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Howard Gardner
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Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education / Harvard Graduate School of Education
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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

Three Messages on the “MI Front”

June 6, 2017 - 7:13am

Nowadays, most of my energies are devoted to new projects. With Wendy Fischman and other colleagues, I am studying higher education in the United States. And with Lynn Barendsen, Danny Mucinskas, and other colleagues, I am continuing work on The Good Project. In particular, we’re focused on the fostering of good work and good citizenship in young people… and in the rest of us.

That said, to this day, approximately 80% of my over-the-transom mail concerns the theory of multiple intelligences—and I can confidently predict that when I die, obituaries will feature MI. As for the MI queries, I direct people to my MI Oasis website and the FAQ document, to various readings, or to colleagues who continue to work, broadly speaking in the MI tradition. And occasionally, I provide answers myself and may post them on this site.

In the last weeks, three items have come to my attention and I thought it worthwhile to mention them:

1. Neural networks dedicated to social processing:

When MI theory was first introduced, almost 35 years ago, the most convincing line of evidence was the existence in the brain of neural zones that are particularly dedicated to specific kinds of contents. At the time, the neural evidence was quite schematic because methods of monitoring the brain were still quite rough and imprecise. Nowadays, it is possible to get far more precise evidence—and in a recent article in Science, we find evidence of the neural systems in monkeys dedicated specifically to the content of social information. For a non-technical summary, click here.

In this context, I should also mention the work of Branton Shearer and Jessica Karanian, who have provided far more up-to-date information about the neural correlates of each of the several intelligences. See this link.

2. Genes for intelligence:

Ever since the concept of genes were introduced early in the 20th century, at about the same time that the psychometric examination of intelligence was launched, investigators have searched for the gene or the genes of intelligence. As with the discovery of evidence for neural correlates of specific intelligences (like interpersonal intelligence), the physicality of a biological marker is persuasive particularly (as it happens) to American audiences.

It’s long been clear that there are genes for intelligence, as measured by psychologists (“g” for general intelligence), and it’s also been clear that many genes are involved—often hundreds or even thousands have been cited.

Nonetheless, as reported in Nature Genetics on May 22, it is progress in the genetics of intelligence that recently 52 genes have been identified as contributing to psychometric intelligence. It’s estimated that these genes account for 5% of the variance in measured intellect—of course, leaving 95% unaccounted for.

I have to emphasize that this discovery does not have any particular relevance to MI theory. We still have little idea of whether strength in, say, musical, or spatial, or interpersonal (social) intellect is based largely, somewhat, or minimally on psychometric intellect. And that is because psychometric intellect is primarily a measure of linguistic and logical abilities, with spatial abilities sometimes included as well.

My own speculation is that there will be some overlap, but there will clearly be specific genes or gene complexes that are implicated in one intelligence and that these will not be identical with those genes or gene complexes are implicated in other intelligences. Put concretely, the genes that contribute to traditional IQ will be different from those that contribute to musical or athletic or social talent.

And even if I am wrong, even if the correlation across intelligences turns out to be quite high, this fact does not undermine MI theory. And that is because we still need to understand why specific individuals can be strong in intelligences A and B, and not in C , D, or E, while others can exhibit the opposite profile. And the explanation is likely to lie in the importance (or unimportance) attached to a specific skill in a given society, the amount of resources devoted to its cultivation, and the excellence of the teaching and modelling. Put concretely, if a society values music, teaches it well, and individuals are highly motivated, the population will be musically intelligent as a whole—think Finland, think Hungary.

I believe that we will continue to accrue evidence for the scientific validity of MI theory. But in the end, its status as a scientific claim is not identical to its significance for education. The latter goal has to be determined by teachers, and others involved in education—which, as it happens, is all of us.

3. An unlikely award for me:

On May 26, I learned by email that I had been selected as the 2017 winner of the Mensa Lifetime Achievement Award, for “contributions to the field of human intelligence and related subjects.” It’s always pleasurable to get an award and particularly one that was not expected. Moreover, I looked over the previous winners, and they are all respectable scholars of intelligence.

Still, the receipt of the award has a certain irony. Mensa is the organization for individuals who have documented high IQs—and if I am known at all within psychology, it is as a critic of the concept of IQ, particularly as a variable used to explain a whole cluster of human outcomes. Moreover, I have sometimes quipped that individuals in Mensa spend time congratulating one another on their high IQ scores—a comment that is not a sign of respect, I have to admit.

