TRUTH, BEAUTY, AND GOODNESS: EDUCATION FOR ALL HUMAN BEINGS
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.
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.
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.
JB: Ideas like this don't have a prayer of getting adopted by a typical school board ÷ but they certainly can seep into the culture, in a very almost clandestine way.
GARDNER: It will take 50 years to see whether the ideas I've developed have impact. One of the things I've pushed very much is the idea of individual centered education. Up to now, everybody's taught the same thing, the same way, they're tested in the same way, if you do well fine, if not too bad ÷ it's seen as being very fair. My argument, which contradicts any argument ever made in history, is it's the most unfair method in the world. It privileges one kind of mind, which I call the language-logic mind, or sometimes the Al Dershowitz mind (which I admire), this view that says, the more you're like that, the better you'll do, and the more rewards we'll give you, and the more you're different from that, tough nuggies. (A technical term in Cambridge ÷ Ed. Note)
With the advent of the new technologies, individual centered education is only a matter of time. People in 50 years will laugh at the notion that we thought everybody had to be taught the same thing in the same way. Already anything that's worth teaching we know dozens of ways of teaching it; we can make available technologically these things to any individual. Moreover, because we have smart machines, they can record what the child learned well, what he learned poorly, how he learned well, how he learned poorly; and make use of that knowledge. So that's an idea that I know is right.
Understanding, that's a much bigger enchilada, so to speak. We've been content to see whether kids can sit on their duffs and do what they don't particularly want to do; that's been the operational definition of making it and that just isn't going to be enough any more. That might take a hundred years, so our grandchildren will know whether the world has become more receptive to an education-centered understanding.
The evidence that students are not understanding even what we're teaching them, is legion now. It's malpractice to expose kids to things for a week or two and go on to something else. We know that doesn't work. In this arena, the work of Project Zero, where I've worked for over 30 years, both in multiple intelligence and in teaching understanding, is promising. That's exactly the right word to use. If I had to go to a congressional committee and make the best case I could give numbers, but that would be a best case rather than the most accurate description. It's promising; it's tough work, and because education is not a science, it's an art, it's very hard when something goes well to know why.
Everybody in this country, including me, who knows about education, admires Debbie Meier; the school that she founded is in NYC, Central Park East, secondary school and elementary school. Those are schools in very tough areas, East Harlem, and they really turn out kids who get through, go on to four-year colleges, and do decently. But nobody really understands whether it's one thing or two things or 20 things there ÷ it's too hard to really figure out what the variables are ÷ you can't do a controlled experiment.
The important thing for someone like me is to do no harm. For the first ten years of work in multiple intelligences I kept my mouth shut and let people do what they wanted to do, and then I finally came to the conclusion that that was a mistake, because some of the things people were doing were harmful. So I began to speak up about it, and I began to take a more active role. In Project Zero we're actually studying schools around the country that claim to be doing well in cultivating the intelligences, and we are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. And I assume the same sense of responsibility for these new ideas.
The new work that I'm engaged in with Bill Damon and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explores the relationship between responsibility or ethics, and cutting edge work in different domains and disciplines. Our analysis in a nutshell is that all over the world now what's being rewarded is cutting edge work; anything that's routine and algorithmic, the machine is doing. However, if that's all that's rewarded, then the issue became ÷ let's say that the work is not good, let's say it's dangerous.
Traditionally the law and religion were counterweights. They're weaker now than they've been, and the changes are much too quick for them to keep up. Just read EDGE, your own website, and look at the sorts of stuff that people are discovering. No way that the church can keep up with that ÷ they've just approved evolution after 150 years. And this is a real dilemma for the world. We certainly don't have a solution for it. But our notion is that within each of the domains or professions or callings, to use the traditional word, there needs to be a greater sense of responsibility for the implications of people's ideas, discoveries and practices. And then either corporately, the discipline as a whole, or when possible individuals in the discipline or domain, need to address some of the more troubling implications of what they're doing, and need to take some responsibility if their ideas are misused.
That's the discussion that's going on now in the Internet; the Electronic Frontier Foundation which was founded by Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow; people connected with the genome project, genetic engineering, cloning, virtual reality; etc. With the Manhattan Project it occurred afterwards, an interesting historical phenomenon. But it needs to be much more a part of the training of people. And this doesn't mean you take a course in ethics; it means that when you're an apprentice, when you're on your first job, that you realize that it isn't somebody else's job to mop up the implications of what you're doing. That's a big sea change as well. It's an empirical project that we've just begun in the last few years.
JB: When do you launch this to the public?
GARDNER: We'd like to study several domains in some depth. We've done a pretty reasonable job with the media; we're writing about that at the present time; but we would like to compare several domains and see the extent to which the same issues rise, whether you're a scientist, an artist or a lawyer, or in the military; and at the same time we want to begin to work with individuals who have much more responsibility for the actual training of individuals ÷ not just in training schools, but the first job. At least in my opinion it's the first job which is a real bellwether. If you go to work in a newspaper or a corporation or in a scientific laboratory where anything goes, that's going to be very hard to overcome, so to speak. If you work with people who have a sense of conscience about that, who ask, if I'm doing a story what harm could it do? Or, if we don't check that experiment again what might happen? That makes an impression on you. And in particular we are very interested in people historically, like Niels Bohr in the area of physics, George Orwell comes up all the time in the media, as does Edward R. Murrow. Individuals who serve almost as trustees for a whole domain, a conscience.
JB: Back to the book ÷ do you have a title?
GARDNER: My working title is "An Education for All Human Beings."
JB: How are people going to talk about it?
GARDNER: I guess "understanding for all" would be a slogan. Understanding of important things being available to everybody, not just for the elite. The elite always had a few such schools; the French schools are terrific at helping the best students think about these questions seriously, but it's been a luxury.
The issues of humane creativity which I call informally good work, the connection to ethics and responsibility in your work, are things we ought to be dealing with kids in school as well. When they're learning about these things that are true, beautiful and good, we ought to be talking about their social implications. Whether it'll be a new religion, I don't know, but it's got to become a part of what we breathe, or the world will not survive.