn what’s true and what’s not. The sciences have their ways of establishing truth, but there are also historical truths and social scientific truths and literary truths.

We should also think and learn about what it is to be a good person, a good citizen. I’ve been particularly interested in the trio of excellence, engagement, and ethics that characterize the good worker and the good citizen. We speak of the triple helix of "ENA" which characterizes individuals who exemplify the good.

When I talked about beauty I put forth a rather unusual definition of beauty: "Beauty is a property of experiences." A conversation can be beautiful, a walk can be beautiful, obviously a work of art can be beautiful; these are all experiences that are interesting, and memorable, and we want to repeat them. Having beautiful experiences, reflecting on them, adding to them, rethinking earlier experiences—these are also important desiderata of education.

I want to ensure that people in the world have an education where they are informed and enthusiastic about the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness. As I framed it above—I focus on the realm between the literacies and the job listings. If you talk to people who are mildly knowledgeable about school, about education, they’ll say that we have to have kids who are literate; young people have to be able to read, write, calculate, and now many would say they have to be able to code; they have to be able to get a job, and, indeed, some opinion leaders talk about nothing except employment.                

What we should do in school after kids can read, write, and calculate, and before they’re on the job market, is to help them understand the different forms of knowledge and what each of them can and can’t achieve; why ethics and morality are not the same as biology and physics; why what someone else is moved by may not be what you’re moved by, but it’s worth figuring out which experiences others value and which experiences they don’t. Part of life is that what you value changes in your own knowledge and your own experiences . . . and that’s all to the good!                

When I was a kid I became interested in classical music, and I remember in high school we would put on different records of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 to see which pianist could play it the most quickly. That was my aesthetic at the time—Vladimir Horowitz was the usual winner—but I’m embarrassed about my aesthetics now decades later.                

This interest in a rich and rounded education relates to the biggest project that I’ve ever undertaken, which is called LAS21—Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st century.                

The kind of education you get in the United States, if you go to a four-year non-vocational school, is an American invention; it shares property with education at Oxford or Cambridge but with few other systems. Only in America do we have over 3,000 colleges and universities where you can go and study a range of topics, a range of disciplines, write a thesis, have a major, have other areas of concentration without that regimen certifying you to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an architect, or indeed a school teacher.                

This is a very valuable form of education. It’s admired all over the world. If you go to East Asia or East Europe, you’ll find that either people want to set up their own liberal arts schools, their own Amhersts, their own Yales, or they want to have a campus that’s connected: Yale-Singapore, NYU-Abu Dhabi, a dizzying variety of branch campuses or linked institutions of higher education.                

Yet in this country, four-year non-vocational education is in serious trouble. It’s very expensive—$50,000-60,000 a pop, that’s the sticker price. It actually costs about $100,000, but schools end up subsidizing it. Alas, there’s a lot of pathology on the campuses: a lot of underage drinking, a lot of drugs, a lot of sexual rapacity. Many faculty focus only on their research and their careers, not their students or their calling as a teacher. There’s lots of research that indicates, at most schools, that students don’t learn very much over the four years of matriculation. Their performances in writing, their ability to analyze and solve problems is not much better after a few years than when they started. This is a big problem.

I have nothing particularly original to say about the value of liberal arts. Its praises have been sung eloquently for at least 150 years. But what we don’t know is how the different constituents on campuses think about why anyone should have a education that is not strictly vocational or pre-vocational.

What I’m doing with a wonderful research team is ultimately studying ten campuses all around the country. We are interviewing all the major stakeholders: incoming students, graduating students, parents, faculty, senior administrators, trustees, alums, and ultimately job recruiters (though recruiters, people who are going to be hiring people out of the school, will not be done on a school-by-school basis). This is a national study, both in terms of going from the East Coast to the West Coast, and we’re looking at all kinds of schools: schools that are very selective, schools that are not selective at all, community colleges, small liberal arts schools, large universities.