But I would never have studied cognition, and would never have developed and enunciated a theory of intelligence, if I did not think that the topic was an important one—indeed, one of the most importance in psychology. And in that vein, I am happy to accept the award and to hope that, going forward, we can continue to explore the relationship between the traditional views of intellect and more iconoclastic ones.

-Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

Mind-Changing Books: The Mind on Paper

May 30, 2017 - 8:33am

In the first blog of this series on education, I wrote about Werner Jaeger’s Paideia. This three-volume work from the 1930s and 1940s details the invention in the Greek era of the kind of “question-pondering” education that I value. I recently read through these volumes for the first time, and they made a deep impression on me.

In this companion piece, I write about another book that has impacted me significantly. It is a recently authored book by my friend and colleague David Olson.

David Olson is a psychologist and cognitive scientist with an enduring interest in education, and particularly in literacy education. We all recognize that the human species made a huge leap when, sometime in the last fifty thousand years, our powers of expressive and receptive spoken oral language first emerged. As homo sapiens, we became able to express in words what we were thinking or conceptualizing (on the likely assumption that we actually had thoughts); to speak to and convince others about what was happening and how we thought about it; and, perhaps as well, to reflect on our own thinking.

A second epochal step occurred when, about 5000 years, writing was invented in the Middle East. In addition to expressing ourselves orally, those of us who were literate could write down for future reference our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our financial transactions, and, for that matter, our shopping and laundry lists. Think The Iliad, The Odyssey, the code of Hammurabi, and indeed the holy scriptures of various religions. Equally, those in our midst (and even those far away) who were literate could read what we had written and form reactions and judgments. While Plato and Socrates were critical of the proliferation of the written word—because it appeared to threaten human powers of memory—the capacity to read and write became desirable and treasured. It was the pressure to obtain literacies—in the mother tongue, in classical languages (read or spoken), in numbers and other forms of mathematical symbolization—that led initially to the widespread opening of institutions and settings that merit the label “schools.”

The invention of the printing press represented a major milestone: no longer was literacy restricted to specially-trained male scribes—it became widespread in any society with the means and the motivation to print and spread written words. In fact, in nineteenth-century England, It’s estimated that, each week, 10% of the adult population read a serialized chapter of the current novel by Charles Dickens (quite possibly drafted only a week before).

In two mind-opening books, The World on Paper (1994) and The Mind on Paper (2016), David Olson delineates the tremendous capacities conferred on individuals when they become truly and wholly literate. Not only can they sound out words (e.g. C-A-T denotes and means cat). Not only can they read and understand a sentence in a book (e.g. “The cat has four legs and a tail”). Ultimately—and this is the powerful point demonstrated by Olson—if they (we) continue to read and to become members of a genuinely literate society, they (we) come to think in a totally different way.

Consider some examples. If I say, “The cat has four legs and a tail,” you can look at the cat and see whether I am right or wrong. But if I say, ”Homer said that the cat has four legs and a tail,” you immediately hesitate because Homer was reportedly blind. Or if I say “The cat has no tail,” you either think that I am blind or that I am speaking about an unusual cat. To use the technical term, I’ve introduced the notion of a propositional attitude. It’s not a question of whether the cat has a tail per se; it’s a question of who made the statement, for what reason, on what evidence, and with what desired impact.

Now the previous exchanges could occur in a non-literate society. But in the absence of a written record, it’s difficult to recall who said what, when, and why. Literacy allows us to pin down claims, to ascertain who made them, and to draw at least tentative conclusions about their veracity. Otherwise, it’s just my words against yours (I say “words,” but in a preliterate society, the very concept of “words” does not even exist—nor does it exist for toddlers even today).

It’s not that difficult to understand that individuals make statements and that these individuals can be challenged on whether those statements are true or false or indeterminate—and how we might ascertain which is the case. The genuine sea change occurs when one goes through life perpetually thinking in terms of the nature of claims, on whose warrant, with what authority, and how one might substantiate or challenge those claims. Nowadays, in any learned profession (as opposed to a craft or skill), much of the education and much of the discourse takes place via statements of the sort that I mentioned—who made them, why, with what consequence, and with what sequel. The nature of science changed—indeed, one could say that science was actually invented—not when individuals observed nature, nor when they conducted experiments, nor when they discussed them with friends, but when they wrote about what they had done. Only by virtue of public­ation did they subject their claims to discussion, to argument, and to confirmation or refutation by others who read those words and accompanying symbols and reacted in a publishable manner—also in terms of words and other symbols, like mathematical, musical, or other forms of graphic notation.

