YPP Network Description

The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) formed out of recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are impacting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors.

Howard Gardner
Subscribe to Howard Gardner feed Howard Gardner
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education / Harvard Graduate School of Education
Updated: 49 min 36 sec ago

The Remarkable von Humboldt Brothers

October 17, 2017 - 12:05pm

Throughout much of the 19th century, the von Humboldt brothers were among the most famous persons in the world—celebrities before that term was bandied about. Alexander (1769-1859) was known for his pioneering five-year trip as a naturalist to Latin America and for his synthesizing writings, chief among them his multi-volume Cosmos. His older brother Wilhelm (1767-1835) was renowned for devising the university system in Prussia, organizing the pre-university educational system throughout German-speaking territory, and carrying out highly original studies in linguistics.

Today, the two have been justifiably celebrated through the naming (in their joint honor) of the Humboldt University in Berlin; and yet except among specialists, the substance of their work is little known except perhaps in Germany. In this blog, I summarize and salute their quality work. In a companion blog, I explore why brothers—a mere two years apart in age—could each make important contributions to scholarship and yet do so in highly distinctive ways.

First Wilhelm, the older brother. Always more studious than Alexander, Wilhelm made connections early on with leading Germanic thinkers, chief among them Goethe and Schiller. He mastered their works, along with those of the most important scholar of the era, Immanuel Kant. While a leading thinker and copious writer (though one who did not publish much during his lifetime), Wilhelm’s “career path” did not coalesce until he was asked by the Prussian government in effect to organize the educational system.

In a remarkably brief period of time, Wilhelm laid out a bold and highly original vision: universities should combine teaching and research; students should read and think widely, across the disciplinary terrain; and there should be few formal barriers to organizing one’s own studies (in this, the Prussian system differed from the more structured Napoleonic system). Moreover, there should be a systematic sequence, beginning with elementary schools, which, in their emphasis on play and discovery, were very progressive; these fed into more selective secondary schools (Gymnasiums) with libraries and scientific laboratories; and then ultimately, for the select few, the privilege of higher education in the company of superb scholars. Today, as the terrain of higher education is widely contested across the world, it is noteworthy that the preeminent German philosopher Jurgen Habermas draws explicitly on the Humboldtian conception of the university.

Wilhelm was always fascinated by languages. At a young age he learned Latin, Greek, and the major European languages; and later he dabbled in Sanskrit, Basque, and Kawi (the language of Java) and wrote about the Bhagavad Gita. Clearly he was one of the leading masters of language in his era. Of more importance for our time, Wilhelm also thought deeply about the nature of language: its components, its structure, its role in thought, and its salient defining role in human nature. No less a contemporary authority than Noam Chomsky pays tribute to Wilhelm’s pioneering thinking about language, delineating ways in which his own path-breaking work has taken as a point of departure the Humboldtian enterprise.

Alexander received the same education as Wilhelm—personal tutoring in the major disciplines and topics of the time and similar university experiences. And though not as overtly precocious as Wilhelm, Alexander was certainly a gifted student. But while Wilhelm saw himself as a European, and devoted many years to choreographing Prussian education, Alexander was a prototypical adventurer. He was eager to leave Europe and in fact embarked on a five year expedition to the Americas, chiefly Latin America. (He stopped off in Washington, D.C., to pay a visit to President Thomas Jefferson, Vice President James Madison, and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin.) In the course of his adventurous expedition, Alexander assembled a huge collection of the flora and fauna of that part of the world; as just one example, he brought back 60,000 plant specimens, representing 6,000 species, of which 2,000 were new to European scholars.

After his American journey was completed, Alexander devoted many years (and all of his inherited fortune) to the publication of his findings. These encyclopedic naturalist works had enormous influence on Charles Darwin, who followed much the same travelling path as Alexander a few decades later; and von Humboldt’s influence extended to the United States, through writers like Thoreau and Whitman.

Not only did Alexander crave worldwide travel adventures (he wanted desperately to travel to China and India but never made it); he did not much like the German speaking societies and instead lived for years in Paris. (He met Napoleon, but, perhaps not wanting to be upstaged by this celebrity of natural science, Napoleon brushed him off.) Only after brother Wilhelm had finished his work in education did Alexander return to Berlin, where he survived his brother by more than two decades. Alexander became a masterful lecturer, entertaining and edifying huge audiences with his ideas and his travel adventures. And then as his magnum opus, he wrote the five volume Cosmos, an unprecedented synthesis of knowledge from the range of scientific disciplines as well as an effort to portray how these parts fit into an overarching tapestry. No wonder that master writer-lecturer Carl Sagan chose the same single word title as Alexander—in effect he was producing the second Cosmos.

Perusing the German and English literature on the brothers von Humboldt, I found much on their lives together—their rather unhappy childhoods, their living together and apart, their extensive correspondence over four decades, their different interests and temperaments, and—in the more recent writings, though not in those from the 19th century—speculations that Alexander was gay and that Wilhelm was preoccupied with what Goethe called “Das Ewig Weibliche—the eternal feminine.”

But I have found little about the resemblances and differences between their intellectual endas and almost nothing about how these relationships might reflect that the fact that they were siblings—older and younger brothers. A full study would require considerable time and considerable expertise—neither of which I have available! But in my next blog, I will offer some speculations.

Categories: Blog

The Arts Have Much More to Teach Us

October 3, 2017 - 7:07am

In the sea of claims about arts education, especially the idea that study of the arts leads to higher academic achievement overall, what is true, and what calls for more research?

In a piece for Education Week, Howard Gardner and Ellen Winner reflect on this question, calling for further examination of artistic thinking and practice.

In a meta-analysis conducted in the late 1990s, Winner and her colleague Lois Hetland looked at studies of how high vs. low exposure to arts education affected math and reading scores, finding no correlation despite many assumptions to the contrary. However, Winner and Hetland suggested a renewed focus on how arts education is actually taught using a “habits of mind” framework (reported in Studio Thinking). More research of this type is needed in order to understand the potential benefits of arts education.

Click here to read the full article.

Categories: Blog

Learning in a New Key

October 2, 2017 - 9:50am

I am probably fairly typical. I remember my freshman year in college—and indeed the first weeks of my freshman year—more vividly than comparable later (or earlier) periods of my education. I remember each of my classes, the teachers, the classmates, the setting, and even some of the lessons and readings. Psychologists call this “the primacy effect.” It would be good if we could somehow package this experience of “heightened memory” and extend it throughout our learning lives.

By far the most exotic of these early college experiences was a class in expository writing. Because I survived a screening test, I had been excused from the requirement to take a basic writing course and was instead put in a so-called “honors” section. Along with my twenty or so classmates, I was pleased by this “honor.” But I was not prepared for the nature of the class. It was taught by a bohemian intellectual—probably the descriptor I would have used at the time—named Frederic A. Pennington. He sported a dark cloak and was surrounded by what we would now call “groupies.” He did not meet us on the Harvard College campus in Cambridge but rather in a comfortable apartment on Boston’s Beacon Hill—all novel experiences for me, an 18 year old from Scranton, Pennsylvania. (My honors classmates varied enormously in their understanding of and their sympathy for Pennington’s life style.)

Though we did not have a personal relation, and Mr. Pennington soon disappeared from the Harvard campus (though he lingered for awhile in its gossip columns), I will always be grateful to this instructor. He exposed me to a wide range of serious and powerful readings—encompassing Platonic dialogues, the diaries of Soren Kierkegaard, and novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Andre Gide. Most especially, and most importantly, he introduced me to a book that was intellectually transformative—Philosophy in a New Key by Susanne K. Langer. (I’ve written about this book elsewhere, such as Chapter 5 of my 1982 collection of essays Art, Mind, and Brain—no need to rehearse that essay here.)

In many ways, I was an ideal reader of Langer’s book—originally published in 1942. I had some curiosity about philosophy, though almost no background in the field. Accordingly, I wanted to know both about the “traditional key(s)” of philosophy and about the “new key” that Langer was introducing. I have long been partial to works of synthesis—works that tie together findings and claims from different disciplines. Langer’s book is clearly a synthesis—drawing not only on philosophy but also on linguistics, biology, anthropology, and especially psychology, the field of study to which I would eventually gravitate but of which I had little knowledge as a college freshman (in the first year of the presidency of John F. Kennedy).

Perhaps most importantly, before attending college, I had been quite a serious musician—studying piano for years and also teaching piano. I was intrigued and curious about the meaning and power of classical music, its significance in my life and probably in the lives of many others as well.

Langer’s book more than satisfied these various needs and desires. Deeply immersed in traditional philosophy as well as trends in the first decades of the 20th century, she put her finger on current disciplinary concerns and made a distinctive contribution. She noted that philosophy had become preoccupied with language—how it works, what meanings it carries, indeed to what extent our world is created and constructed out of languages, and, if so, of what sort and in what ways. Like Monsieur Jordain in Moliere’s play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, I had been producing and understanding language all my conscious life, without reflecting in a significant way on its status and powers; and now Langer was helping me step back from language and to examine it as an object, a subject, a phenomenon worth probing and understanding.

The “new key” put forth by Langer went beyond language—at least ordinary language as we typically apprehend it. The new key construed language as one of a number of symbol systems—what we might have subsequently termed semiotic systems—by which we make, create, and infer meanings. Those symbol systems à la Langer include myths, rituals, codes, diagrams, and, most important for my own purpose, the means through which works of art are conveyed and their meaning(s) communicated. Human beings emerge as a species enveloped by various kinds of vehicles that, individually and together, make and then transform our cognitive worlds—and we can ultimately contribute to those re-makings of our world—in dreams, for sure, but also when we are wide awake and actively engaged in making meanings.

In a memorable formulation, Langer differentiated between “discursive” and “presentational” symbols. Most of our time and most of our analyses focus on individual specific symbols—each of which has discrete meanings and which, taken together, can convey a string of meanings. As an example, “The cat and the dog are circling one another warily” consists of a set of single words which, taken together, yield a larger meaning. Similarly 2 + 3 = 5 and 2 x 3 = 6 are also examples of discursive symbolization.