In each of these institutions, we are interviewing about 200 persons, so we’ll have over 2,000 interviews. We’ve done about 700 now. I’ve done about 150 myself. We talk to people. We don’t use the word "liberal arts" until the very end but we ask—in so many words: "What’s the purpose of college? Why should somebody go there? What do you hope you will get out of it? Should it be transformative? Should you take risks? If you were the czar of education, how would you change education? If you were given a free week on campus, what would you do? What do you think others would do?"                 

Some of the questions may strike persons as trite, but they actually perform a very valuable function. They indicate whether the informant has a liberal arts way of thinking: Does he/she interrogate or reword the question? Does he/she connect questions that have been scattered across the interview? Does he/she bring up issues that we have neglected to ask about, and in a way that deepens the conversation?

What questions am I asking?  Here’s one: Are the pre-conceptions I have about education at all being borne out by what we find out from the people on these campuses? I’m asking what are their mental models. How do the students think about higher education? How do their parents think, etc.? Another bit of social science terminology: we are interested in alignment and misalignment.                

When everybody says the same thing, it’s not very interesting to us. But if all the heads of schools talk about the importance of training good citizens, while parents and students never mention that, that’s a misalignment. If parents talk a lot about getting jobs but faculty say, "It’s not our business to get people jobs"—that’s a misalignment.

An important part of the project is to identify schools, programs, projects that bridge those misalignments and bring what the faculty wants in closer alignment with what the trustees want, what the recruiters want in closer alignment with what the students think they want. And the like . . .         

This is at least a five-year project. I remarked to someone the other day, "We can’t see the beginning of the end but we’ve seen the end of the beginning and it’s absolutely fascinating." The one thing I can’t do now is talk about the results because that would invalidate the project. Interested readers will have to wait a few years until we begin to talk and write about it . . . perhaps on the Edge website!      

In the olden days I would’ve put things in peer-reviewed journals and then written a book. I’m very aware that nowadays that’s not the principal way messages travel. I’m much more involved in the world of social media, blogs—different kinds of information sources, and I want to get the story out. I will be looking in, let’s say, the year 2017-2018 at where people are paying attention and who’s paying attention.                

One of the groups I want to reach are state legislators, because they’re going to decide whether to support public education and, if so, of what form. Public education is going to be very different if it isn’t supported than if we have free community college, which was actually recommended by President Truman’s commission on higher education almost seventy years ago! We’ve got terrific doctoral students working on the project. I’m sure they’ll be writing articles for peer review. In fact, a couple of them already are. I’d be surprised if we don’t have a book or two. If I find that having a dynamic website with iterations on 500 campuses is the way to reach people, that’s what I’ll do.     

I pay attention to which things I write get tweeted, but I’m not the tweeter. Sometimes it's by my kids, sometimes it's by people who work with me. Time is finite, and I don't think the best use of my time is to come up with 140 characters six times a day. But if someone else wants to tweet about our questions and our findings, that's absolutely fine with me.     

Looking at education more broadly, we are at a pivotal point now. Starting in the ‘60s, the federal government had an increasingly large role in higher education, and in education in general. This was the Johnson era: the Elementary and Secondary School Act, the different Titles, and so on. Speaking as we are, at the very end of 2015, I think the federal role is going to be diminished in the years to come because neither the left nor the right particularly wants education policy to emanate from Washington. It doesn’t mean the federal role was wrong, but politically there’s going to be much less support for any attempt to have a national federal policy.                

The big players are going to be entities with lots of money, which are individuals who are very wealthy and individuals with foundations. Until now, of course, the Gates Foundation has been the biggest, but about a month ago Mark Zuckerberg announced he was going to give the bulk of his wealth to causes involved in education. The very first thing he said was "Education which is more personal." In an uncharacteristically Gardner moment, I sat down and wrote an open letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and put it in the Washington Post. Whether he ever will see it I don’t know. Since I’ve been focusing for forty years on individual differences in education, I have a few thoughts about that.                