To drive home this crucial point, let me use two familiar examples. The first comes from the kinds of standardized tests that we have come to take for granted today in developed societies. The student reads a paragraph or two and has to answer questions about the paragraphs. Rarely if ever is the students asked simply to state whether the sentence(s) are true or false. Rather, the successful student needs to be able to think in terms of the author and reader—and answer questions like, “The author probably believes…“, “In view of what you’ve read, the next section of the essay will address”, or “Which of the following phrases is least likely to be the subtitle for the essay?” Such questions, depending on whether you select the “correct answer” of 4-5 offered alternatives, can determine whether you are admitted to the college or graduate program of your choice. Successful performance depends upon your being able to take what Olson terms a meta-representational stance: understand the author, his or her propositional attitudes, what kind of an argument is being made, and what is likely or unlikely to follow from it. Truth and falsity of individual sentences have nothing to do with such questions. Indeed, one can make valid or invalid inferences even if the entire paragraph consists of statements that are false.

Moving from the classroom to the political campaign, many observers (including, presumably many readers of this blog—I am being meta-representational here) believed that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. presidency, perhaps handily. But insightful analyst Salena Zito—one clearly capable of meta-representational thinking—asserted, “Hillary supporters took Trump literally, not seriously,” while “Trump supporters took Trump seriously but not literally.” In Olson’s terms, Hillary supporters listened to the words that Trump spoke, realized that many of his assertions were false or fatuous, thought about what followed or did not follow from those assertions, and so dismissed his candidacy. In contrast (according to this line of argument), Trump supporters did not listen to him the way that a highly literate would read another—not word for word, not sentence by sentence, not in terms of implications and consequences. Rather, paying scant attention to specific claims and implications, the Trump supporters discerned the emotional force, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” being portrayed, and the underlying points that Trump was intimating—and proved sympathetic to those implicit messages.

Put another way, many Trump supporters listened right through the words and attended to the underlying meaning, much like someone who was not reared in a literate world (which of course is not to say that they were illiterate—though it is worth noting that Trump, while literate, does not read books and claims to love “the poorly educated”). In contrast, many Clinton supporters, as readers who spend much of their times living in the meta-representational land of linguistic implications, insisted on listening to the phrases, connecting them to the speaker of the propositions, and then passing judgments on whether or not the statements were warranted and what implications and conclusions followed from their premises.

These are two different stances to spoken (and written) language. Language has literal meaning as well as underlying force. Ideally, one is able to attend to both forms of meaning—indeed, the classical study of rhetoric, dating back to classical times, focuses on convincing people and not on being literally accurate. But it’s important to know what kind of an endeavor one is involved in and not to misdirect one’s efforts or conclusions. Just as literal truthfulness and warranted inferences may not count for much in a political campaign, outsized rhetoric is inappropriate in a scientific article. Indeed, current work in cognitive psychology by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argues that we develop reasons in order to convince and not to be truthful. Evolutionarily, that assertion may be accurate; but the entire thrust of science, if not of scholarship altogether, is to transcend arguments that are merely powerful in favor of devising explanations that stand the test of time.

As I have just hinted, there’s much more to say about each of these books, and I continue to ponder their messages and their implications. I believe that Olson pursued his work without attention to Werner Jaeger’s writings about the origins of classical education and of course Jaeger, who died in 1961, could not have known about Olson’s writings. And yet I see them as integrally related. Olson could not have thought what he thought or written what he had written in the absence of the habits of mind and word that were initially enabled by the Greeks (recall the titles of Olson’s books The World on Paper and The Mind on Paper). For his part, despite his erudition, Jaeger carried out his analyses before cognitive psychology and cognitive science had emerged. And so he could not have anticipated and explicated the changes of thinking and representation wrought by the written world and how his world—and indeed our worlds—have been remade as a consequence.

Categories: Blog

Mind-Changing Books: Paideia

May 15, 2017 - 9:44am

Which books influence us the most?