But there is also a different and extremely powerful form of symbolization. This form is composed of symbols which operate ineluctably as a whole, and which—accordingly—cannot be differentiated into simpler, meaningful parts. Prototypical examples are works of pictorial art. These can be powerful symbols, conveying a rich set of meanings, but they cannot be broken down into individual parts, each conveying its own distinct meaning. The Mona Lisa works as a presentational whole (as do other paintings, drawings, and statues); there is neither sense nor reward in trying to figure out its component parts and how each, individually, conveys meaning. And the same can be said for dances, rituals, or films—they also operate as presentational wholes, and they do not lend themselves to decomposition in terms of meaningful parts. In fact, even if one can “force-feed” a division into individual parts—eyes, nose, smile, water, hill—we cannot reassemble them and expect to confront the same presentational symbol. The law of “Humpty-Dumpty” holds!

It is a simplification to consider linguistic symbols as discursive and pictorial symbols as presentational. Poems and plays, while composed of words, do not lend themselves to informative parcellation: neither the speeches nor the scenes and acts in Hamlet withstand such word-by-word decomposition. And by the same token, depictions can function discursively—one can certainly break down a map or diagram or chart into its component parts and reassemble or reconfigure them into one or another discursive whole.

But for me, the biggest and most revealing leap taken by Susanne Langer extended beyond the recognition of symbolic meaning in general, and the delineation of varieties of discursive and presentational symbol systems. In Chapter 8 of Philosophy in a New Key, Langer presents her ideas on “significance in music.” Many (perhaps most) philosophers (and not only philosophers!) have taken a plunge and sought to explain the astonishing allure of music for almost every human mind in a wide variety of settings and situations. Most of the commentators have posited some connection between music and emotions—either music expresses particular emotions or conveys the emotions experienced at a particular time by the composer or the performer (or the listener).

Langer dismisses these formulations as facile and misleading—Beethoven string quartets do not literally present “anger” or “delight,” nor do they convey the composer’s feelings at the time of conception or composition (which in Beethoven’s case, often took place over long period of time). And yet there are deep, non-trivial ties between music and emotions. Langer’s brilliant insight is that music does not convey emotions or feelings per se. Rather, in a more general and universal way, music conveys the form(s), the juxtapositions and the contrasts within our human, feeling life. Put differently , music captures what it is like to live in a world rife with feelings and emotions—some simultaneous, some complementary, some momentary, some lingering, some quite contrasting with one another—without however laying any claim to depicting specific emotions, as might be the case in a discursive psychological treatise about the nature and identity of various emotional states.

By its very nature, this point is difficult to make in words—if one could, then music would be as discursive as a work of history or science. Allow me to quote a few attempts by Langer:

  • The real power of music lies in that fact that it can be “true” to the life of feeling in a way that language cannot, for its significant forms have that ambivalence of content which words cannot have. Music is revealing where words are obscuring, because it can have not only a content but a transient play of contents. It can articulate feelings without being wedded to them… the imagination that responds to music is personal and associating and logical, tinged with affect, tinged with bodily rhythm, tinged with dream but concerned with a wealth of formulations for its wealth of wordless knowledge, its whole knowledge of emotional and organic experience (197, 206-207).
  • Music is not the cause or the cure of feelings, but their logical expression (176).
  • Music is not self expression but formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental resolutions—a “logical picture” of sentient, responsive life (180).
  • Music articulates forms which language cannot set forth (189).
  • What music can actually reflect is only the morphology of feeling (193).

I have thought about this issue for almost 60 years—and yet to my knowledge no one has come up with a more powerful and more convincing analysis of the power and effectiveness of music than Langer—she is as close as anyone to explaining the “key” to music.

I will always be grateful to Mr. Pennington for introducing me to Langer’s slim book, and even more to Susanne K. Langer for her powerful ideas. Not only did they open up a new world of thought for me; they ended up affecting my entire academic and scholarly life. Langer also influenced my personal life—Judith Gardner, my first wife, had been a student of Susanne Langer and helped me to make contact with this outstanding thinker.

What makes a transformational reading? Clearly, it’s more than a single factor. In my case, I can point to several factors:

  • Setting: the excitement of first year readings in college, with a charismatic teacher, and peers with whom you enjoy discussion and debate
  • Timing: a period of life where you are reading to encounter new ideas and have the time to ponder them
  • Stretch: a work that stretches one as a reader, enough that one wants to re-read it, not so much that it is clearly over one’s head and exhausting (as a work on aesthetics by Immanuel Kant might have been).

Most centrally, a book has the potential to be transformative if it speaks to a puzzle that one has been grappling with; presents ideas, ways of thinking, and disciplines that hold promise for illuminating that puzzle; and provides concepts, frameworks, images, and metaphors that are evocative and can stay with you and enrich you over the years.

Of course, at the time, one cannot know that a book will be transformative. In my case it was in part because of Langer’s book that I was attracted to the work of Nelson Goodman, another philosopher of symbols, who dissected what he called “the languages of art.” And partly on the basis of my knowledge of Susanne Langer’s writings, Goodman invited me to become a founding member of Harvard Project Zero, a research group that for fifty years has been studying various kinds of symbolization, with a particular focus on symbols in the art. And then, for decades, I was involved in empirical work on the development and breakdown of various human symbol using capacities. But those are all stories for another day—or for other blogs.

Categories: Blog

Test a New Online Module from The Good Project

September 27, 2017 - 12:21pm

The Good Project, a research unit of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is excited to announce the launch of a completely new and online module for students based on the GoodWork Toolkit.

CLICK HERE to access the prototype and to give your feedback!

The Good Project team, including Howard Gardner, has researched topics like good work, digital citizenship, responsibility, and ethics for two decades. This module was created with a teenage audience in mind with the hope that educators will find it useful in sparking discussions of ethics, values, and responsibility in middle and high school classrooms. The module consists of:

  • two animated narrative dilemmas, each with reflection questions and a follow-up activity that asks about the character’s values; and
  • an activity to help young people think about their own values and desires with reflection questions.

As you navigate the unit, please take the time to fill out the survey (link also on the home screen) with your feedback about what works well and how we can improve. Alternatively, you can email Danny Mucinskas at daniel_mucinskas@harvard.edu with your thoughts.

We also welcome contact from people who may be able to test this unit with students in a classroom. Please get in touch with Danny with your plans or feedback if so, especially if you are located locally.

This module was created in partnership with FableVision, a Boston-based digital design studio.

Categories: Blog

Positive Transformations: A Key Goal of Education

September 18, 2017 - 8:46am

Along with such phrases as “leadership qualities” and “critical and creative thinking,” the term “transformation” is often invoked in discussions of the possible and of the positive effects of higher education. I’ve been known to utter and to type this buzzword as well.

By definition, most experiences cannot be transformative. The vast majority of our experiences maintain the current form of experience, or tweak it a bit, rather than altering its form radically—the literal meaning of “transform.” Also, and importantly, while there is the very occasional rapid transformation—of larva into butterflies, of flowing water into solid ice—most transformations on earth occur more gradually; nor, underscoring the point, are they visible or otherwise noticeable at the time.

There’s the considerable challenge of judging whether a transformation has in fact occurred. We run the risk of declaring something as transformational—“I’ll never be the same after this experience/meeting/ trip/encounter”—only to be unable to find the slightest trace of the experience half a year later. In fact, I’m convinced that experiences that most merit the descriptive “transformative” or “transformational” are rarely recognized at the time. Only with the advantage of hindsight—the passage of years or even decades—is one likely to avoid “false positive” or “false negative” judgments.

As observers, biographers, or historians, we can certainly make judgments about which instances merit the term “transformational”—for example, the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648; philosopher Immanuel Kant’s reading of the works of David Hume; Charles Darwin’s five year voyage on the Beagle; physicist Francis Crick meeting biochemist James D. Watson on the eve of their discovery of the structure of DNA; the first performances and recordings by The Beatles. In reflecting on one’s own life, it may also be possible to identify those experiences that seem to have been transformative.

In a series of related blogs, I reflect on which encounters and events appear to have been transformational in my own intellectual and scholarly life (I leave for another venue those experiences that may have been transformational in my personal life). The first blog focuses on teachers whose effects have been transformational. Subsequent blogs will cover a variety of transformers—books, travel, classroom experiences, personal encounters—that merit the descriptor transformational. In each case, I suggest some broader principles, ones that apply to my own life and, perhaps, to the lives of others in the scholarly world.

Before Secondary School

Of course, the individuals who most influenced me in my early years were family members, neighbors, and close friends—both friends of parents and friends at school (what a three year old told me casually the other day were “my classmates”). To this list, I would add a few school teachers, a few counselors at the two camps which I attended, and two piano teachers—Geri Berg, who started me off as a six or seven year old; and Harold Briggs, a spry man in his nineties (!!), who had studied with both Clara Schumann and Edward McDowell (!!). After a few years, Mr. Briggs told me that I had to decide whether I wanted to pursue piano seriously, which meant travelling to New York City for lessons and practicing three hours a day… at which point, for better or worse, I decided not to. Perhaps this was a potential transformation that I actively declined. (And then, as a young adolescent, I returned to play duets with Geri Berg, with whom I remain in touch today.)

Also as a boy, I attended religious lessons and services quite regularly and was presumably affected by my teachers and rabbis. But since I have not maintained any religious affiliations for decades, it’s hard to maintain that they had a transformational effect on me.

I’ve thought a great deal about my classroom teachers (at Wyoming Seminary, a high school near my home in northeastern Pennsylvania, and at Harvard College) and whether they—individually or collectively—had a significant, perhaps transformational effect on me. I’ve concluded that they have; and I believe that I know why.

