Howard Gardner

Doing Good and Doing Well

VTR Date: November 6, 2002

Guest: Gardner, Howard


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Howard Gardner
Title: “Doing Good and Doing Well”
VTR: 11/6/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And when my guest has joined me here before, I’ve surely had no difficulty knowing just how to introduce him. For his concept of multiple intelligences has provided such profound insights into education generally that Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard, Adjunct Professor of Neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine, and the author of many seminal studies and several hundred scholarly articles has quite appropriately been hailed as one of America’s most interesting psychologists.

Today I’ve asked my guest to talk to us about Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, the intriguing Basic Books volume he and his co-authors published just as the 9/11/2001 attack on America suggested that our nation’s ground rules might be changed forever. Indeed, I would begin The Open Mind today by asking Howard Gardner just what those ground rules appeared to be to him and his colleagues as they wrote their book and just what their “Project on Good Work” is. Fair question?

Gardner: Absolutely. Nice to be back. We defined “good work” as work, which has two criteria. One is that the work is excellent in quality, that means at expert level. The other criterion is that the work has a sense of social responsibility. That individuals who do the work are concerned about its implications for the broader society.

So if you take the example of law, we certainly have people who are very expert in law, who win a lot of cases, but perhaps they cut every corner and they take only people who have very deep pockets as clients. And we would say they were good workers in the first sense of the work.

There are also people who are very responsible in their law practice, try to take on clients that are indigent and are always trying to make sure that justice is well served and widely served. But they don’t win their cases. And so those people would be good workers in the second sense … namely people who were, try to be socially responsible, but are not as expert as they ought to be.

And in Good Work we’re looking for individuals in different professions who exemplify both aspects of the notion of goodness and we’re trying to figure how to promote good work. The subtitle in our own mind is that good work is very hard to carry out at a time when market forces are extremely powerful and we don’t have any kind of counter forces. Now markets have always existed and they’re not a bad thing in many ways. But in times past religion, ideology, family, community all served as brakes of a certain sort on rampant unabashed market forces. But because of many trends in the 20th century … decline of religion, breakdown of family and community institutions, you have … in the United States in the late 20th century probably about as pure an example of a market-driven society as one could have had anywhere.

And I’m not opposed to markets in general, but my colleagues and I, Mike, Bill Damon and I were absolutely convinced you can’t run a society simply on market forces. You can’t only educate people who are very rich; you shouldn’t only give medical care or legal protection to people who are very, very well endowed. And yet if you follow the market through … the logic of the market through to it’s ultimate … those are the only people who would get those kinds of services. So the question we ask in Good Work is “how do people want to do good work, work that’s excellent and responsible; succeed or fail when market forces are incredibly powerful and there are no counter forces of equivalent power.

Enter 9/11/2001. A force which certainly was not, on my mind, and I think not on the minds of many people were the force of ideology. Ideology of a fundamentalist sort with apparently very little money, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than millions of dollars were able to, you know, create a kind of a trauma in our country and many other parts of the world, which I think was unimaginable on September 10th, 2001.

Now I’m not in any sense arguing that that’s a good thing. I wish that we didn’t have the destructive forces that were unleashed on that day. But suddenly there is something besides the markets in the world, it’s the, it’s the allegiances of people. And allegiances can be driven by very strong ideological and religious forces. And in many ways they can beat the market to their own game. It’s been commented by many people that in 9/11 the terrorists used the technology which had been developed in a market world against us. And that was very traumatic for us to observe.

Heffner: Yes. Yet you say those forces can be used in a different way. In fact, don’t they need to be tied together with a kind of fanaticism that can never, really, combine as you suggest … excellence and ethics. Excellence in destructiveness? Yes. Do you really think that the 21st century will see the harnessing together of this drive, this incredible drive and the ethics that I know you want to go with your … the strength of ….

Gardner: Well, there are certain people who embody both of those qualities together. You and I were speaking before the program began of a man whom we both knew, John Gardner, no relation to me. To whom we, in fact, dedicated the book and I’m pleased he read the book before he died early in 2002. And not only did John Gardner embody good work, but he started more organizations than anybody else in recent American history, which were efforts to propagate good work. Just off the top of my head “Common Cause”, “The Independent Sector”, “The White House Fellows”, “The Urban Coalition”, and others too numerous for me to recall. So one answer to your question is good work always begins with individuals, but as Jean Monet who was the architect of the Common Market commented, “it begins with individuals, but it ends with institutions.” It’s those individuals who can create institutions that last beyond them who are so to speak, the vehicles for good work.

Heffner: But what do you anticipate in the 21st century that will put an end, or mark an end, if that’s not too strong a word, to what you say has been the characteristic, the startling characteristic of the 20th century, the marketplace and its dominance of our lives in all areas.