Sometimes they are books that grab our interest initially and hold it firmly until we have finished the last sentence—and we then tell others about the book and, before too long, we re-read the book and discover far more than we had initially believed to be there. (Recently many young people, as well as others across the age span, have had that experience with the Harry Potter series.)

Sometimes they are books that we sense are important—though we are not quite sure why—and as we return to the books, we find that our initial intuitions were correct. That was my experience with Moby Dick. (Of course it can work the other way as well—sometimes the seduction is immediate but turns out to be superficial and transitory.)

There’s another, profound way in which we can be influenced by books. Occasionally, we encounter books that are so powerful that they become our way of apprehending the world. And precisely because they have that “world making” power, we may actually forget the book or minimize its importance—the so-called “anxiety of influence” that make poets repress recognition and acknowledgement of their most powerful models. When I was in high school, I read and was profoundly affected by the writings of American historian Richard Hofstadter, particularly his essays in The American Political Tradition. A few years later, when I was in college, I read and re-read many essays by the American critic Edmund Wilson. (Indeed, I even invited Wilson to dine with students at Quincy House at Harvard—and I’ve saved his handwritten declination.) I did not repress the names of Hofstadter or Wilson. But I did not fully appreciate their influence until I myself began to write essays and came to admire their exquisite talents—plunging the reader directly into the topic and conveying powerful and often difficult ideas in concise and evocative prose.

Though I have been involved in education for decades, I recently read two books that have generated considerable reflection on my part. One book I had known about for many years. Indeed, I had scanned it twenty five years ago but did not study it until the summer of 2016 (this is an example of a publication whose importance is initially sensed but not understood until a later time). The other book, read early in 2017, is by a friend and colleague of many years; it serves as an example of a work whose significance is immediately grasped. Both books have catalyzed me think more deeply (and, I hope, more trenchantly) about education.

In this and in the succeeding blog, I describe these influential writings.

I begin with Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, a three volume study published in 1930s and 1940s by the German classicist Werner Jaeger. This formidable achievement details how, over the course of a few centuries, the Greeks invented education as we have come to know it and, in many cases (including my own), to cherish it.

At first blush, it may seem aberrant to talk about the “invention of education.” Haven’t human beings always educated the young? In fact, don’t other species also engage in rearing and in modelling desirable and discouraging inappropriate behavior on the part of the young? And if we look at other great civilizations (the so-called “axial civilizations” that emerged in the millennium before Christ), do they not also educate? Aren’t The Ten Commandments themselves a powerful educational vehicle and recipe?

Jaeger asks us to step back and consider the contents, the aims, and the means that characterize what the Greeks accomplished in a brief span of time. To make this concrete, we should think about the achievements of Socrates, Aristotle, and particularly Plato. The Greeks thought about education quite explicitly: they pondered the ultimate aims of education, both for the broad range of young people (males, to be sure) and for those who would presumably become leaders of the society. They described institutions—in Plato’s case, an Academy—in which such education should take place. They devised methods (prominently, the Socratic method of asking questions which are often definitional, enigmatic, or paradoxical and reflecting on the appropriateness and validity of the various answers that were proposed). Perhaps most importantly, they envisioned education as a lifelong process in which one probed important questions about the meaning and purpose of life, what it means to lead a good life, how to launch well and continue to grow and deepen the body, the mind, and the spirit. When Socrates interrogated himself and others about what makes a society just, or what it means for a statement to be true, or what virtues to cultivate, and how, and why, he was engaging in cherished human activities—which at least on an explicit level—had not been pursued before.

Let me now edit the statement that I made earlier. When I speak about “education as we know it,” I am actually talking about education in the West, and particularly that part of the world that was influenced by classical Greece, classical Rome, and the societies that emulated them in succeeding centuries (monastic, medieval, and especially Renaissance). It is certainly possible to have a different kind of education—one based on obedience, or on repetition, or on rewards and punishment, or focused on military might, or, less grandly, on hunting, fishing, gathering, or tending the field. But I am targeting education that involves young people sitting around a (literal or metaphoric) table, typically led by an older and more knowledgeable person, in which nutritious and weighty questions are raised; different opinions are solicited and elicited; some kind of tentative conclusion or synthesis is sought and sometimes achieved while at the same time new sluices of thought are opened up for contemplation.  While the class or seminar is finite, the process is not—it’s assumed that new questions will arise, new problems will be identified, various responses will emerge, and the conversation will continue and perhaps deepen, even over the generations.