High School (1958-1961)

Among my teachers in secondary school, there’s no question that the biggest influence came from Edwin J. Roberts, my Latin teacher. I liked Latin and was reasonably proficient at it; but what influenced me was Mr. Roberts’ ability to talk about personalities and events from thousands of years ago and relate them to current events and personalities. When the Russians launched Sputnik, did that alter the balance of powers as happened in the Punic Wars? Did John F. Kennedy aspire to be a Caesar? What would it have been like to live near Pompeii in 79 A.D. when Vesuvius erupted? How did Aeneas’ relationship to his father differ from my own relationship to my father? To my grandfather and my favorite uncle?

Mr. Roberts also took a personal interest in me. I look forward to occasions when we shared a meal or took a walk across campus. I was pleased when he agreed to write my letter of recommendation for Harvard College. After submitting the requested letter, he said to me, “I told them that they should not admit you because I want you to go to my College (he had been to Wesleyan, Class of 1921). I hoped that he was joking, but I was never quite sure.

College (1961-1965)

As a freshman at Harvard College, I was most influenced by Stanley (Stan) Katz, who taught a freshman seminar on “original documents in American history.” This was the first time that I got to know a “professor” face-to-face.—interacting weekly with him and a small group of my classmates. Stan, with whom I have remained friendly until today, let me know gently but firmly that the days of “coasting” through a semester or year were over. When I got back my first paper with the note, “Isn’t this a first draft?”, I realized that I had to think and work much harder. I had to attempt to come up with an original perspective—not just parrot back what he had said in class and or paraphrase what I had read on my own (in pre-Google days, to be sure). And so I proceeded henceforth to read and to think about documents about the Salem Witch Trials with a depth, an inquisitiveness, and an imagination that I had never before exhibited.

For my “big paper” in the seminar, I decided to carry out research on the attitudes prevalent at Harvard during the famous Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920s. I read through old newspapers and other documents and arranged to meet a professor, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., who had been at Harvard during that period. (He was very kind and somewhat helpful.) Except for experiments in chemistry and biology labs, this was my first experience in carrying out actual research, and I both enjoyed it and learned from it. Discovering something which may actually be new—certainly for oneself, and perhaps, just perhaps, for others—is an exciting experience, and one that I’ve cherished over the years.

Of course, most professors at major colleges and universities write articles and books regularly; it is hard to know in such case whether you are influenced by the personality of the teacher, the books, or some combination thereof (I’ll write about this in subsequent blogs).

For present purposes, I mention three other teachers at Harvard who influenced me, even though I was unaware of or did not read their works at the time:

  • George Wald, who taught my introduction to biology, a course called “Nat. Sci. Five.” Wald made intriguing and understandable the many new findings emerging in genetics and molecular biology—concepts and processes that we could not have known about in high school because they had not yet made their way “into the textbooks.” Wald was a bench top scientist—he eventually won the Nobel Prize, an event that many of his present and past students (including me!) applauded in class a few years later—and was also a spell binding lecturer. When one student challenged him about whether reductionist science was undermining the marvels of religion and nature, Wald said, “I am not here to denigrate God; I just want to glorify molecules”.
  • John Finley, classicist and master of one of the undergraduate houses, taught “Hum 2”—a study of classical texts, ranging from the Iliad and the Aeneid to Milton’s Paradise Lost and the plays of Ibsen and O’Neill. Finley had the same gift as Mr. Roberts, my high school Latin teacher. Not only did he explicate and give us insights into sometimes challenging texts (which we read in English); even more so than Mr. Roberts, he drew broader lessons, both from history and from the contemporary scene, which in his case included and sometimes foregrounded Harvard past and Harvard present. One never knew which lines or personalities or scenes Finley would connect and how he would manage to connect them—but they were often illuminating. We saw at work what I would later term “the synthesizing mind.”
  • Walter Jackson Bate, professor of English literature and expert on the 18th Bate introduced undergraduates to “the Age of (Samuel) Johnson.” He knew the texts of Johnson’s major writings and could quote them at length. But what drew hundreds of students to his course each year (including me, as an auditor) was our sense that Bate strongly identified with Johnson, felt his pain and anguish, as well as his occasional pleasures and triumphs, and in a sense, became Johnson as he led us through the writer’s tumultuous times, as well as those experienced by his friends.

Themes and Threads

As I reflect on these instructors of my high school and college days, I find some common thread: in each case, they took a topic in which I might not have had an intrinsic interest and made it come alive for me (and for scores of others). They did so, not only by immersing me in a world with which I had little familiarity, but also by, in a sense, becoming that world and thereby opening it up to me. There were American history teachers and classical music teachers who did this as well—but because I already had interest in these topics, I think of them as confirming rather than as transforming me.

It’s no accident that henceforth, the science to which I was attracted was biology, rather than astronomy, geology, chemistry, or physics. And it’s no accident that when I went to Europe after my graduation, I visited those sites and went to those theatrical productions which were associated with classical times and with England in the period of its glory… for example, hanging out at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the pub that Samuel Johnson apparently favored.

Just as these teachers connected me to worlds with which I had no prior connection, these classroom instructors also demonstrated how they were connected to those worlds and how that connection had enriched their lives and their scholarship. Stan Katz was a practicing historian who probed colonial history (his specialty), as well as legal history and the history of education. George Wald was an award-winning biologist specializing in vision who continued running his laboratory until old age and was also a political activist; while “Jack” Bate probed the lives of admired English authors.

I cannot claim to have become an historian or a biologist or a biographer, but in fact I was able to engage in some original research in each of these areas. I always strive to place issues into historical context, and in 1985, I published The Mind’s New Science, the first history of the cognitive revolution in the sciences. Around 1970, I made a commitment—which lasted for decades—to carry out research in neuroscience. As a student of aphasia and other cortical disorders, I joined with colleagues to demonstrate hitherto underappreciated aspects of linguistic capacities of the right cerebral hemisphere. And in studying creative individuals from the last century, I was able to work with some original documents—notably literary drafts of T. S. Eliot, musical sketches by Igor Stravinsky, and rare films of Martha Graham, the pioneer in modern dance.

And so, at least in these cases, the opportunities to learn from and interact with outstanding teachers, to observe the original work that they carried out, and to have the thrill of a genuine discovery or two were educationally transformative experiences.

You are likely to have noted that nearly all the people I mentioned were white men, mostly middle aged—that was, for the most part, the Harvard Faculty in the early 1960s. I regret that I had few women teachers, and few teachers of color or less familiar ethnicities.

But another set of teachers, whom I began to read as an undergraduate or a young graduate student, had enormous impact on me. Interestingly, most of them were Jewish, and often of European background. And I am pleased to say that the first and most influential of all was a woman, named Susanne K. Langer. More on her in a forthcoming blog.

Afterthought

My friend and colleague, Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College, often speaks about three desirable transformations during the college years:

  1. who you are as a person;
  2. with whom and how you interact socially; and
  3. the ways in which you think about and come to know the world.

These are commendable goals. It’s important to add that sometimes one does not need these transformations; sometimes the transformations can be destructive; and in many cases you won’t know for many years whether these transformations have transpired.

Categories: Blog

Raising Children Who Care About the Greater Good

September 6, 2017 - 1:03pm

In an era in which stakes are high for success and so much seems to be going awry in public life, how can we raise kids who care about the common good?

This is the question posed in a blog in The Washington Post by Howard Gardner and his HGSE colleague Rick Weissbourd, Faculty Director of Making Caring Common.

Gardner and Weissbourd lament that many communities and institutions seem to have put “me” over “we” and suggest that we can reverse this trend by creating cultures of ethics and empathy and modeling such behavior for young people.

Click here to read the piece in full.

Categories: Blog

Reinvigorating the Culture of Service in College

September 6, 2017 - 6:23am

This week, I am delighted to post a piece by my long-time colleague Wendy Fischman. Wendy is a researcher at Project Zero and the project director of a major national study of higher education in the United States today. It’s been my privilege to work closely with Wendy over two decades on a number of projects—and this study, now in its fifth year, represents a high point of our long-term collaboration.

It’s our intention, during the coming year, to begin to report concepts and findings that are emerging from our ambitious study. At this point, in September 2017, we are not quite ready to share any concepts or findings, let alone conclusions or recommendations. But readers of this blog over the months can gain a sense of some of the themes that we have been thinking about. In this spirit, I hope that you’ll read—and profit from—Wendy’s thoughtful essay.

-Howard Gardner

Reinvigorating the Culture of Service in College

by Wendy Fischman

Ask any well-informed high school senior applying to college about his or her extra-curricular activities, and “community service” will undoubtedly be cited. Such students know that service involvement is regarded as embodying valued personal qualities, such as leadership, collaboration, and empathy. The kinds of service that students carry out in high school represent a wide range of activities—from organizing bake sales to raising money for various causes, to traveling to a remote site to help an under-served population. In fact, such “community service trips” have become so common among young students that at a recent panel on the admissions process (which I attended wearing my parent hat), an Ivy League admissions director warned prospective students to avoid the trap of only writing about what they thought colleges wanted to read: “…In the college essay, please don’t just tell us about your service trips; tell us about what is different about you. Reading about the umpteenth trip to Costa Rica is not unique anymore.” The audience laughed. In many ways, “service hours” has become a prerequisite for successful applications to selective colleges, at times rivaling grades and standardized test scores.  

To be sure, students carry our service for many reasons. It is possible that some students are gaming the system, and that some are simply fulfilling requirements, but for many students, community service is or becomes personally meaningful. Regardless of the original intention, involvement in service at a young age, through school, religious organizations, and familial tradition, may catalyze deeper involvements. For example, early experiences volunteering at a homeless shelter or at a food bank, help individuals shape views about themselves, as well as about those whom they can serve in various ways. Working closely with people in need, young students may begin to believe that they can positively impact society; in the happiest of circumstances, this realization can facilitate enduring engagement and sometimes, a lifelong commitment.

However, even for students who have or get the “service bug,” once in college, the emphasis on service may be significantly diminished. Oftentimes, students begin to prioritize other objectives that they believe will help them with the next phase of life, whether it is graduate school or a first job. Campus Compact, a long-standing, national coalition of more than a thousand colleges and universities, was founded to help colleges and universities make civic and community engagement a priority for teaching and learning. Though the program has endured for more than 30 years, the important challenge remains: how, in the midst of so many diversions, to instill or maintain a culture of service among students on campus.

