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College Quarterly
Spring 2012 - Volume 15 Number 2
Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-first Century
Howard Gardner
New York: Basic Books, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I don’t know this for sure, and I grant that there are lots of contenders for the title—not least the late Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999)—but, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Howard Gardner is the most influential writer about education today. Mark you, I didn’t say the best, but rather the one whose ideas have most modified contemporary pedagogy at all levels from early childhood education at least to undergraduate university. In fact, I’d be willing to wager the inflated price of a cup of coffee on the matter (no lattés, of course).

If Bloom altered the way that many of us evaluate students (learning outcomes and all that), Gardner altered the way that many of us teach them (learning styles and all that). I’m not crazy about either pedagogical innovation, but I can’t deny that these two fellows have made a very big difference.

Now Howard Gardner has a new book, also destined to change sensitivities in the teaching profession—though probably not as much as his previous efforts. After all, pandering to people who like to learn by hearing or seeing or doing can have marketable consequences for the corporate purveyors of “truth, beauty and goodness,” but they do not fit easily into the complete corporate reform package. Those who are out to reshape teaching and learning now focus on abandoning certification for elementary school teachers, encouraging mainly religiously based private schools, getting rid of academic freedom, tenure and teachers’ unions, replacing full-time educators with “contingent” faculty, promoting standardized testing in basic literacy, math and science (sans evolution in certain parts of the United States), and turning curriculum development and teacher training over to private sector suppliers. In fact, just resurrecting such concepts as truth, beauty and goodness and making them the subject of discussion is an important gesture, and one that might alarm the authorities.

Who knows? Perhaps Gardner’s reputation and credibility will allow his latest contribution to stimulate some useful conversations among educators and their employers, though not necessarily with the results that he would expect or want.

I am, as suggested, sceptical of the so-called paradigm shifts inherent in both Gardnerian teaching techniques and in Bloomian student evaluation methods; but, I am even more sceptical when someone starts talking about “virtues” with the aim of introducing them into school, college and university curricula. It’s not that I oppose the idea that students should wrestle with questions of truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and so on; in fact, I’m all for it. But I do I worry when I hear or read what too often happens when such matters (sometimes called “values education” or “character building”) are put in the hands of educational management, bureaucrats and like-minded others. So, when Gardner puts truth, beauty and goodness right up front in his title, I am hopeful that a good discussion will follow, but I am also anxious about what will happen if the authorities get interested and decide to adopt and adapt the teaching of “virtues” for actual classroom use.

There is, of course, a preliminary problem that might only catch the attention of pernickety curmudgeons like me, but let’s get one thing straight right away: to my way of thinking, truth, beauty and goodness are not virtues—either by Plato’s standards or even those of Baden-Powell, Frank Buchman’s Moral Re-Armament movement or contemporary cases of “Character Communities” that are sprouting like mushrooms on the decaying body of North American optimism.

Virtues have to do with high moral or ethical qualities and practices. They are attributes of individuals or groups of people. They are observable in our actions. They are a step up from mere “values,” which imply considerable latitude for personal choice and almost limitless compromise; but they are not the transcendent and eternal criteria according to which our behaviour can be judged. They are at best the embodiment of those criteria in perception and action.

Truth, for example, is an attribute of a statement, not a person. Truth is therefore not a virtue, but truthfulness or honesty might be. In fact, honesty, courage, modesty, frugality, temperance, sincerity and the like could easily qualify as human virtues in particular societies at particular times. But truth itself? Whose truth? And beauty? Beheld in whose eyes? And goodness? I’m sorry, but I am (pace Immanuel Kant and his far-famed categorical imperative) far too much of a cultural relativist to imagine that we can come up with a universal test of goodness. For the military hero, it might be demonstrated in the patriotic act of killing enemy soldiers; for the pacifist, it might be displayed in the principled refusal to do so. Neither act is a manifestation of goodness per se; it is nothing less but also nothing more than what is judged to be good according to personal conscience and social norms.

Truth, beauty and goodness are personally constructed or socially sanctioned criteria according to which various attitudes, actions, beliefs, behaviour or at least intentions can be measured. Our actions are to be distinguished from the standards by which they are judged. Virtues are not immutable forms or archetypes of disembodied “goodness,” alone. They are not remote from the messy, ambiguous and sometimes self-contradictory beliefs and behaviour of humankind. They are qualities that we display or, more often, fail to display in our real lives.

Having, at least to my own satisfaction, established at the outset that Gardner doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I am happy to suspend judgement on the matter and see what he actually says.

Gardner is mainly concerned with what he regards as the moral limbo into which we have been cast by postmodernism. He is afraid of nihilism and imagines it to be the logical consequence of relativism. He wants to “reframe” virtue so that it will once again permit us a valid moral compass to guide us into a reconstructed or at least a salvaged civilization.