It is going to be much more of a Wild West—what sorts of things get tried in education. The notion that we’re all going to be singing out of the same hymnal is just not going to be the case. And it may not be bad. The American federal system has been very effective in certain areas, but not in policies of higher education.

~ ~ ~              

Let me tell you about another project I’ve been working on for twenty years. My partners have been psychologists Mike Csikszentmihalyi and Bill Damon. We’ve been carrying out what we called the Good Work Project; but because that’s metamorphosed in various ways, we now call it the Good Project ( The Good Project considers the nature and the achievement of good work, good play, good citizenship, good collaboration, good life, a whole bunch of "goods."                 

Originally we were interested in how people could be both creative and humane at the same time because those two descriptors have rather different connotations. The project was called the Humane Creativity Project. In fact, nobody understood what humane creativity was; and so we changed the name to the Good Work Project, and it secured support over a ten-year period. Then my colleagues moved on, but I stuck with it. After about twenty years, I said, "You know, we’re just talking to the same people all the time, mostly in education; we need to have a broader canvas.” And so we created the website for The Good Project. I began to create blogs and have been doing this for about a year. The blogs aren’t all from me; they’re from other people as well.                

Then I decided it needed to have more energy. I was talking to a friend of mine, who’s a very successful lawyer, and I said, "I want to start a blog called the Professional Ethicist." I had a particular set of reasons for calling it the Professional Ethicist. To begin with I’m interested in the ethics of the professions. I don’t think there are people who are professional ethicists, but there are people who do the ethics of law, the ethics of medicine, the ethics of architecture, and so on. I thought I would create a blog and a website called the Professional Ethicist.                

At the time, the New York Times had three different ethicists writing every week and I thought it was just ridiculous. I was, in a sense, making fun of their enterprise. Now they have a single ethicist, Anthony Appiah, and he’s quite good. He talks about moral questions, in general. I’m interested in the ethics of the profession.                

My friend said, "Howard, it’s fine to blog and have 600-700 words, but you need to write a more significant piece where you lay out your views in depth." And I thought he was right, so I wrote an essay of about 5,000 words called "Do the Professions Have a Future?" To myself I called it "The Long Telegram" because in 1946 George Kennan, the diplomat, wrote a long telegram in which he laid out a position about our relationship with the Soviet Union—the policy of containment. While I have no pretensions that I’m George Kennan, I wanted to write something to move the conversation along.                

In the beginning of December, 2015, I posted my essay and the reaction has been more than I could’ve possibly hoped for. Many people who care about these issues have written and written very intelligently either to me personally, and— sometimes I’ve said, "Can I post this on the blog?"—some are written directly on the blog. I’ve got a conversation going. This is now a case of "be careful what you wish for?" Being very much involved in the liberal arts project, the question is how much bandwidth do I have to be focusing on professional ethics?                 

I was going to write an omnibus response to these different critics of mine, which include people who I never thought would hear about it. In the essay I talk about a book called The Future of the Professions by a father and son group in Britain, Richard Susskind and his son Daniel. I’m rather critical of the book. Last week, I got an email from them saying, "We’ve read what you’ve written and we’d like to talk with you." So we’re getting together early in 2016. The Susskind book is very important, and the reason it’s very important is because it’s gotten this conversation moving. Anyway, I would hope that the blog would eventually have some energy of its own so other people will contribute and people will respond to them. Like all these things, at a certain point it’ll lose its energy and then I’ll move on to maybe a blog on "Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st century."                 

Here I am, well into the eighth decade of my life, not interested very much in multiple intelligences anymore, but very interested in the bigger picture of education between literacies and job listings; taking the Good Project, which Damon, Csikszentmihalyi, and I have worked on for many years, and trying to get a discussion going on what it means to be a good professional. I’m trying to understand higher education in America today.              