I am disturbed by this disjunction between the emphasis on service in high school, for a variety of reasons, and its marginalization at many institutions of higher learning. As I think about how to reinvigorate service learning on the college campus, two distinct positive examples come to mind.

The first is at the University of La Verne, a small, private Brethren university in La Verne, California, where undergraduate academics are integrated with community engagement. For example, from the start, on the first day of freshmen orientation, students sign up for a day of service, where they meet and bond with other students and faculty in their selected “FLEX” (First Year La Verne Experience), a learning community consisting of two courses from different disciplines, plus a writing course. For instance, the FLEX “Markets and The Good Life” combines courses in economics, philosophy, and writing, and involves service outreach. Specifically, students work with a local transitional facility called “Prototypes,” which supports women struggling with drug addictions, domestic violence, mental illness, and other problems. Through this work, students experience first-hand how the content of their coursework relates directly to the “real world.”

The second example comes from Tulane University, a medium-sized, private university in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tulane prides itself on being be the first research university to integrate public service into the core curriculum (in 2006, as part of the school’s Renewal Plan following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina). Faculty connect with community area partners to develop innovative service courses, such as “Persuasive Writing: Aristotle in New Orleans,” in which students mentor middle and high school debate clubs and help facilitate a citywide debate tournament, and “Introduction to International Relations,” in which students create lesson plans for pre-K and elementary school students at a local charter school. To graduate, Tulane requires that students take a service course within their first two three years and also participate in an additional service experience before graduation; the options include a second public service course, internship, research project, travel, or capstone.

Surely, many colleges and universities around the country have public service centers and other school-sponsored community service opportunities. However, sometimes, these programs rely on availability of school funds and/or personal funds (e.g. service trips cost money, some schools can cover this for students, other times students have to be able to pay for themselves). And, if some form of service learning is not a central focus for the school (e.g. a requirement for graduation), the likelihood of student engagement will become limited—either because of time, money or competing responsibilities of networking, internships, additional majors and minors. The opportunity to immerse students in community work, perhaps related to their major and future career, may be lost. 

In speaking with hundreds of students across ten disparate campuses, as part of our national study of higher education, we hear two familiar gripes about the college experience. First, in terms of academics, that content is not often relatable to real world problems; and second, in terms of social life, college can feel like a “bubble,” because it is isolated from the rest of the world. Prioritizing service work in college will not only address these deficits; such a focus on service will also teach students that it is a necessary and often required element to being a good worker and a good citizen.

Categories: Blog

Lessons from Mind, Brain, and Education

August 29, 2017 - 1:31pm

In a new video, Howard Gardner discusses two points from his studies of the field of mind, brain, and education.

This short address was recorded in Summer 2017 for a conference of English language teachers in Korea.

In the video, Gardner emphasizes the importance of paying attention to current brain-related research and neuroscientific discoveries, as well as the implications of these findings for educational theory and practice. However, Gardner also cautions viewers not to simply tailor all educational practices to brain evidence but to pay attention to what is most effective for learners.

Watch the short message in full below.

Categories: Blog

Activating One’s Voice… Always a Plus?

August 22, 2017 - 12:00pm

I was speaking to the long-serving superintendent of a school district in California, one that primarily serves Hispanic students. Superintendent Murphy (as I’ll call him) spoke proudly about one of his high school graduates—a star football player, who had gone on to Princeton University, the first in his family to attend college. When Jorge (as I’ll call him) had graduated from Princeton, he returned to his hometown and attended a football game with the superintendent, with whom he had remained in contact.

Superintendent Murphy asked him about how well he had been prepared for college. Jorge responded:

Well, in most ways, I was well prepared. I knew how to study, how to apportion my time, and how to take a written exam. But there was one way in which I was not prepared. While at Princeton, when I attended a class, particularly a small seminar, I did not know how to speak up—in fact, I did not even realize that I was supposed to speak up. Back at high school, I saw my role as listening carefully to the teacher, reading the material—more than once, if necessary—and being prepared to take a written examination on it. But I did not realize that I was supposed to have an opinion—an independent opinion—and that I had to be prepared to express it and support it. And so, if I had to make one suggestion about the high school here, I’d recommend that students be helped to formulate their opinions about challenging issues, to speak up in class about what they thought, and then to listen carefully and be prepared to defend their position or, as appropriate, to change their views.

Suppose you have been raised in a Western culture, with family who have also been educated in the West, and have attended a secondary school that regularly sends students to select colleges. In such a case, you probably expect to be called on in class, and you are ready to speak up. (Indeed, if you are not prepared on that particular day, you probably have on hand a number of ploys that may get you off the hook.) But it is a mistake to think that these assumptions are universal—far from it. Indeed, in most corners of the world, and for most of the history of formal education, the classroom has not been a place to speak up, to express, or to defend your own views. It’s been a place to listen and to recite back as faithfully as possible material that you have been asked to study—not a place to volunteer new information, let alone to engage in a discussion, argument, or even a formal debate.

This point came home vividly to me when, in the 1980s, I spent a lot of time visiting classrooms in mainland China. I went to the top schools, where presumably I saw the most talented students, especially those in or headed for higher education in China or, increasingly, in developed countries abroad. These classes were designed like clockwork: the teachers had a strict timetable for each hour and adhered to that schedule without altering course. For all I know, the same agenda was being followed in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and points west.

Not that students in China did not speak up. They were asked regularly to recite passages, to answer questions, to recapitulate past assignments, and to describe current obligations. But the discussion was ritualistic—no surprises!

Even in higher education, this seems to have been the norm. Once I sat in a psychology class where the students were asked to state the seven principles that govern the deployment of attention. One after another, students were called upon to recreate the list, and they did so, typically flawlessly (for all I know, literally word for word). As I watched this exercise—a bewildering parroting experience for me—I became increasingly frustrated. And so, after class one day, I confronted the teacher, saying, “The students had the seven principles in their book. They all knew them. They could all recite them. Why didn’t you use this opportunity to get them to critique the principles, or suggest new ones, or see whether they applied to the topic of memory as well as to the topic of attention?”

The discussion went back and forth, with little progress. Finally the teacher—well-meaning though clearly frustrated—cut off the discussion with me, responding, “We’ve been doing it this way for so long that we know it is the right way to educate our students.”

In her recent book The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, acclaimed American author Gish Jen talks about this distinction. Having taught in different countries, she poses the question: “Should students be made to talk in class?” Citing a study by psychologist Heejung Kim, Jen points out that students in Asia are typically well-prepared, but when they matriculate at American colleges, they are at a loss when it comes to participating in class. As Jen says, “When asked to talk through a problem as they solve it, these Stanford Asian Americans struggled. Not that they could not talk and think—it turned out that they could recite the alphabet while solving the problem just fine. They were uncomfortable, however, talking about their thinking, while their European American classmates were just the opposite. They performed as well when talking through a problem as when solving it silently. It was being asked to recite the alphabet while solving a problem that they found hard” (pp. 185-186).

Discussing this cultural difference more generally, Jen concludes, “Today, a great many young people have also made this crossing. Yet a great many others resent the endless Western insistence that talking matters… One Chinese student even maintained not only that students not have to speak in class but… they should experience a real Chinese classroom and not be allowed to speak in class” (p. 188).

So we have two very different norms for classroom behavior—and in this particular case, the Hispanic students in California are more similar to Chinese nationals than to their neighbors in the affluent suburbs of Los Angeles or San Francisco or San Diego.

Each society takes its norms for granted, and indeed, more often than not, assumes that its norms are universal. The Chinese teacher to whom I spoke in the 1980s was absolutely certain that her methods of teaching and recitation were achieving what was needed and desired. For their part, the teachers at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire are equally certain that their seminar method is the proper norm; I refer to the “Harkness method” in which students are seated around a table and each student in turn is expected to express her views, listen carefully and critically to those offered by other students, and then engage in a general discussion.

As a person born and raised in the West, I find this expectation of speech recitation to be reasonable and indeed well-motivated. Yet my own experience as a student and as a teacher have provided moments for pause. While I have rarely felt hesitant to speak up, I have often noticed that those who speak the most do not necessarily have the most to say—and that, indeed, many of us listen with special care to those who rarely speak up, as if they have been saving their wisdom for just the right moment. And not infrequently, in observing my own students, I have been surprised by the disjunction between oral performance in class on the one hand and written performance in tests and papers on the other. Though the patterns vary, I’m often surprised that a student who is loquacious in class does not write clearly or cogently. And every once in a while, a student who has said little if anything in class turns in written work of exceptionally high quality. In such cases, I have invited the usually silent student to my office, have praised the quality of her written work, and encouraged her to speak up in class. Sometimes this ploy has worked—and in rare cases, the once silent student becomes one of the most active and effective oral participants.

One conclusion that one might draw from this discussion is that all students should be prepared to be classroom participants at Princeton (or seated around the Harkness table). In the study of higher education that Wendy Fischman and I are currently leading, we speak of the importance of acquiring “Capital in the Liberal Arts and Sciences”—or, as we have provisionally nicknamed it, “LAS Capital.” Clearly, one admired attribute of students in a liberal arts setting is their growing ability to give voice to their thoughts and be prepared to engage in conversation about complicated topics. This is the point that Jorge was conveying to Superintendent Murphy.

A different conclusion is that there are different norms for participation (and non-participation), and we should respect norms that are regnant in a particular setting (“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”). Perhaps the more profound conclusion is that we should understand the strengths and weaknesses of each approach and be respectful of those norms—unless there are strong reasons for challenging them.

Categories: Blog

Teens and Technology: Few Simple Answers

August 14, 2017 - 7:38am

Have smartphones destroyed a generation?

Jean Twenge of San Diego State University asked this question in a widely-discussed article in the September 2017 edition of The Atlantic. She concludes that teens are on the verge of a mental health crisis due to the constant presence of these devices, which have been shown to have negative effects on well-being.