Gardner is particularly eager to re-establish virtue as a matter of practical importance, and to rally the insights of various branches of human knowledge in support of his project. He is open to arguments from the social sciences, the humanities and the natural (especially the life) sciences. He perceives his task to be as crucial not just to the survival of civilization, but also to the moral justification of the human societies that share it. He thinks that virtues are in jeopardy: “The trio of virtues,” he intones, “while unquestionably under attack, remains essential to the human experience and, indeed, to human survival. They must not and will not be abandoned.”

Gardner explains himself further: the purpose of education, he says, is “to inculcate in students a sense of what is true and what is false; what is beautiful and what is boring or repugnant and what is good and what is evil.” Obstacles to this fundamental creed come from many sources. Among them, the most prominent are raised by postmodernists who challenge the reality of his specified virtues and of virtue in general. They can be found in large number on the Internet which produces not “truth” but virtual, multiple and infinitely negotiable realities. Specifically, he asks: “How to determine truth, when any entry on Wikipedia can be changed? What happens to canons of beauty when one has access to literally millions of works, any of which can be seen by the click of a mouse? How does one determine what’s good in cyberspace, where long-held views of privacy, ownership and trust seem anachronistic.”

I will refrain from demanding answers to the obvious questions:

  • What does the flexibility of an Internet device have to do with the “truth”?
  • How can more access to art imply the destruction of “beauty”?
  • How do privacy and intellectual property rights affect what it “good”?

The equally obvious answers, it seems to me, give the impression that Gardner is somewhat given to a preternatural snobbery that does not sit well with his generally positive attitudes toward democracy, equity and other liberal ideals. Still, I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

At first, the overall tone of his book is reassuring. Gardner’s multidisciplinarity is put to good use as he tries to convince a generation of teachers and learners, which may have lost faith in traditional sources of wisdom, that human inquiry, provides a satisfactory basis for truth claims. The search for truth using disciplined scholarship, rigorous empirical research and the practical arts of medicine, law and other professions can, he says, compose an adequate foundation for authentic knowledge.

Gardner maintains that what we sometimes call technologically mediated “information overload” makes it difficult to discern what is true and what is false. He nonetheless acknowledges that, with “patience and persistence,” we can sort such matters out. Information technology may actually confuse us more than it enlightens us, of course, and this should bother educators, especially when young people have little experience with actual books, never mind primary sources, and foolishly imagine that Googling a keyword and accessing Wiki is all that’s needed for academic research, Nonetheless, I suppose that, as “guides on the side” of present-day educational practice, we are encouraged to assist students to parse complex multimedia utterances in search of truth, to help winkle it from the murky darkness and to aid them as they try to decide which bits of the competing information and idea bytes are authoritative and generally considered to be  reliable. If the results are less than optimal, we can comfort ourselves with the realization that any apparent decline in academic standards is not entirely the students’ fault, and that teachers generally do little permanent harm as we seek to promote academic conventions that will have positive practical effects for any student willing to make an effort.

Gardner’s anxiety about postmodernism is a more serious matter. It doesn’t take long, however, for him to make the best of it. And what a “best” there is! In the olden days, says Gardner, there were only three television networks. It wasn’t exactly totalitarianism, but the sources of news were technologically and ideologically limited. Now, he enthuses, “we have a better sense of figuring out the truth than ever before.” Of course, we can’t expect people to come up with a synthetic truth by fairly balancing Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, al-Jazeera and the BBC World News, surfing a host of websites reading books and magazines and chatting with our infinity of “friends” on Facebook. No, what’s needed is a willingness to study current events (or history) in depth. We have “to learn to think like a disciplinarian.” So, at least, teachers still have a role, presumably “modeling” disciplinary thinking; but the nature and effectiveness of such communication remain obscure.

Still, unlike the jeremiads of those who, in the late 1980s and 1990s, foresaw the “closing of the American mind,” Gardner takes up the torch of the liberal arts and plunges into the shadows, apparently confident of bringing light to all who are prepared to see. The old fogies who wept as Plato went out of fashion and Nietzsche was thought to be gaining popular favour, at least in the antique eyes of professors of philosophy a the University of Chicago and its outposts, including the Straussians at the University of Toronto, may be content to lament the passing of the old, print-based intellectual order; but Howard Gardner will have none of that. He buys into a good deal of the talk about the tech-savvy millennial generation, and seems convinced that there remains a place for people of a certain age to assist the cyberlearners as they more or less randomly plop down on this or that website in the attempt to learn about the French Revolution, the Periodic Table of Elements, the paintings of El Greco or the best way to write a résumé.