This process will be familiar to readers of these words. And yet, if you are the way that I was, you will not have pondered how this process has come about, what is needed to do it well, how to sustain it, and why it might one day disappear—and at what costs. Indeed, a first order of business for autocrats and totalitarians is to shut off these marks of a liberal arts education—as indeed the citizens of Athens did with respect to Socrates, around 399 B.C. (If you are now thinking about contemporary America, you are not alone.)

As one who had known peripherally about Jaeger for some time, I’ve become curious about why his work is not better known and more discussed. This is a particularly provocative question because Jaeger had considerable influence on two great historians of American education—the historian of colonial America, Bernard Bailyn, and the historian of pre-collegiate education in the United States, Lawrence Cremin.

I suggest three answers: 1) The three volumes are large and quite technical, filled with Greek phrases, and may well be seen as contributions to classical studies, rather than to education; 2) Jaeger was a German national whose original volume was published in Germany early during the Third Reich, and while he (and his Jewish wife) moved to the United States in the late 1930s, and Jaeger became a respected university professor in this country, the stigma of having been reared and having taught in Germany may have unfairly cast a pall over his works; and 3) Perhaps Jaeger overemphasized or misrepresented the uniqueness of the Greek contribution to education as we know it. At any rate, in English, there is virtually no secondary material on Jaeger or his remarkable accomplishment.

Just as Jaeger’s Paideia opened my eyes to the proposition that “education in the Western tradition” was essentially invented on a few islands in the Mediterranean over two thousand years ago, my contemporary David Olson has alerted me to the kinds of assumptions that highly literate people routinely make and indeed take for granted but which are not accessible to those without such an education—resulting in a gulf that can be very troubling.

In the next blog, I discuss Olson’s powerful book The Mind on Paper.

Categories: Blog

Introduction to “Life-Long Learning: A Blog in Education”

May 15, 2017 - 8:47am

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I have spent my entire life in education. Indeed, from the time that I went to preschool at the home of “Aunt Eunice and Uncle Gar” (not relatives) in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s, I’ve been in school: K-12, college, doctoral, and postdoctoral studies, then teaching and professing over the last decades.

My relation to education has been unusual. When I was a child, I imagined that as an adult, I would be a teacher and would teach each of the grades from kindergarten through high school. (I doubt that this fantasy is common!) In high school, college, and graduate school, I gave piano lessons from time to time. When a doctoral student in developmental psychology, I took the unusual step of teaching a K-2 class in the Newton, Massachusetts, public school system (I was not very good). Even though my scholarly identity has been chiefly as a social scientist, I’ve been affiliated for fifty years with the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Harvard—beginning as a founding member of Harvard Project Zero (which is currently celebrating its 50th year), co-directing Project Zero for nearly thirty years, and then, since the middle 1980s, serving as a member of the GSE senior faculty.

All that said, I did not begin to focus on education as a topic of study until the publication in 1983 of my book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Having directed that book to my fellow developmental and cognitive psychologists, I had not anticipated the enormous interest on the part of educators, particularly those involved in K-12 education. (By coincidence, 1983 was also the date of the publication of A Nation at Risk, probably the most influential white paper in education ever issued in the United States. For the first time in decades, K-12 education moved to the fore of American policy discussions, where it has remained ever since). Both of those events nudged me toward a greater focus in my research and teaching on education—and that, too, has remained over the years.

In this new blog, titled “Life-Long Learning: A Blog in Education,” I want to step back—and venture forward—to consider various issues of education and life-long learning. As with my previous blog “The Professional Ethicist,” I hope to engage colleagues in discussions, and I invite readers and colleagues to submit blogs as well.

Since 2013, with Wendy Fischman, Richard Light, and other colleagues, I’ve been engaged in a national study of higher education. As the collection of data draws to a close in the coming months, and we begin to analyze the data, we will post blogs in which we discuss both concepts and findings. At least for a while, this blog will focus on higher education in the United States.

But throughout, I would like this blog to range widely. And so, to start it off, I am devoting the first two blogs to books that I read in recent months—works that have had a large effect on my thinking.

My first post in this series, titled “Mind-Changing Books: Paideia,” is available by clicking here. The blog will be posted on this website under the category “Life-Long Learning: A Blog in Education.” Announcements of new blogs will be made on my Twitter @DrHowardGardner.