However, Howard Gardner has responded to this argument with colleagues Katie Davis and Emily Weinstein in a piece on Medium.

Davis, Weinstein, and Gardner warn that it is difficult to generalize an entire generation’s experience. Based on their research, they argue that the impacts of technology on teens are complex and not uniform. We should therefore be wary of oversimplified narratives or prescriptions for this perceived crisis.

Click here to read the response in full.

Categories: Blog

Republicans Are Right, College Matters

August 8, 2017 - 9:21am

This week, it’s my pleasure to post a thoughtful essay by Susan Engel, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Williams College. Engel responds to a surprising trend in the United States: a majority of surveyed Republicans now believe that higher education operates against our national interest. In a brief accompanying comment, I attempt to capture the frame of mind which might lead to this unfortunate conviction.

Republicans Are Right, College Matters

Susan Engel, with commentary by Howard Gardner

I never thought I’d be saying this in the year that Donald Trump was elected President, but the Republicans are right. College does have a powerful impact on the lives of individuals and on society at large.

In July, the Pew Research Center found that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Republicans who think a college education is bad for individuals, and, more broadly, for society. “Two years ago 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 37 percent rating higher education negatively. That ratio shifted to 43 percent positive and 45 percent negative last year.” The Republicans are dead wrong that college is bad for people, but they are on to something when they focus on its broad and profound impact.

For years now, economists and psychologists have been gathering data to examine the effect college has on people’s lives once they graduate. Some of the comparisons yield straightforward results. For instance, the data are crystal clear—people who go to college are far more likely to get and keep a steady job, to own their own home, and to get and stay married. In all those observable, concrete ways, college is a benefit, and that is true no matter what a person’s cultural, racial, or economic background. Going to college makes a positive difference. Needless to say, that result varies as a function of tuition. The economic benefits may be diminished if it takes someone 25 years to pay off student loans, or if paying off the loan forces people into life choices that make them miserable. Given the rock solid benefits of college, it’s not unreasonable to think that the solution to outsized tuitions costs is not to encourage young people to skip more education, but rather, to find ways to make it affordable for all. But going to college changes more than a person’s future earnings.

The Republicans are on to something when they rant and rail about the even more profound impact college has on people’s lives and on society at large. Because the economic benefits of college are only one way in which college affects students, and not even necessarily the most important one. We now have data showing that a college education (not to be confused with the piece of paper that shows you got a degree) improves far more than people’s bank accounts. Studies show that a four year degree improves people’s ability to solve problems, analyze information, understand two sides of an argument, reason about moral issues, and communicate effectively—in short, going to college is the best way to become a sharp and careful thinker. However, the impacts extend beyond the strictly academic. Students who go to college are also less dogmatic, less prone to authoritarianism, more likely to exhibit autonomy in every day life, and more inclined to care about and help other people and their communities. It turns out that college, not just a college degree, is very good for everyone. A look at international data only drives this point home: wherever people have more access to more education, life for everyone gets better.

That is not to say that we fully understand what it is about the college experience that is so formative. Research is now underway, in several labs, trying to tease apart the aspects of college that might be most influential: the experience of spending time with people who are different from you, close contact with a professor, intensive time in an environment in which knowledge and reasoned argument are valued, extra-curricular activities like sports and choir, or a prolonged adolescence. Some researchers collecting data see signs that the benefits are greatest for those whose pre-college lives are least like the college they attend—this emerging finding suggests that the push some colleges are making to recruit and retain first generation students is vital.

College doesn’t only lead to greater earning power. It leads to a more thoughtful, informed and civically engaged life for the individual, and thus by extension, influences society at large. If anything, what we’ve learned so far is that the benefits of college are so profound we need to know more about why and how. For instance, colleges (and those individuals and philanthropic institutions that fund them) might consider whether small classes are important, whether to allot more or less time for extracurriculars, and whether student access to professors is key. Such information would also inform decisions about making college accessible to all. Does living on a campus matter? Is four years that much more powerful than three years? Is there something distinctive about a liberal arts approach? What kinds of experiences within college exert the most important influences?

It’s a form of doublespeak to claim that colleges are bad for us because on a few campuses a few speakers were un-invited or booed out of town. Such turbulence reflects turbulent times, not some particularly pernicious effect of the higher education community. It’s equally ridiculous to say that colleges are a hotbed of censorship. Each of the colleges recently embroiled in controversy over cancelled speakers have devoted considerable time and effort to examining, explaining, and reconsidering their decisions. It’s true that many of us who work in colleges have been concerned, in recent years, that students and faculty are timid about saying what they think, for fear of seeming racist, causing outrage, or being accused of sexual harassment, for instance. I don’t know of one single college that hasn’t been trying to figure out how to make discussions (between students, between faculty, and between both) as bracing and open as possible, while protecting the dignity and security of everyone in the community.

It’s not that these difficulties are more intense on college campuses. To the contrary, it’s that members of college communities are more intensely engaged in trying to figure out how to ensure free speech and the open exchange of ideas, as well as moral and personal accountability. More time and energy is given to these concerns at colleges than it is in any other sector of our society. Gathering opinions, reflecting on past actions, and staying in the discussion—now those are the rewards of college, and they benefit us all.

Comment from Howard Gardner

As a friend and colleague of Susan Engel’s, and one who, like Susan, works at a selective institution, it’s not surprising that I agree with her sentiments. College was a formative influence for me and for many of my friends and relatives. I’m now engaged in a large national study of non-vocational higher education in the United States; it would be tragic if this distinctive American creation were to become a victim of political polarization in this country.

But like many of our colleagues, I’ve been trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of those who have become antipathetic to higher education, U. S. style. I’ve read many articles and columns, as well as the best-selling books Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance’s and Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild. And building on this “education about citizens in the fly-over states,” the majority of whom are supporters of Donald Trump, I’m going to try to put forth the perspective of one of those who has a negative view of American higher education—though, since I am not a ventriloquist, I’ll use my words, not his.

Of course I would like my kids to get a good education—even better if it does not cost me and my family a lot of money! But the way I see it, we are educating the wrong kids and doing it in a way that is destructive to our society.

Let me tell you a bit about myself. My family are good people. For generations. we have worked hard; we have served in the military; we have prayed and gone faithfully to church; we have loved this country—or anyway what remains of it.

But in recent decades, all of this has fallen apart. We have trouble getting jobs and keeping them; when we have served in the military, even sustained serious injury, people on the home front have not supported us—indeed they have often mocked us. And more and more people, especially young people, don’t pray, don’t go to church, and get their kicks from demeaning the United States.

I don’t know for sure how much of this is due to colleges. But I see colleges rejecting the children of friends and family, and accepting students of color and foreign students—through so-called affirmative action. While young people I know are flipping burgers at McDonald’s or, worse, getting involved with drugs, these privileged kids are living in the lap of luxury, in fancy buildings, complete with climbing walls, lavish gyms, huge screen televisions, and food menus that cater to every palate except good old American food.

Also, I have seen what happens to the children of friends, or of my family, who occasionally are admitted to a so-called “select college.” When they graduate from high school, they are good kids. But as they come home over the next few years, you can reliably predict certain changes. They are less tied to family and friends in our community; they are less likely to go to church (some of them have even become atheists!); they use big words and throw around concepts and terms that I don’t understand, and are far less patriotic—few of them ever join the armed forces. And while these young people spoke at one time about returning home, and serving the community that nurtured them as doctors or lawyers or ministers, instead they go to New York (Wall Street), Los Angeles (TV and movies), or Silicon Valley (Google, Facebook), make heaps of money, and associate chiefly with those who went to the same college and belonged to the same clubs.

So would I blow up our colleges and universities? No, I am not that stupid. But I’d feel a lot better about them if they admitted the young people from our community; if the students engaged in service, especially the military, rather than acting like spoiled brats; and if they helped to make America like it was in the olden days—to borrow a phrase from President Trump, if they “helped to make America great again.”

Howard again:

I hope I captured the sentiments of my fictional spokesperson, without caricature. Whether or not I succeeded, the question remains: What to do? I hope it’s not patronizing to say that those of us who have reaped the benefits of higher education need to make extra efforts to understand its critics; to acknowledge and appreciate what Arlie Hochschild calls their “deep stories”; and to begin by engaging those individuals on their terms. In the end, I would hope that both advocates and critics of higher education would realize that neither has all the answers. Perhaps we can form questions and define issues in a way that reveals common ground—to use the metaphor of the day—so that education once again becomes a public, and not just a private good.

Categories: Blog

Reflections on “Artful Scribbles”

July 27, 2017 - 12:56pm

The scholarly journal Studies in Art Education has published a commentary by Howard Gardner in which he reflects on his 1980 book Artful Scribbles: The Significance of Children’s Drawings.

Thinking back on his work in the 1970s, Gardner reviews his reasons for writing the book, as well as which of its elements he considers durable and which he would change or add to update the text for the present day.

Click here to read this short essay.

Categories: Blog

How Do Future Students Get a Whiff of College? A Century-Long Perspective

July 24, 2017 - 1:00pm

When few students pursued higher learning, the decision to attend college was based chiefly on family background and geographical propinquity. In the last century, however, attendance at college and university has become much more frequent—at least half of American secondary school graduates eventually pursue some kind of higher learning. Not all students have choices about where they matriculate, but many do. And whether or not they matriculate at their “first choice,” a large majority of students surely arrive on campus with some expectation of what they can expect to encounter—both in the classroom and beyond (e.g. the surrounding grounds, abundant extracurricular activities, various social circles). From where do these impressions emanate?

As far as I can tell, we don’t have much direct evidence of how—in earlier times—prospective students thought about and imagined their imminent college experience. But I suspect that impressions came significantly from works of art—and particularly from works of fiction.

The strongest evidence can be found in a novel by Owen Johnson called Stover at Yale, serialized in McClure’s magazine in 1911 and published as a book a year later. From a literary point of view, there is nothing remarkable about the book—a straightforward account of the experience of one “preppy” (graduate of the prestigious Lawrenceville School) who attended the New Haven Ivy League college around 1900.