Because I’m well known in education, I’m lucky enough to get invited to meetings of people who are leaders of American higher education. I was in a meeting a couple of months ago and everybody went around the table and a person said, "I’m the editor of this, I’m the president of that . . ." And I said, "Well, on the one hand, I have the least right to be here because I’ve just become interested in higher education. I’ve been interested for years in K-12. But on the other hand, I’m the man who knows too much. I’ve read over 600 interviews on six campuses where people are letting their hearts and guts out about what they think about higher education. When we get our results out, a lot of eyes are going to be opened much wider."

Some autobiographical reflections: I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was the son of Jewish refugees from Germany, who arrived in America on Kristallnacht (November 9 1938), so my sister and I are lucky that they made it. I was the typical Jewish boy who hated the sight of blood, so I was going to be a lawyer.

I became alive intellectually when I went to Harvard College in the early ‘60s. There I was, like a kid in a candy store. I took courses on every particular topic that I was interested in. I did prelaw and premed. It was across the board. Then I met two people who had a big influence in my life: Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst, and Jerome Bruner, the cognitive psychologist. I decided to do doctoral work on psychology even though I’d never taken a psychology course. My interactions with them were not in psychology courses.                

I probably could have become a card-carrying psychologist, but I took an unusual career path. First of all, when I was just beginning graduate school, I met a philosopher named Nelson Goodman. He was starting something he called Project Zero, which was a research project at the Ed School at Harvard. I was a graduate student in psychology, helping Goodman figure out an effective way to do arts education.

I found Goodman very appealing as a mind. He was Noam Chomsky’s teacher and the teacher of many eminent philosophers. When he retired from heading Project Zero in ’71, David Perkins and I became the heads. That entity now exists; it’s forty-eighty years old. In two years we’ll celebrate our 50th anniversary. For twenty-eight years I was the co-director with Perkins.                

When I finished graduate school, I didn’t take a job in a Psych Department; I took a set of post-docs. For fifteen years I basically lived on my wits; I didn’t have a faculty position. I got grants through Harvard and grants from the Veterans Administration in Boston, where I was studying aphasia and other kinds of cortical disorders.                

I discovered that I was a perfectly decent psychologist. I have well over 100 peer-reviewed articles. But there were many psychologists who were as good at doing experiments as I was. My talent, such that it is, lies in synthesizing, in writing books. I’m one of the very few psychologists who’s more comfortable writing a book than I am writing an article. A professional school is the right place for me because people there care that you do something interesting; they don’t care how many peer-review articles you have in a prestigious psychology journal.                

In 1981, I got a MacArthur Fellowship. That was the first year of the so-called "genius awards"—I was the only psychologist to get one. When I was interviewed by the psychology newsletter, I said, "I’m sure I’m not on anybody’s list as a prototypical psychologist, but I hope I’m on some people’s lists as an interesting and good psychologist." I still think of things in the manner of a research psychologist, but I think of myself more generally as a qualitative, interpretive social scientist.                

Indeed, I’m as much a sociologist or an anthropologist as I am a psychologist. While I love experiments and I’m always coming up with ideas for experiments—and my wife Ellen Winner is a dyed-in-the-wool experimental psychologist—I don’t do them any more. Instead I talk to people, I interview them, I try to understand what’s on their mind, and I try to write about what I heard in a compelling way. In a way, I’m a journalist who analyzes his data in a public verifiable way.            

Now I want to try to change some parts of the world. I’m not grandiose, but I wouldn’t be setting up these websites and seeking to raise consciousness about professional ethics and about other kinds of "goods," and I wouldn’t be flying every week to colleges and universities if I didn’t want to make a difference. Bill Damon, to whom I referred a couple of times, said it very well. He said, "If I could cure cancer, I would. I can’t cure cancer. The most important thing I think I can do is to work on issues of how to have people have a sense of purpose and yoke it to important issues."      