Gardner: Well, I’d be a brave man to predict that the market will, will fade away of any importance. But I think that one thing that will definitely happen is a greater realization of the way in which the fates of people all over the world are intertwined. I mean ecology is the most obvious example. But all kinds of substances which can be used destructively are, you know, they’re rampant and unless individuals find ways in which to counter the waste that we see, and the arms build-ups that we see, there won’t be a 22nd century.

I remember there was a period of, in the late 1990’s when it looked like there was a comet that might hit the world …

Heffner: MmmmHmmmm.

Gardner: … and a friend of mine commented, “for 36 hours it looked like we might actually join forces together.” And I do think that “wake-up” calls are, are one of the ways in which its happened. But let me mention something that John Gardner actually said to me. He said to me, thinking about the United States in the late twentieth century. He said, “There’s never been a time when so many young Americans are doing things which are wonderful, building organizations, doing non-profits, non-government organizations, social entrepreneur-ship,” but he added wisely and soberly, “it doesn’t add up because these young people don’t realize ultimately there has to be a political dimension to this and that involves running for office, maybe beginning a new party, something like that. And one of the things we’ve discovered in our own work with young social entrepreneurs is often they are very, very impressive in what they do, but if you ask them about being involved in politics, even voting … sometimes the answer they give is “no”. So I think one answer to your question is that the impulse toward good work, which I think almost everybody has and in young people …

Heffner: You mean “the excellence?” Or good … morally?
Gardner: Both. I would say both. I think that the impulse has to be not only nurtured and nourished but it has to be led toward things which go beyond the individual and his or her own organization. Joining forces, going to the ballot box, running candidates. And Ralph Nader would be an example of somebody about who many people have mixed opinions, but he’s always understood that ultimately if they aren’t political connections in what he does, it’s going to fall apart. And that’s part of the reason he has run, I believe, not just for President, I think .. didn’t he run for Mayor of New York at one time?

Heffner: I, I sort of blocked the name out after his destructive actions, in my estimate, in the 2000 election; I don’t want to talk about Ralph Nader. But, of course, I’m only half joking.

Gardner: But part of our Good Work Project is not to look for the answers to these problems just in the United States. Because I think one of the problems of American exceptionalism is we tend to think that we’re the avant guarde and we’re the only place that’s worth paying attention to.

So in our study of good work, which is basically a study of professionals, we have begun in the United States because that’s what we know, but we have colleagues who are working in Scandinavia on questions of good work there. And I would like nothing better than to help start a cottage revolution all over the world where people ask, “What is good work in our culture? How can it be fostered?” And also the other side of the coin … what is bad work and how does bad work come to being?

Because I don’t believe, and maybe you and I differ in our intuitions here … that people want to be bad workers, bad workers would be ones who are out only for themselves and who are willing to be destructive. But I think often institutional forces, the place you go to work at … if there is a “norm” there of shoddy work or work that is frankly criminal, it’s very, very hard for most people to break away. I mean that’s the interesting issue about accounting. I quipped, in the end of the 20th century before we wrote the Good Work book, I quipped, “you know if markets control everything, in the end there’s only going to be one profession left, and that’s accounting. Because accounting is what tells us whether the books have been cooked or not.” I thought it was a joke.

Of course in the beginning of the 21st century we discovered it’s not a joke and that the major accounting firms, they used to be called “The Big Five”, but they’re falling fairly rapidly, had no problems with cooking the books because they were in cahoots with very large and overly rapacious firms like Enron and WorldCom and Tyco and Global Crossing, and so on.

And the identification of problems with accounting plus the resulting meltdown in the stock market is something an awful lot of people noticed in America. Now we could say, “Well, just a few bad apples, things will be okay.” But we could ask, also, the question that we’re interested in is, “what takes young people, puts them in a firm, accounting firm, journalism … outlet … medical school and either keeps them, or helps them to be good workers. Or poisons the atmosphere and makes it easy for them to be bad workers?”

One of the two professions we studied in our Good Works study was journalism. And it’s interesting fifty years ago in America people said, “You know, the problem with American press is it’s family owned and it’s very self-interested and the families are out for themselves.” It would be much better if, if journalistic outlets were owned by large corporations and they were publicly accountable. That turned out not to be the case. Most of the good print outlets are the ones that are associated with families. It’s not that they don’t want to make a profit, of course they do, but they have their name on it, they’re often in a community and they do care beyond the next quarter’s profits.

But if you’re in a newspaper and it’s owned by a conglomerate that’s owned by another conglomerate and so, the only one thing they’re looking at is “did we make more money in June than we did in March? And if not, let’s get rid of the owners.” So that kind of rudedness on the one hand in the locale, and the other hand in the profession is, is very, very important.

Heffner: What did you think about what you found in the journalistic profession. That particularly interested me. You were talking to geneticists, and you were talking to journalists.