But as a description of a college, Stover at Yale is arresting. There is virtually nothing about teaching, studying, learning, mastering a canon, or conducting research, let alone pursuing new scholarly questions. Instead, the book focuses almost entirely on getting ahead in the social sphere—partly through extracurricular activities (especially football) but even more so through membership in elite secret societies—the coveted sophomore clubs and the prestigious senior clubs, with the legendary “Skull and Bones” clearly constituting the top rung to which the most ambitious students aspire.

Upon reading Stover at Yale, anyone, no matter how well or poorly informed they were, would assume that college was about social advancement, especially surpassing peers with whom one is fiercely competitive. It was not about scholarship or learning or public service or reflection on one’s life. To be sure, there is a bit of tension in the novel. As his college years pass, Stover becomes increasingly concerned about the social and financial inequities that he encounters on campus. And so, he decides provisionally to align himself with the “outsiders”—those who do not fit comfortably on the campus or are oriented toward public service or are simply more idealistic—and not to care whether he is invited to join a secret society.

If you think that the climax of the novel features Stover overthrowing the status quo, joining the misfits, the outcasts, the saints, or the “thinkers,” you will be disappointed. The climax involves a countdown as the fifteen members of Skull and Bones are announced, one by one. Sure enough, when number 15 is reached, Stover is announced, anointed, and celebrated. I am not certain of the intended moral of the story, but here’s my takeaway: “You can have it all, not sacrifice your values, and still end up at the top.”

In This Side of Paradise, a novel published less than a decade later, F. Scott Fitzgerald focused on the experiences at Princeton University of his thinly disguised alter ego Amory Blaine. While the physical plant of Yale is largely ignored in the Stover saga, the fabled appearance of Princeton—its tall steeples, long and leisurely lawns, and intimate village atmosphere—is lovingly portrayed. Thick descriptions pervade the book. Within a few pages, indeed paragraphs, I was reminded that I was reading a talented writer—one whom you read at least in part because of his choice of words, evocative imagery, and sense of structure. In literary talent, F. Scott Fitzgerald versus Owen Johnson is no contest.

The protagonists are also very different. Blaine has social ambitions and an active social life, but he is also a serious young student—in his case, of literature. Fitzgerald portrays him as reading widely, talking incessantly to friends about what he has read, and writing a great deal of verse as well as other more prosaic forms. There are many passages in which the students argue philosophical issues with one another, and many examples of poetry—some verses better than others—written by the protagonist.

At Stover’s Yale, the role of teachers and of classes is minimized; in contrast, the world of knowledge—in humanistic, not scientific form—is foregrounded in Fitzgerald’s novel. I suspect that, even today, many at Princeton would be proud of that portrayal. Still, the novel manages to convey a message that the classroom and learning are not really the essence of the college experience. Finding one’s own identity, midst the welter of local and societal issues, is what college is about. Commenting on Fitzgerald’s novel, then President of Princeton John Grier Hibben said, “I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spiral of calculation and snobbishness.”

In This Side of Paradise, one particular sentence caught my eye. The narrator says, “Stover was our Bible.” I read this line as confirming that the knowledge of college that Fitzgerald (and his literary creations) brought to campus is based significantly on what Owen Johnson had taught them. Such was the power of literature—at least in those long-gone times.

And what of Harvard—typically mentioned in the same Ivy breath? I did not find a novelist of the period whose description of Harvard was as salient as Johnson on Yale or Fitzgerald on Princeton. But one contemporary novelist was clearly thinking a lot about Harvard, and that was Thomas Wolfe—Fitzgerald’s sometime friend and sometime antagonist.

Harvard was important for Wolfe, but he did not attend as an undergraduate. He spent more than two years there as a graduate student with a focus on preparation to be a scholar, a somewhat different experience from that of collegiate students Stover and Blaine. Accordingly, much of Wolfe’s writings about the undergraduate college experience focus on a mythical school called Pine Rock (also called Pulpit Hill), at which the young protagonist Eugene Gant initially feels alienated; immerses himself in philosophical and literary texts; interacts as a peer with professors; and, because of his intellectual strengths, ultimately becomes a respected leader on campus.

Harvard figures in Wolfe’s three novels as more aspirational and symbolic than as a textured campus—the place he wants to attend to continue his education, to study and rub shoulders with giants (like the drama teacher George Pierce Baker and the Shakespeare scholar George Lyman Kittredge—note the patrician names!), and to get the seal of approval as an educated person.

But even in Wolfe’s books, one can discern the shadow of earlier novelistic accounts. At one point the narrator says, tellingly, of Gant, “His conception of university life was a romantic blur, evoked from his reading and tempered with memory of Stover of Yale.”

Picking up the question that I posed in the beginning, I think it’s fair to conclude this: young students (at this point, only men) who read the novels of the period could find literary inspiration in Amory Blaine and intellectual modelling in Eugene Gant; but neither could escape the social aspirations and pressures felt by Dink Stover. And indeed, college as primarily a social experience, rather than an intellectual one, has cast a shadow across these one hundred years. Of course, it’s also possible that the writings attracted different kinds of readers (more social types to Johnson, more intellectual types to Wolfe) or that readers took away different through lines from the same text.

By mid-century, the broadcast media—first radio, then increasingly television—became important molders of public thought. And of course, young persons learned about college from news reports, theatrical productions, and published guides, like The Fiske Guide to College. But I would submit, far greater influence came from portrayals in the movies—ranging from the spoofs in Animal House to the more serious portrayals in Love Story. And of course, nowadays, websites devised by the colleges and gossip purveyed in online networks are significant molders of young person’s anticipated college experiences. In future blogs, I’ll review some of these “media-ted” portrayals of higher education.

Categories: Blog

The End of Final Clubs

July 18, 2017 - 6:55am

As a member of the Harvard faculty, I’ve been asked for my opinion about the recommendation to phase out the College’s “final clubs” over the next few years.

On a theoretical or philosophical level, there are justifiable arguments on both sides. Those in favor of maintaining such organizations invoke freedom of assembly. Those in favor of eliminating such organizations describe the deleterious effects of segregation on the campus, with individuals with less financial or social capital feeling disempowered—just as blacks and other minority racial, ethnic, and religious groups have felt discriminated against over the course of American history, including the history of higher education.

I favor the removal of such organizations from Harvard College (and other parts of the University). In my view, they maintain 19th and early 20th century views that the College, as a social organization, should allow students to decide who should associate with whom and who should not be permitted to do so. In effect, they replicate the segregated social arrangements in the broader society—I keep thinking of the term “blackballing,” the action used to prevent someone from joining a secret organization. 

We are now in the 21st century, living in a diverse country, embedded in an even more diverse world. Harvard College should both reflect and encourage that diversity in its social arrangements and prepare all of its students for life in such a diverse national and global community. Everyone who goes to Harvard College should have the opportunity to know the College membership in its full diversity and should not feel disempowered or alienated because he or she has not been permitted to join an organization whose primary purpose is social. (The fact that some clubs may do civic work is commendable, but of course, you don’t need final clubs in order to serve the broader community.)

There are also considerable empirical grounds for eliminating the final clubs. Much sexual and drinking misbehavior occurs in the clubs and has been amply documented. In the last few years, hundreds of students of both genders have written of the pain caused by the existence and influence of these organizations on campus. In our own ongoing national study of higher education, we have heard from both students and administrators about the deleterious effects on students of organizations which, on a whim, can decide who belongs and who does not.

Also, I have to add that from the outside (and I not only did not belong to a final club but don’t even know where they are located), these organizations look like an effort to take individuals who already have more than sufficient privilege and make sure that they don’t lose even an iota of that privilege—while ensuring that those without those privileges don’t encroach in any manner on those that do. Do we really need to discriminate even further? Would it hurt those with privilege to abandon one privilege in favor of the more profound privilege of taking advantage of a truly diverse community?

A personal anecdote: as a 10 year old child of German Jewish immigrants, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I read a Classic Comic book. In the back pages was a contemporary account. I learned that the class marshals at Harvard College that year consisted of one Catholic, one Protestant, and one Jew. That page solidified my desire to come to Harvard, where I have now been for over 55 years. I don’t think it is an accident that this year Harvard College has had a very high rate of admitted students who decided to matriculate. I think it is because the College is coming to be seen as a campus that is truly open, truly welcoming to everyone. The elimination—the “end”—of final clubs will reinforce that message; their continuing existence would seem embarrassingly anachronistic, serving “ends” that do not belong in our contemporary society.

To those who want to maintain the final clubs, I say, “Don’t think about what you are losing. Think about what you, the College, and the broader society will gain.” That would be a happy ending!

Gardner also commented on this topic for a radio story that aired on July 18, 2017, on WGBH. Click here to read or listen to the piece.

Categories: Blog

Medicine’s Niche in the Professions

July 14, 2017 - 8:33am

Howard Gardner has published a commentary about medicine as a profession in the July/September 2017 issue of The Journal of Ambulatory Care Management.

Reacting to the issue’s theme of how the healthcare system is changing, Gardner explains that while medicine was the first true profession, recent trends indicate that a democratizing force will blur the lines between trained professionals, paraprofessionals, and technological aides. Through these disruptions, it will be important to preserve the meaning behind professional conduct.

Click here to read the commentary in full.

Categories: Blog

Arts and Sciences: A Panoramic Guide for the Perplexed

July 10, 2017 - 7:46am

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the liberal arts and sciences. In describing the “philosophical chamber” of Harvard College in the 18th century, I suggested that at one time, knowledge was more fluid; both students and scholars moved easily among philosophy, natural science, history, music and other “subjects.” Indeed, they may not have thought about those epistemic “bins.”

In the last two centuries, there has been a strong and perhaps inevitable trend toward a discipline-based typology of knowledge. And whether or not people embrace or even know the phrase “arts and sciences,” we all know about the organization of secondary school and higher education in terms of “disciplines” or “subjects.”