People who go to Edge and the Reality Club and read what’s written there and look at the videos are interested in ideas. That’s what energizes us. That’s what liberal arts is about. Most of us also want to make a difference. We don’t have to be grandiose, but we’d like to leave the world a bit better than it was. Certainly, as I get older, as many other people get older, we think a lot about legacy, not just in number of citations in "the literature" but maybe with reference to people whom we’ve influenced in a good way.     

In 1994-1995, Bill Damon, Mike Csikszentmihalyi, and I went to the Center for Advanced Study in Stanford. That’s where we came up with the ideas for the Good Work Project. Shortly after that, they each left where they were. Damon moved from Brown to Stanford, and Csikszentmihalyi moved from Chicago to Claremont. I said, "They’ve got these job offers and they’re going to get reinvigorated. Maybe I should move too." While I once flirted with one other school, I never thought about it seriously because, in fact, I live primarily in my mind. For me, what’s important is that I come up with new ideas, and new questions, and new projects. I don’t think that I would be that different if I was in Chicago, or at Brown, or at Claremont.                

However, in this new project we’re going to be working in community colleges, we’re going to be working in large publics. We’re already working in DePaul, a very large Catholic school in Chicago. That is certainly eye-opening for me because I’ve been at Harvard for fifty-five years and it’s very hard to avoid being a bit brainwashed by what happens in Cambridge, MA 02138. I did work for twenty years in the Veterans Hospital, and that certainly exposed me to medicine and to people who I never would’ve met otherwise.                

I didn’t just stay in Cambridge. In the 1980s, I did a lot of research in China. I wrote a book about it—called To Open Minds. I’ve spent thirty years visiting schools in Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, which are the most interesting schools for young kids in the world.

I visited China a lot in the 1980s and finally visited India a few years ago. Of course China and India are enormous. The century is going to be much more defined by what happens in those places than what happens in the United States. The anguished emotions that we’re seeing now in the United States are found in people who thought we were the only country in the world that was worth taking seriously. They are realizing—often painfully—that it is a much larger planet and their own demography is no longer going to be the majority in this country. This year’s American kindergarten class is the first majority/minority cohort but it won’t be the last!             

When I’m interested in higher education, my mind is focused as much on Asia (and other continents) as it is in the United States. It may well be—I’m going to become very political—that our obsession with jobs and money is going to end up diluting or even abolishing a lot of the higher education here that I respect. Schools will go out of business, and there’ll be only a handful of schools left where you can have a liberal arts education. But that destruction of the space between ‘literacy’ and ‘livelihood’ won’t be true in China, it won’t be true in India, it won’t be true in Africa, and it’s certainly not going to be true in Latin America.                

I’m interested in the fact that when I go to other countries, the minister of education often wants to see me, and I’m asked to speak to groups of leaders, even to parliaments. I’ve never been invited in America by any political figure in education to do anything because education here is so political; it isn’t about the quality of the ideas.                

I don’t think that my books are bestsellers in other countries, but the education books immediately get translated into at least a dozen languages. Frankly, more money comes from those foreign editions than comes from the United States. My teacher Jerome Bruner said to me, whimsically, twenty or twenty-five years ago, "Howard, the only reason we’re getting published in the United States is so the text can be bought in other countries and people will actually read it."     

~ ~ ~   

I don’t think that it’s politically correct to be interested in truth, beauty, and goodness. Sherry Turkle’s work on digital youth—Life on the Screen—captures the fear on the part of many older persons that young people today are so involved in their devices, and so involved in comparing themselves with one another, and so afraid of ever having a moment where they’re bored that they’re missing out on the stuff that’s the most exciting about living—the kind of experiences and ideas that makes life worth living, having a mind, having curiosity and methods to pursue that curiosity. We may not have the right words for it, we may not have the right platform, so we want to shake people and say, "There’s a world out there and you should be curious about it and not just count, and not just code, and not just rank things in terms of return on investment." And as is so often the case, America is in the forefront of these dystopic trends.