Gardner: Well, first of all, everybody says, “why those two groups?” And a major reason was that we argued that for every human being there are two kinds of things which are very important. And we used a catch phrase “genes and meams”. Everybody knows what “genes” are and of course, your genes are very important, they determine your health and how long you will live. Not exclusively, but, you know, we, we would like to choose our genes if we could. “Meams” is a word that Richard Dawkins, the geneticist propagated; it basically means units of meaning. It’s what the ideas you have in your mind. Now we pick up ideas from all over, but anybody who wants to know what’s going on in the world has to pick up most of the ideas from journalism. Either directly by reading the newspaper or watching the television or from somebody else who does, and says, “Hey did you hear what happened in Washington or Pakistan or wherever.” So we said in a sense journalists and geneticists are the guardians of our “genes” and our “meams”, let’s talk to them to see how they’re doing with market forces.

And the result was very surprising, not one we could have predicted and that is that these two domains, as we call them, these two professions differ enormously in what we call alignment.

Genetics in the late twentieth century, when we studied it, was a very well aligned profession. That means basically everybody wanted the same thing from geneticists, namely living longer and being healthier. So everybody was rooting for the geneticists …”go for it” and nobody was putting any kind of obstacles in front of them. So geneticists were very happy and pleased with what they were doing. They loved what they were doing; the only obstacle they described was their own “finitude”. No guarantee they would do good work, but at least there was nothing pushing them to do bad work.

Totally different story with the journalists at the end of the twentieth century. They were mostly unhappy with what they were doing. Even the most successful ones felt it was very, very difficult to carry out the profession in the way they wanted to. How did they want to? According to them … our reporters in this sense, they want to be able to cover things fully, fairly, in a rounded way, inform people about things they need to be informed about. This is what they told us.

We might say that they were saying things to please us, but at the very least they knew that this would please us … they knew the lines, so to speak. But unlike the geneticists, they said, “we are thwarted. The pressures on us … they didn’t necessarily use the word “market”, but they said “competition”, if it bleeds, it leads, getting it out first, cutting corners, budgets reduced, everything for the bottom line, this is making it difficult or impossible for us to carry out our work.

We ran into only one geneticist out of a hundred who was even thinking of leaving the area, and about a third of the journalists whom we spoke to either said they want to leave or they’d like to leave. That’s a very, very dramatic difference between two professions. Post 2001 I think things changed a bit. Journalism became somewhat more wanted because when you have threat to your country, you kind of want to know about what’s happening politically and medically, it there’s an anthrax scare or a smallpox scare or there’s a chance that you may go to war.

Conversely, in the area of genetics, a bunch of things happened. A lot less money for research, particularly private money because venture capital firms say “we not making money from bio-tech companies, so we’re going to put less money into it”. Much more targeted research and scientists don’t like to be told, “you have to work on this problem”, but not that problem.

And also the beginning of genetic accidents. People dying because of genetic therapy experiments. And then it turns out that both the University and the researchers had money in that particular pharmaceutical company. And that’s what happens when the market begins to roil a profession.

A professional is a person who has a bargain with the laity, with the general public. The bargain roughly says, I will perform a service for you; I will do it in a disinterested way, meaning a neutral way. In return for this I will get a certain amount of status and autonomy. Fifty years ago people went into science because they were curious to try to understand phenomena and they thought they would be able to get the support to do this. They weren’t saints, but that’s what drove them.

Nowadays one of the reasons people go into science is to get very, very rich because you can become very, very rich in the area of biology and genetics. Not if you’re doing astrophysics or, you know, theoretical physics. What happens when the motivations for people going into a profession become strictly financial ones? Now, it may … you may say, “Gee is this exactly what I thought.” But I’m, I’m more … I guess I’m more optimistic than that. I think that when a profession gets too roiled, new professions will evolve.

Heffner: But you see … my, my bone of contention with what you say and with what you write is that you talk in terms only of market, meaning dollars. Market can mean other things. And I couldn’t help but think, and dug it up, the, the very beginning of Janet Malcolm’s … a Janet Malcolm piece in The New Yorker so many years ago. And she said, and you may not believe this … “every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech; and the public’s right to know. The least talented talk about art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.” So there are many, many, many ways in which things pay off. And I … a) I don’t see where they will pay off less in terms of dollars, the value of a by-line, of a strong story having to do with promotion and bigger dollars and salaries or the kinds of ego payoff that …

Gardner: If, if Janet Malcolm …

Heffner: … are involved here.

Gardner: … were sitting here and were willing to talk with me …

Heffner: Yeah.

Gardner: … I would ask her the four questions which we talk about in The Good Work book. I’ll tell you what the questions are and then we can discuss them further. 1) What is the mission of what you do? (As a journalist). That’s a better question than “As a New Yorker writer” because New Yorker writers do many things other than journalism. 2) Who are the people you admire, and why and who are the people whom you look down on and why? 3) When you look at yourself in the mirror, as a worker, are you proud or ashamed of what you see? And number 4) if you think about the other people in your profession, Ms. Malcolm, are you proud or ashamed of what they’re doing. And if you’re ashamed, are you doing anything about it to improve the profession as a whole?