Gardner’s treatment of beauty shifts gears and ground all at the same time. Here he seems like a total technophiliac. By means of ingenious “apps,” he says, students can educate their own sensibilities. They can assemble a digital portfolio of art and can create works of beauty in diverse formats and on various platforms. How this squares with his prior discomfort with the plenitude of images of paintings and sculptures and examples of the performance arts on YouTube is not well explained. The key, however, seems to be to ensure that students are well advised as they explore Earthly beauty in ethereal cyberspace. Properly prepared, they can do what Gardner says that art enthusiasts do best—they can make up their own minds about what they like. It takes a little time, he admits. “The crucial thing in making judgments about beauty us whether you can perceive the difference between experiences: one work of art and another … because you can decide which one you think is more beautiful.” And what is beautiful? It’s something that’s interesting, memorable and worthy of seeing or hearing again. It’s something that “gives you a tingle.”

Gardner does not stop at the notion that everyone should construct a digital gallery of the arts which we can revisit, share with others and discuss—perhaps with our own dedicated chat groups. He celebrates what he deems to be a qualitative improvement on the past. He grieves that the “aesthetic sensibility [of earlier generations] was necessarily circumscribed and typically parochial. Nowadays,” he gushes, “thanks to television, movies, and the web, billions of young people can see for themselves and on their own the aesthetics of many cultures. Watching MTV or surfing YouTube, they become aware of the numerous ways in which individuals can decorate themselves or one another, express themselves in line, color, story, or song …” As a result, “canons of beauty and of the arts more broadly are destined to keep changing, and young persons can participate in bringing about these changes … When it comes to beauty, or to the arts, more generally, let innumerable flowers bloom, let ten thousand tastes emerge.”

Moving on to the definition of the “good,” Gardner seems happy to rely on the injunction to treat one another with kindness, but that it isn’t quite enough. Life is complicated, he tells us. We play different roles and must live up to different expectations. Perhaps in tribal societies or small farming communities, the “Golden Rule” was sufficient. What, however, do we do when we are medical doctors confronting questions of life and death now that the definition of life and death has become elastic? How, is an executive for a multinational corporation, to square her profound commitment to civil rights with the fact that her company is engaged in lucrative business arrangements with a country that denies basic liberties to its own citizens. How are we to respond when our college initiates a policy that will have an adverse effect on students, to whom we are allegedly committed?

Gardner is trying to show how modernity imposes fragmentation and compels us all to function in morally different situations all the time. Our duties as parents, teachers, citizens, consumers, community members and so on no longer resemble (if they ever did) Robert Redfield’s account of small, intimate “folk societies,” in which everyone thought, did and said pretty much the same thing.1 Distressed by postmodern theorists, Gardner seems to move into relativism by the back door of “situation ethics.”

Now, he suggests, we must somehow “reframe” our ethics and morals to meet the challenges of complexity, while remaining somehow true to an admittedly fuzzy notion of “goodness,” but without succumbing to postmodernism and its evil companion, nihilism. Though not entirely consistent, Gardner is certainly upbeat. We must, he avers, take note of advances in science and medicine that appear to be defining the nature of the good in contemporary society. Perhaps we should also commit to memory the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How this is a buffer against cultural relativism is uncertain. After all, as any feminist worth her salt knows, balancing women’s rights and freedom of religion (especially when the religion in question endorses the brutal treatment of mothers and daughters, and denies them elementary civil rights) can get tricky.

With caution, commitment and the advice of educators who might actually have read some of the books by those Eurocentric dead white males or at least have interiorized some of the scientific method and basic logic, there seems to be a bright future—Internet and all. And here’s where I must finally dissent.

Howard Gardner, it seems to me, is troubled by the present and anxious about the future. But he doesn’t want to seem like a  killjoy. He dares not lash out against (or even subtly undermine) what appear to be ineluctable trends in society and technology. He wants, above all, to keep the conversation going, to keep in touch, to remind the ether-wanderers that there are people (teachers) devices (books?) available to help them chart their course. They might not find out where they’re going, but they might learn where they came from and that could help a little bit.

What would help more?

Well, I’d suggest a little history and a little political economy, some critical theory and a relentless interrogation of power relationships—domestic, regional and global as well as personal, social and cultural. I’d want to bring the three “virtues” into the context of social structure and ideology. I’d want to introduce a critique of technology itself.

Howard Gardner is, as far as his written words reveal, a very nice man. His heart is in what is as close to the right place as our frenzied “lifestyle” and dilapidated ethics detectors allow. But, he’s sitting at the centre of the largest technological empire the world has seen, in the middle of the biggest economic crime the world has experienced, with wars on many fronts and an ecological crisis (a real one) not far off. And in the midst of this maelström, he worries about “postmodernism” and finds salvation on YouTube?

Howard Gardner’s reputation alone will ensure that his ideas will be given serious attention. If he succeeds in starting conversations about morals, ethics and virtues, he will have done a singular service. Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed, however, must be understood as a conversation starter, not by any means its completion.

Note:

1. Robert Redfield, “The Folk Society,” American Journal of Sociology 52(4), January, 1947, pp. 293-308.


Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com.

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