Here’s something that almost drove me nuts. I was talking to a wonderful Harvard freshman, a wonderful kid, about four years ago and I was trying to interest him in something. He said, "You know, Dr. Gardner, I’m not interested in questions for which there are no answers." And I said, "That’s the only reason for going to college. That doesn’t mean you can’t make progress, but if you’re only going to take a course where they’re going to tell you the answers, you should go to some other place."                 

Maybe old people have always had that fear and maybe it’s not well-placed, but we’re suggesting that every moment you have is precious, and the more time you spend on social media, the more depressed you are likely to get. That’s what we know from studies. One of the reasons we have so much narcissism and the “imposter syndrome” in young people is because they’re always looking on every site to see whether somebody has had a better day on Facebook, or a better tweet than they.                

About ten years ago, I was talking to Jonathan Fanton, who was then president of the MacArthur Foundation, and he said, "We decided to invest a lot of money trying to understand how kids are being affected by the new digital media. We want to see whether they think differently, whether they feel differently, whether they interact differently with other people." And I said, "Well, what about their ethical sense? What about their moral sense?" He said, "Gee, we’ve not thought about that."                 

A conversation sometimes leads to a research project. For about ten years we carried out the Good Play Project, an attempt to understand the world of young people that is increasingly digital. My colleague, Carrie James, wrote a wonderful book called Disconnected. The book documents the ways in which young kids think they’re connected, but are disconnected from so many issues that are important.

Then, in a related line of work, my colleague, Katie Davis, and I wrote a book called The App Generation. We claimed that not only do kids only pursue activities if "there’s an app for that," but that many lives nowadays entail what we call a Super-app. First, you have to go to the right school, then you have to have the right internship, then you have to have the right job, and so on right through life. We were quite critical of that world view.                

For about ten years I was a voyeur of the digital world, but now because of the blogs I’ve created and the new projects I’m involved in, I’m becoming much more of a digital activist. No longer just a voyeur. If you’d asked me to predict whether any essay on the future of the professions would immediately get dozens of people to write to me, very intelligently agreeing or disagreeing, I would’ve never thought that was possible.                

Understanding the positive aspects of the digital world, as well as the negative ones, is certainly something that is new for me. I have two children who are in education. One is very technological and one is not particularly, and I learn a lot from them and how they see things. I continue to be excited by young people who are students or younger colleagues or whose works I read.              

One of the questions one asks oneself: What do you listen to that you haven’t listened to before? I was invited in New York to a meeting on data science that I went to in part because I didn’t know even know what data science is! The meeting was much more interesting than I’d anticipated.

One of the questions raised was, "We always thought in high school you should study algebra, but maybe you should study statistics. We always said the next thing after algebra should be calculus, but maybe it should be data science."

This gave me an idea that I passed on to a psychologist named Branton Shearer, who lives in Ohio. He is very interested in the brain basis of multiple intelligences, which I was interested in thirty years ago. Needless to say, the difference between what we knew about the brain in 1980 and what we know in thirty-five years is enormous. I said to Branton, "Why don’t you work with some word clouds and take a look at scientific articles about the brain and see which ones of them mention music, which ones mention spatial perception, which ones mention social intelligence, and then see whether each of these map differently in different parts of the brain?" That’s something we couldn’t even have conceived of thirty-five years ago. Branton Shearer has now done that and it’s provided some interesting support for MI Theory, and I’m encouraging him to write it up.                

The questions we can ask now with big data—in many ways they’re unbelievable. In 2013, in the spirit of Edge’s Annual Question, I was asked, "What’s the best idea of 2013?" And I said, "The best idea of 2013 is big data, but it is also the worst idea!" The reason it was the worst idea: big data are useless unless you know what questions you want to look at. At the end of the day, when you get the data, you need to know how to make sense of them. Any set of data has an infinite amount of things you can say about it. You need to be guided by an intelligence, both to come up with an appropriate question and to know how to make sense of the answer. Those of us interested in truth, beauty, and goodness think those are great tools. But you need to use big data deftly; You can’t simply look at a ranking.     