Categories: Blog

Lectures on Intelligence, Creativity, and Leadership

May 4, 2017 - 7:51am

In January 2017, Howard Gardner delivered a series of three lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. These lectures revisited three topics that Gardner has studied over many years: intelligence, creativity, and leadership. Having written books about each of these threads (see his work on MI, Creating Minds, and Leading Minds), about half of each lecture was devoted to summarizing the work he has carried out over the decades. However, in the latter part of each lecture, he presented his recent ideas and thematic conclusions.  

HGSE has now posted via YouTube the latter half of each lecture, corresponding with the sections that contain new content. We are sharing these videos below.




For those who may be interested in learning more, or in reviews of Gardner’s earlier work, please peruse this website or visit our official MI site at multipleintelligencesoasis.org. You can also visit thegoodproject.org or view the various other lectures and interviews posted online.

Categories: Blog

“Five Minds for the Future” Interview

April 17, 2017 - 11:39am

Howard Gardner’s 2009 book Five Minds for the Future describes five specific dispositions that will be important for people to master in the future. These five capacities are:

  • the disciplined mind,
  • the synthesizing mind,
  • the creating mind,
  • the respectful mind, and
  • the ethical mind.

In the fourth edition of the Spanish-language periodical Plurilingüismo e Innovación Educativa, Gardner participated in an English-language interview about these five minds and their integration.

Click here to read a PDF of the full piece.

Categories: Blog

Recommendation Inflation

April 5, 2017 - 12:04pm

Letters of recommendation are a standard requirement of most academic and program admission applications, and most people have either written one or had one written for them in their lives. But are letters of recommendation an honest appraisal of the candidates and applicants that they describe?

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Howard Gardner argues in a blog post that letter-writers can rarely be frank about the flaws or shortcomings of candidates for fear of harming their chances of admission on employment. This leads to “letter inflation,” in which most if not all recommendations have a positive slant. These letters, then, have lost their usefulness as truthful descriptions.

What can the writers of letters of recommendation do about this situation? Gardner offers a few points of advice, including refusing to complete rank orderings and checklists along with a letter, making clear and descriptive statements about the subject, and being prepared to say “no” when asked to write a letter for people you do not know well.

Click here to read the piece via the Chronicle.

Categories: Blog

Spreading Scientific Understanding

March 23, 2017 - 1:36pm

“What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”

This was the question asked of a number of experts by Edge.org, a website published and edited by author John Brockman, at the start of 2017.

Howard Gardner answered that historiometrics, the field of study that explores human progress and the differences in individual and societal characteristics, should be more widely known. He gives an overview of the history of this realm and questions, “Has the moment for historiometry finally arrived?”

Click here to read Gardner’s response and those of the other contributors.

Categories: Blog

MI and Habits of Mind in Arts Education

March 10, 2017 - 11:39am

Howard Gardner and Ellen Winner discuss their respective research on multiple intelligences and arts education, as well as how these two lines of work fit together, in a newly-released short video.

Gardner is most known for the theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that humans have a single measurable intelligence, such as an IQ. Instead, the brain is analagous to a set of computers, each processing different information. His theory currently takes eight discrete intelligences into account.

Winner is supportive of arts education and has researched that realm extensively, coming to the conclusion that there is little evidence for claims that education in the arts improves overall test scores. Instead, the conversation around arts education should be changed, which she and her colleague Lois Hetland attempted to do by studying habits of mind in studio art classrooms.

In the video below, these two lines of work are explained and related to one another. Click to watch the full recording.

Categories: Blog

Gardner and Winner on Future Trends

March 1, 2017 - 1:30pm

Howard Gardner and Ellen Winner have both contributed to John Brockman’s 2017 book Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments

The book is a collection of brief contributions from leading thinkers about the trends in science and society that are most important for everyone to understand.

In her contribution, Winner discusses the issue of replicability of psychological experiments, stressing that replicating results is a cornerstone of scientific consensus and encouraging journals to be more discerning in their publication of results. A more rigorous approach will increase the field of psychology’s reputation.

Gardner talks about the changing conceptions of what it means to be human with the rise of intelligent machinery that may one day overpower the human race.

Click here to read both contributions, and find out more about Know This via Amazon.

Categories: Blog