Nonetheless, it is highly like that most students who arrive in college know little about the range of subjects and, in addition, may have limited or misleading notions of what discipline-based scholars actually do. To delve into this issue, Dartmouth computer scientist Dan Rockmore asked 27 present and former faculty colleagues at Dartmouth College to introduce their respective subject matters—ranging alphabetically from “African American Studies,” “Anthropology,” and “Art History” to “Sociology,” “Theater,” and “Women’s and Gender Studies”—in his book What Are the Arts and Sciences?: A Guide for the Curious. The volume provides a useful and intriguing panorama of the subject matters examined at any liberal arts school of reasonable size—from classical topics like philosophy and mathematics to relative newcomers like computer science and gender studies.

The range of disciplines entails one obvious challenge. With respect to topics like anthropology or geology, many students will have little background or may not even have heard of the term—and so the write-up has to begin with “the basics.” With respect to other academic disciplines, students may already have a limited but misleading conception: geography is not principally about maps, but rather about “time,” “change,” “connections,” and “people”; economics is not principally about making a killing on the stock market but can help one understand the art market; history is as much about ordinary people as about Napoleon or Lincoln.

Writing frankly, I don’t know to what extent incoming college students will have the patience to read through such a book. (As I quip, with reference to Richard Light’s bestselling book Making the Most of College, parents buy it for their children but may be more likely to read it than will their children.) But on the assumption that at least some will leaf through it, I tried to put myself in the place of a freshman at Dartmouth, Pomona, or the University of Chicago.

As a hypothetical youthful reader, I’d be interested principally in two questions:

1) Does the focus on this subject interest me?

2) How do experts in this subject approach their scholarly work?

Unless the topic grabs my interest, it’s unlikely that I’ll want to take a course in it, except perhaps to fulfill some kind of distribution requirement. But if it’s only the topic that seduces me, then I may well be frustrated when I learn what it is that disciplinarians actually do every day.

In that spirit, I especially valued the chapter on art history. Not only did author Ada Cohen reproduce several diverse and riveting visual presentations, ranging from Mycenaean figures of the fourteenth century B.C. to quasi-abstract paintings from the mid-twentieth century; she also introduced and unfolded the questions that she would ask of these diverse depictions and made eye-opening comparisons across time and space. I think I could well decide, after a chapter or a lecture like this, whether I wanted to study art history.

In contrast, I was less satisfied with the chapter on African American studies because it focused almost entirely on the fact of racism in American history—incredibly important, to be sure—but did little to indicate what kinds of methods or perspectives are taken and insights gained. Lest this be seen as a critique of “area studies,” which are a relatively recent importation into the academy, the chapter on Women’s and Gender Studies was more satisfying: it surveys origins, methods, and major questions—including lots of examples of concepts that have been developed—and ongoing debates. I could confidently decide whether I’d like to explore that topic further.

As a now older reader, I compared topics about which I know a lot (psychology, that’s my training) and ones that I know little about (several of the physical sciences). The chapter on psychology certainly reviewed some of the most compelling studies, findings, and phenomena in that field, but I wish that the chapter had fewer “wows” and more discussion of how these phenomena were investigated and what disputes and mysteries remain. (As one who has taught psychology at various times, it’s best to discourage students who think that the discipline will necessarily illuminate their own troubles rather than inform them about how rats navigate mazes and how to control one variable at a time in an experiment.) As one who is married to a psychologist, I wonder whether students would appreciate the mealtime banter between Ellen and me (e.g. “Clearly the control group wasn’t really a control group”) or whether they would scoot as quickly as possible to another table.

I was also frustrated by the chapter on English (about which we all think we know a lot); English at the college level has become so sprawling that I was left wondering what, if anything, is left out. Of course, that state of affairs may be explained in part by the fact that nowadays, teachers of English are often required to teach everything from Chaucer to composition. But presumably that is not what initially attracted these scholars to the field or motivated them to pursue advanced studies.

Turning to the many areas about which I am ignorant, the chapter on physics did well presenting intriguing phenomena and illustrating how physicists think of them. It covered a wide range of phenomena—from easily graspable ones (like what causes ripples on the surface of a body of water) to far more elusive ones (such as why electrons are both wave-like and particle-like, a central mystery of quantum mechanics). But the chapter was twice as long as most others—which physicists would probably think is fair! As for discussions that did not exceed the “page limit,” I was especially engaged by the chapter on astronomy. Author Ryan Hickox grabbed my attention by reminding me of the many objects that we observe in the sky by eye, telescope, or inference and how we map them in various kinds of displays. I loved the section “A Night in the Life of an Astronomer.” If I were decades younger, I’d take or audit the course in person or online.

I applaud editor Rockmore for taking on this challenge. Admittedly, he got off on the wrong foot by misnaming art historian E. H. Gombrich in the second line of the introduction as W. H. Gombrich—a mistake that no scholar in the humanities would make. But for those readers who made it to page 45, Ernst Gombrich is correctly identified. I note that a scholar in the humanities might make an analogous mistake about a scientist.

Nowadays, of course, the pursuit of specific disciplines is undergoing much criticism. On one side, we are asked to study those things that will monetize into jobs—which most non-STEM disciplines are unlikely to do. From another angle, buoyed by search engines on the Internet, we are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary topics or just pursue questions that interest us, whatever the method. I can see validity in those arguments.

But wait! In preparation for the year 2000, I was asked by a pundit to mention the greatest human invention of the last 2000 years. While I quipped that the answer was “classical music,” I noted that a better answer would be “the scholarly disciplines.” And that’s because, as a species, we did not evolve to create linguistics or ecology or even history or physics. These are human cultural inventions—precious in every way—which might well never have been invented, let alone have become the center of education in much of the world for the ensuing centuries. And so we should acknowledge their preciousness—in the best sense of that term—and endeavor to keep them and build on them. This collection of essays is a contribution to that human challenge.

Reference: Dan Rockmore (ed.), What Are the Arts and Sciences?: A Guide for the Curious. Dartmouth College Press, 2017.

Categories: Blog

Re-imagining Learning

July 5, 2017 - 7:48am

Howard Gardner has been featured in Cathy Rubin’s “The Global Search for Education” column in a special Independence Day interview.

What challenges must the US confront in order to remain innovative in education? What can we learn from the past to help people of all ages become better learners in the future? What should colleges and universities be doing to embrace life-long learning?

Gardner addresses these questions and more in this piece, advocating for a cultivating of curiosity, engagement with new ideas, and formal/informal education across the lifespan.

Click here to read the article in full.

Categories: Blog

The Re-Uniting of the Arts and Sciences: Clues from an Exhibition

June 26, 2017 - 9:24am

Around the university, and perhaps elsewhere, the phrase “arts and sciences” is familiar. It evokes diverse associations: positive ones (what all educated persons should master); negative ones (teachers and courses that are believed not to be useful for careers or for life); or confusion (even at schools that describe themselves using those words, most students cannot define the phrase). And when the term “liberal” is pre-posed, confusion multiplies.

For someone of my vintage, one association is C. P. Snow’s famous Rede lectures (and subsequent book) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. A physicist turned civil servant and novelist, Snow argued that Britain had excessively valorized the humanities—history, literature, philosophy—while minimizing the importance of scientific knowledge and skills. One could be ignorant of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but not of Shakespeare’s plays. Nowadays, that sentiment seems nostalgic at most. The educational push is entirely for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics); the most that softer subjects can lobby for is a conversion of STEM to STEAM, with the inserted “A” standing for the arts.

Recently, I went to a quite fascinating exhibition at my own university: The Harvard Art Museums’ “The Philosophy Chamber.” Between 1766 and 1820—a period that encompassed the Revolutionary War, as well as the French Revolution and other epochal events—Harvard College had a special trio of rooms in which its leaders stored and displayed all manner of objects, extending well beyond the select books, paintings, and prints that one might expect at a college, library, or museum. The collection in the Chamber was dissolved in 1820 in favor of a discipline-based approach to knowledge and a larger book library; not surprisingly, many of the items were lost or dispersed. Through the heroic efforts of many scholars, more than one hundred of these display items—or records of them—have been reconstituted and put on display. (The exhibit runs through December 31, 2017, and one can purchase the catalogue, ably edited by Ethan W. Lasser, a curator at the museum.)

Let me say some words about the contents of the exhibition, one surprising artifact, and the lines of thought that it evoked in me.

The exhibition is best described by the German phrases Wunderkammer or Kulturkammer—a collection of curiosities. (Those who have visited the home of Sir John Soane in London will instantly recognize this characterization.) The items include mechanical and electronic instruments, artifacts from indigenous populations (headdresses, tomahawks), species of plants, animals and minerals, ancient manuscripts, mounted skeletons, paintings, drawings, and engravings from the era, as well as copies of works from classical times, maps, architectural plans, and perspectival projections.

Perhaps the most striking items in the exhibition, depicted below, are:

1) the Orrery, a stunning and complicated mechanical model that reconstructs the solar system as it was then understood, including orbits of planets and satellites and the rotations of these celestial bodies;

The Orrery. Photo source: Lasser, E. W. (2017). The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.

 

2) drawings of the inscription on Dighton Rock, a 40 ton boulder from the area which features a Wampanoag inscription that has not been deciphered to this day.

Dighton Rock. Photo source: Lasser, E. W. (2017). The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.

 

Inscription on Dighton Rock. Photo source: Lasser, E. W. (2017). The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.

 

But what particularly caught my own eye was a book from 1759 called Universal History of Arts and Sciences (patterned after a similar book issued in France 14 years before). I learned of the distinction between natural science (featuring machines dedicated to various purposes and the scientific ideas and mathematical operations needed to understand their operation); and natural history (featuring description and classification of living entities). And I was reminded that it was in the 18th century, especially in Western Europe, that efforts were made to systematize all current knowledge—most famously in Diderot’s Encyclopédie.