The three great media technology changes in human history were the invention of writing, the invention of printing, and the advent of the digital computer. The changes of the earlier ones took hundreds of years to be manifest and understood. I guess a version of Moore’s Law is at work here. The changes in human beings now happen very quickly. The changes that are taking place now are ones that could not have even been envisaged except by science fiction writers.

I’m going to use a trivial example, but it’s very powerful. When I was working on The App Generation with Katie Davis, we realized that most kids nowadays growing up in the developed society have never gotten lost. If they don’t have some kind of a device, their parents do, and they can find them. Getting lost for all of human history was part of life. Nobody ever got lost permanently; you got found or, more probably, you found yourself. That simple thing is very profound.                

If there were a cyber-attack, it would make no difference to me because I spent the first fifty or sixty years of my life without smart devices—all I ever used computers for was to do data analysis. People who are so-called digital natives, who were born in the last ten or twenty years. would be completely out to sea if there was some kind of a cyber-attack and all of the devices were crippled.

The notion that human beings are going to be replaced within the next century is not a sophisticated notion, but changes are going to continue at a very rapid rate. To me, the big question involves ethics. Namely, at which point do we, a human community, stop making the ethical decisions for ourselves and turn these decisions over to some algorithm? One day I’ll write about this conundrum in my professional ethics blog. Who gets to devise the algorithm?

I don’t know enough about this to write about it yet, but I encourage other people to do it. Send it to me and if it reasonable, I’ll post it.               

The people who are in charge of servers and the people who come up with the programs that we all use are tremendously powerful. In a way, they may have to be the new professionals, because we must count on them to be disinterested in the best sense of the word. If they’re tweaking things in one way or the other, as Jaron Lanier and Larry Lessig have each pointed out, then we could end up being in an inferno without even knowing that we got there.

My friend Marcelo Suárez-Orozco used to make fun of Samuel Huntington, with his The Clash of Civilizations. If Marcelo were here, I’d say to him "You know, I think it’s happening. You have the Silicon Valley mentality, but it certainly isn’t the mentality of other civilizations, whether it’s Islam, or Buddhism, or Confucianism." If there were a bulletin of atomic sciences ticking about the imminent clash of civilizations, it’d be ticking very loudly at the present time. Silicon Valley is in a totally different conversation; it’s not in that conversation between warring civilizations at all. When people talk about blasting ISIS into the Stone Age and having luminescent stones afterwards, they’re the ones who are loony.     

Which brings up the question of how we relate to one another, how we talk to one another. The right way to handle issues of micro-aggressions: if you say something that offended somebody, apologize, if you understand why it is that they’re offended. If they continue to be offended, then there’s nothing to be done. But the notion that we have to watch every word that we say and that we have to think about how what we say could be distorted into being an insult is unreasonable. On the other hand, having spoken to many students now and having read a great deal, there are lots of things we say carelessly that do hurt people. We should be aware of that.                

If I say something to somebody and the person says, "I’m stunned," I should take that response seriously. "Why are you stunned? I’m sorry," or "I didn’t mean that at all; let’s try it again." You keep the conversation going. But if there are places that try to censor speech, I have no sympathy for that whatsoever.

I teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but I’ve been carrying out a one-man battle, unsuccessfully so far—that we should change it to the Harvard Graduate School of Lifelong Learning. Education in America still is interpreted as meaning K-12. But we now know that kids are learning in utero. We now know that the first three or four years of life can spawn huge differences by the time kids go to any kind of a public school. The notion that you can get a high school or a college degree and then coast for the rest of one’s active life is ridiculous.                

Learning takes place throughout life. I’m hoping that some of my best work is still ahead of me, and if I’m deluding myself, I’m happy to be deluded. We need to forget about education as occurring for certain ages and certain places and think about it as happening from the moment of birth until senility. Here’s where I would take issue with Silicon Valley celebrants—the life of learning needs to involve other people; it can’t just be done completely online.