Howard Gardner discusses "Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet."
READ FULL TRANSCRIPT
GUEST: Howard Gardner
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And my guest Howard Gardner, Harvard’s distinguished educational psychologist who is perhaps best known for his concept of “multiple intelligences”, joins me today first to discuss his and his colleagues’ quite extraordinary “GoodWork Project” which they and fifty researchers at seven universities have been involved with since 1995.
Indeed, some years ago Dr. Gardner joined me here on The Open Mind to discuss an early study of the subject, “Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet”
Now he’s edited “Responsibility At Work…How Leading Professionals Act (or don’t act) Responsibly”.
And just last month “An Overview” of the Good Work Project appeared…leading me to question my guest about its conclusion that, “The need for ‘good work’ is as great as ever and, alas, the forces that operate against “good work” show no signs of abating. Somewhat regretfully, we believe”, he continues, “that there is little danger that our project will soon become unnecessary, and many reasons to expect that it will be in greater need than ever before.”
But, I would ask Howard Gardner whether this doesn’t very much fly in the face of his “Overview’s” earlier insistence that “…’good work’ is typically the goal of most workers…”. Which is it, Howard?
GARDNER: I think certainly if you talk to most people, they want to think that they are good workers. And they certainly want other people around them to be good workers.
And, of course, when I use that term with subjects … they don’t know our technical definition … but, our technical definition is work that embodies three “E’s”. It’s excellent, technically. It’s personally engaging or meaningful. And it’s carried out in an ethical way.
And certainly if I were to talk to most people and say, “Do you want work that excellent or shoddy? Do you want work that’s meaningful or meaningless? Do you want work that’s ethical or unethical?” It would be no contest.
Everybody would say … it’s like apple pie and motherhood. Everybody, everybody’s in favor of it and most people would be reluctant to say that they, they don’t achieve it and they never will.
But, while we’re interested in what people say, we’re also interested in what they do. We’re interested in what they think about other workers, what they think about the health of their profession as a whole. And it’s those more dystopic sources of information which led my colleagues and me to the somewhat pessimistic conclusion.
Let me talk about young workers, because it’s most salient there … most interesting there. We talked to many young workers between the ages of 15 and 35; people who are already beginning a career in science or in the arts or in journalism.
And none of them had any problems with the, the concept of good work, they thought it was great. And they admired people who they thought were good workers.
But when we talked to them about what they did themselves … we, we came up with a very unsettling picture.
What they told us is they want to be good workers and some day they’ll succeed in being good workers. But they didn’t feel they could afford to do it now.
And what they told us … over and over again … and there are many other studies which reinforce this conclusion, is they want to be successful. They want to be well-known, well-paid, make a mark in the world.
They believe that their peers, their competitors want that as well, and they believe that their, their peers are not ethical. That their peers cut corners. The term we’ve used is they “engage in compromise work”, work which, which doesn’t really follow the straight and narrow. So what we heard over and over again from our young people was …”We would like to be good workers someday, but now we want a pass. We want to be allowed to do what we think we need to do to be successful.”
So I’ve come to quote Augustin who famously said, “Oh, Lord, make me chaste, but not quite yet.’” And what we find … these young people, and these are our children … they may not be your and my physical children or grandchildren, but they are children of the middle class; children with lots of opportunities … is they want to be able to decide when and where they’re ethical … they don’t want anybody else’s decisions to be brought to bear.
And, and that’s what’s really led me to devote most of my time now to working with young people because I think that, that we can do better than that.
HEFFNER: Now wait a minute. You say, “We can do better than that”. You mean we can train them? Brainwash them? Do something to make them be better than that?
GARDNER: Yes. I think we, as a society, deserve better ourselves and deserve better of our young people. I do not blame the young people, I do not blame our children. They pick up messages from society. The messages are of fame and success NOW. Of being very well-to-do, having, many cases, more money than any reasonable person would know what to do with. And unless those signals are changed, unless the positive aspect of other kinds of ways of living come across, and unless young people can get meaning from those other ways of living than I think the effort to produce good work will, will founder, it will not, will not succeed.
HEFFNER: You’re somewhat surprised, aren’t you? I know you’re saying different things now than you did the first time that we talked together. But you’re somewhat surprised …
GARDNER: I am.
HEFFNER: … at the results.
GARDNER: I’m spending a lot of time with young people and I don’t know whether this is the good news or the bad news … but the more time I’m spending with them, the more confused I am.
And, of course, you know, ultimately one doesn’t want to be confused, but as a scholar/researcher, it’s actually important to see that things are much complicated than, than one might have imagined.