As a teacher, I pondered the use of these rooms and the potpourri of objects contained within them. From lecture notes that have survived, we know that the professors (at the time, Harvard had a grand total of two professors and four teaching assistants!) used them actively in their teaching. And we can infer, from their condition and from records kept at the time, that many of the objects fell into disrepair, possibly because they were also handled by students. For those who think that “hands on” and “active learning” are a conceit only of the 20th and 21st century, these displays are a tangible refutation of that assertion. John Dewey and Maria Montessori had their predecessors—among them Johann Pestalozzi, who lived in the era of the Philosophy Chamber, and who drew heavily on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was translated and read in the colonies and whose ideas about learning clearly affected educators of the era. As curator Lasser comments, the Chamber was “less like a museum or gallery and more like a lab.”

In addition to contemplating the pedagogical use of these materials, I also reflected on what the Chamber can teach us about the organization of knowledge. Nowadays, we take disciplines, subdisciplines, and specialties for granted—that’s the way that universities, colleges (and secondary schools) are organized. Period. And indeed, the Philosophy Chamber was disbanded precisely at the time when more specific subject areas were delineated and the respective objects and specimens were sent to the department or laboratory deemed most appropriate—the Orrery to astronomy, the magnet to physics, the rocks to mineralogy, the leaves and flowers to botany, and so on. To quote curator Lasser once again, “the polymath gave way to the expert.”

The term “philosophy” means love of knowledge. I wonder whether it was not short-sighted to close the chamber and thereby challenge or scuttle the view of knowledge and learning that it embodied and conveyed. Curiosity is one of the earliest and most powerful of human motives; and we do not come to earth programmed to think of a magnet or a motor as an entity that should necessarily be categorized differently from a star or a starfish or a scorpion.

Now that books themselves have in some ways been sidelined, some university libraries are becoming contemporary Wunderkammers, collecting objects of all sort and providing clues (but not too many) of what they are and how they have been conceptualized and studied. Not only does this curatorial move point up unexpected similarities and differences across categories of experience; it may also enable new connections and syntheses that disciplinary study necessarily minimizes or occludes. And in a way that certainly could not have been anticipated, such contemporary “chambers” reflect more faithfully the melange of knowledge (and, it must be added, mis-knowledge) that is currently available on any search engine. The most powerful education today should meld the concepts and methods of the disciplines with the curiosity and novel forms of association enabled by a contemporary Philosophy Chamber.

For much more information and analysis, see: Lasser, E. W. (2017). The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.

Categories: Blog

Gardner Comments on Harvard’s Rescission of Admission

June 19, 2017 - 9:34am

In early June 2017, Harvard College rescinded the admission of at least 10 students who would have been members of the Class of 2021 in response to extremely offensive memes that these individuals had shared in a Facebook group.

Harvard’s actions prompted controversy; while some believed it was appropriate to punish the students, others saw the move as a potentially dangerous form of censorship of free speech.

In an article in The Boston Globe in which members of the Harvard community provided commentary, Howard Gardner stated that he hoped these young people had learned a lesson and that admission to Harvard is a privilege that comes with community standards.

Read the full article here, and we have printed below Gardner’s full statement on the issue.

As I understand it, Harvard’s decision is definitive. It is harsh, but I support the decision as reported. We certainly know that people of all ages will say terrible things, and now those messages can be widely distributed—no way to stop it.

In any community, we need to observe certain standards if that community is to thrive. Admission to Harvard College is a great privilege. I assume that, when admitted, students were told that admission could be rescinded for disreputable actions, and that is an apt description of what they have done.

The students have learned a lesson that they will never forget, and I hope it will make them better persons in the future.

No doubt present and future Harvard college students will also have learned lessons.

I don’t agree that these are issues of free speech. Prospective students are not being prosecuted. They are simply being prevented from joining a community which in my opinion they have forfeited their right to join.

There is lots of evidence that being featured and “liked” is very important for users of social media, and one way to do this is to be outlandish and attract attention among your peer group.

Also, whenever a social medium becomes widely used by older persons, younger persons move to a new and less frequented mediums. In this case, students did not resort to a new platform but instead, as I understand it, created a more private and more exclusive group, kind of a Facebook “final club,” to use the Harvard lingo. I guess now they can still have their final club, but it won’t bear the Veritas shield.

-Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

Higher Education Today: Lessons from History and Challenges for the Present

June 12, 2017 - 9:23am

In the mid-1830s, Greek letter social clubs (fraternities) were launched in the small colleges of New England. In 1845, a scant decade later, the president of Amherst College wrote a letter to the president of nearby Williams College in which he mused, “Would it be desirable to have the societies cease in our colleges?”[1]

As it happens, I served on the board of Amherst College where, in 2014, the wrenching decision was made to ban all fraternities and similar social organizations. And in this academic year, as a long-time member of the Harvard faculty, I have watched the campus being torn apart in a debate about whether students should be penalized for belonging to single sex social organizations—the so-called “final clubs.”

Contemplating these recent fissures, in light of the Amherst presidential communication from 170 years ago, it’s hard not to think of the French phrase translated as, “The more things change, the more things remain the same.”

As one considers the terrain of higher education today, with frequent discussions of disruption and crisis, it’s salutary to reach for the historian’s tools and to determine whether, indeed, the issues confronting education today are really new or have been confronted and dealt with adequately one or more times in the past.

Recently, with Wendy Fischman, I have been leading a large national study of higher education, and I’ve also had the opportunity to read several histories of higher education in the U.S.[2] Once you have read these histories, you realize that there are few wholly new themes in American higher education. Indeed, some themes have recurred over the centuries—for example, the tension between “town” and “gown.” Others have been predictable trends over the years—students coming to campus from ever more distant homes, including ones located abroad. In a keen synopsis of these trends, historian Steven Mintz points out that debates about college mission, and anxiety over educational technologies, have been constants; while trends toward ever greater heterogeneity of the student body and ever more active forms of learning can be expected.

Perhaps most strikingly, as Mintz points out, observers and practitioners have perennially lamented the “crisis” in higher education—and wondered whether the system as currently constituted could endure. And yet, compared to other institutions, the system of colleges and universities in the United States has been remarkably stable; it’s often been said that, next to the Catholic Church, institutions of higher education are the most endurable institutions in the Western world. And durability also characterizes the strength and reputation of specific institutions. If you look at a list of the top U.S. corporations fifty or sixty years ago, there is little overlap with the list today—no Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. In contrast, if you look at the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the United States (and in Europe) over time, the list is remarkably stable.

But in the 21st century, several issues appear far more acute than ever before. They may be particularly glaring in the United States, but they are not restricted to this country.

In my view, five causes for concern stand out:

1. Cost: If one wants to go to a four year private liberal arts college, the costs including room and board can be up to $60,000-$70,000 a year. At public universities, the costs for even in-state students can easily go to $25,000 a year. At very well-endowed schools, or with respect to students who are especially valued, generous scholarships are possible. But for the rest, the out-of-pocket costs are prohibitive; and so college debts average $30,000 a year and sometimes are multiples of that figure.

2. Financing: Relatedly, in the case of public state universities, the percentage of actual costs that are covered by the state is steadily decreasing, with no sign of a reversal. While at one time the states typically contributed 30-40% of the total budget, the figure is often down to 15% or even less. And while the most prestigious state universities are able to raise funds from public and private sources—and therefore in effect become private universities sporting a state mascot—the rest have less and less guaranteed support and often have to cut even essential services. For a discussion of one controversial practice that has arisen from this challenge (colleges offering additional money to admitted students to influence their decisions after enrollment deadlines have already passed), click here to read a blog post by my student Barbara Hou on The Professional Ethicist

3. Inability to deal with a truly diverse student body: Even though student bodies have become increasingly diverse over the decades in a variety of ways, most student tensions have been directed outside the university and/or toward university leadership. That was certainly the story in the 1960s. But in recent years—no doubt exacerbated by the election of 2016—powerful fault-lines have emerged within the student body, and these may not easily be bridged. The fault-lines can occur within or across campuses—compare the modal political views in coastal states versus those in the “fly-over” states.

4. Vocationalism over all else: My baptism in history indicates that American colleges have always been directed toward training for relevant occupations—be they the ministry, medicine, the law, or, more recently, business. But with the increasing gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” along with the desire to “have it all,” students feel the need to think of college as the place to gain vocational skills—and they are accordingly resentful of requirements that do not connect directly to jobs. Increasingly, as a response, colleges and universities seek to cloak all courses and programs in vocational garbs. “Knowledge for knowledge sake” is a dirty phrase. Of course, with the vocational terrain ever more uncertain in the decades ahead, this move may be ill-considered, if not counterproductive.

5. Suspicion of, or downright contempt for, cultivation of the life of the mind: It would be misleading to suggest that scholarship and academics were ever that central in American higher education—the legendary liberal arts curricula of Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and St. Johns were the exceptions that prove the rule. But nowadays, many leaders across sectors and sections of the country hide whatever scholarly knowledge they themselves have acquired, focusing laser-like on the vocational opportunities and the “cash value” of a college education. We are coming close to the time when colleges are evaluated on how much their students make—and that result would be catastrophic in my view.

It’s my hope that our colleges and universities—so long the justifiable pride of our nation—can withstand these pressures and reverse these trends. In the case of the first three issues, additional governmental funding—local, state, and/or federal—is probably essential. With respect to the last two issues, institutions of higher education must themselves take the lead—though they will need support from other sectors of the society.

It will not be easy to return to calmer days. And while history may provide a guide for dealing with some of these trends, it may be that they are unprecedented and that new or even transformative thinking may be necessary.

[1] Frederick Rudolph (author) and John Thelin (foreword), The American College and University: A History, 2nd edition (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 144.

[2] I am indebted to Philip Altbach, Robert Berdahl, Derek Bok, William Bowen, Ronald Ehrenberg, Roger Geiger, Julie Reuben, Henry Rosovsky, Sheldon Rothblatt, Frederick Rudolph, Harold Shapiro, and John Thelin for informing me about the history of higher education in America.

Categories: Blog

Pages