Now, if Janet Malcolm is a complete cynic and she says, “I have no mission except to make money or to be famous. The people whom I admire are the people who have made the most money and are the most famous. When I look at myself in the mirror, I’m only upset if I haven’t got as much money and fame as I did. And I’d say the same thing to my daughter (I know she has a daughter). And finally I couldn’t care less what the other journalists do or if the New Yorker goes down the tubes.” Then we can’t have a conversation. But I think this is the cynical aspect of Janet Malcolm and if she’s anything like what I would hope she would be, there’s another side, which explains why she went into it, why does she study psychoanalysis and other topics. Whey does she write about crime?

Heffner: But she’s talking about those wonderful people, known as “they”. She’s talking about “them”. She’s talking about a profession. She’s not talking about herself. Now maybe she would answer your four questions. But I, I find that your … in dealing with journalists, you’re really accepting at face value … what are they going to say to Professor Howard Gardner? What are they going to say to him other than “We believe in these good things. We believe in doing good. Yes, we believe in doing well, but essentially we believe in doing good.”

Gardner: I think that the question is not whether everything they say is done for socially desirable purposes. The question is … are they able to think about how they could do the profession if they could do it in the way that they wanted to? And how … there’s the way that they describe their profession compare with other kinds of professions. That’s the way I think abut that as a social scientist. So, for example, one of the things we thought they might talk about was the positive aspect of civic journalism. Namely, trying to find out what the public wants and trying to give them that kind of information. We found that people are very, very critical about that.

Heffner: Sure.

Gardner: We got a lot of hate mail from people who are proponents of civil journalism. So that’s the kind of a socially desirability answer that we didn’t get. Similarly, if you talked to people in other professions, they list quite different kinds of positive and negative values than you get in journalism. Journalists look up to people like Edward R. Murrow. There’s a reason for that. They … many of them look up to Woodward and Bernstein, and there’s a reason for that as well. This does not mean that they admire everything about them. That’s a very, very important point.

Let’s take Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton to be equally political in both sides of the spectrum. Probably nobody would hold either of them up as a saintly good worker. But probably you can learn a lot about good work from studying what they do, including some positive things. And that’s the way we’re approaching this study. We always say, “we don’t check our skepticism at the door”, but we’re trying to build out what the possibilities of the profession are. And our particular concern is young people. What happens when they go into the professions? And can they sustain it.

And in a study, which is not reported in Good Work because it’s only been completed in the year 2002, we find that young people we talk to, and this is very much to your question, have exactly the same kind of understanding with the professions as the older people. Mainly, they understand the mission … why you would go into journalism, why you would go into science … who else would look at theater. But already at a young age, and young age means here 15, 20, 25 they’re saying, “I know what the right thing is and some day I hope to be able to do it. But now I’m afraid to do it because I won’t be able to be successful enough.”

So, it’s … that’s the situation which we’re facing.

Heffner: We have about a minute or so …

Gardner: Oh my goodness …

Heffner: … left, and I want to ask you, what in the 21st century is going to be the great force that will enable young people to remain young in mind and heart and spirit.

Gardner: I think that to do good work, you need to have vertical support, horizontal support and periodic inoculations. You need to work with people who themselves are good workers, the John Gardner’s, the Edward R. Murrows. You need to have horizontal support … peers who share your values. The New York Times isn’t perfect, but for 100 years it’s been a newspaper that most people are proud to work for. But you also need periodic inoculations. The forces are so powerful that unless ;you find ways to confirm your profession, why you went into it, why you still believe in it, then you won’t have good work.

Heffner: You know, it’s funny to me, one of the journalists you mention in your book and I won’t name him … was here on this program and said to me … “You know I watch you and at the end you talk about … you don’t mention his name, but you say ‘an old friend’ and you quote Edward R. Murrow … let me tell you a thing or two about Edward R. Murrow.”

Gardner: But … they don’t have to be saints, the question is can you learn something from them.

Heffner: No, I don’t mean it that way. I mean that this, this is one of your good … better people …

Gardner: Yes.

Heffner: … and yet he wanted to knock Murrow down. He wanted to knock down the idea that there could be a giant, a leader, a moral …

Gardner: That’s sad.

Heffner: … leader.

Gardner: The people who I’m most impressed with are the people who say “we wont’ know until 50 years after I’m dead, whether what I’m doing is worthwhile, but I’m going to go for it.” And I think that gives me a lot of hope.

Heffner: Good. You keep the hope. [Laughter] I want to get some of the hope. And thank you very much for joining me today, Howard Gardner.

Gardner: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.