HEFFNER: But what’s the confusion?
GARDNER: The confusion is that … when I grew up … which was quite a while ago … my peers and I pretty much knew what we wanted to do when we finished school. And we choose professions and we pretty much stayed with them. And we wanted to be comfortable, but having a great deal of wealth was not something that was, was in our playbook, so to speak.
And I’m finding the young people nowadays are very fragmented. They do not have heroes, if they do, they are people whom in their own family, not people who they look up to in, in society. What you and I might call “Trustees” … the people who were in law or in government who earned a respect like Edward R. Murrow, who you always quote at the end of the program.
They are often quite ethical with people around them. But they’re very, very cynical about media, about government … and, you know, with good purpose. At the same time, where do they get their views from? Of course they get them from the media with other people who watch the media, so they have a very love/hate relationship with the, with the mass media.
Also, as you know, they’re very much involved with the digital media. And the digital media involved a re-thinking of many, many ethical aspects. In fact in our research we’re looking at … we’re looking at five of those.
We’re asking in the days of the Internet and the web and the kind of a digitalized, digitalized envelope all around us … what happens to senses of identify? To privacy? To ownership and authorship? To trust and credibility. To participation in the community?
HEFFNER: To all the good things.
GARDNER: Yeah, but what happens to them? What happens when ownership and authorship are not … can ship anything to anybody … download anything to anybody.
What happens to privacy when I may want to keep something to myself, but once it gets digitalized it can never be erased?
And what does it mean to be in a community when you’ve never met people? But you simply have a virtual relationship and you can drop in and drop out … you can wear different kinds of identities and so on.
So, it’s a, it’s a new world … I don’t know whether it’s a brave or foolhardy new world. And those of us who want to work with young people need to understand that world.
Let, let me give you an interesting example, because it was quite shocking. You’re right … I, I did get shocked.
I was talking about the unfortunate case, with students, of the Dean at MIT who had to resign … the Dean of Admissions … because it turned out that she had misrepresented her credentials. Not once, but repeatedly over a 30 year period and it was …to me it was completely obvious that you cannot be judging the credentials of young people if your own credentials are in question … if they’ve been essentially concocted.
When I worked with a group of 15 students, none of them could seen anything wrong with what the Dean had done. They broke into two groups. One group said, “Well, she was doing a good job. What’s the problem?” So … and in which performance was fine … so
GARDNER: And the other said, “Well, everybody lies on their resume.” At this point I intervened and I said, “You know, lying is not good. You can’t have a society where people lie. But if you’re not going to tell the truth for idealistic reasons, you’d better tell them for pragmatic reasons. Because if you lie on a resume, it is grounds, instantly, for you to lose a job.” And the fact that I had to intervene and say this, suggested to me that I was looking at this issue in a very, very different way from the students.
We showed the movie “The Smartest Guys in the Room” about the Enron traders who, you know, were playing with energy prices all over California and Texas and having a wonderful time figuring out what they could do to shut off electricity or to get higher values for things.
And the students found it quite amusing and when I said, “Well, don’t you see anything wrong with this?” … the kinds of things I heard was, “Well, it’s governor Gray Davis’ fault, he should never have let this happen.” Or, “It’s the fault of the legislature, they should never have deregulated prices.”
And I said, “Does this mean that what these young traders were doing was fine?” And the students sort of laughed. And this made me realize that there’s a very different set of ethics. Very, very compromised. And, again this may not affect how they deal with their close friends, or how they deal with their relatives, but once they go into a public sphere it has, it has a great deal of importance.
HEFFNER: But you know, it is going to affect the way they deal with their close friends. And their relatives. How could it not? If we think to ourselves there’s a great divide between public and private, that doesn’t work too well. Maybe in a sense that’s what partially has led to this. That you could separate …
HEFFNER: … that …
GARDNER: … that’s a fair point. And especially because people who are sometimes part of your private world become people whom you deal with publicly. And vice versa. So you’re right, it’s … there’s not a … an impermeable membrane between those two spheres.
HEFFNER: Howard, just between the two of us …
GARDNER: Because no one else is listening.
HEFFNER: What does this do to you personally? What is the impact of your … of these scholarly researches? Upon Howard Gardner?
GARDNER: It’s had an enormous impact … more than I ever would have imagined. And basically I’m a scholar, researcher. I like to discover how the world works. If something is mysterious, I find it more interesting. But until 10 or 15 years ago, I sort of thought my job ended there.
But then two things happened. First of all with reference to my own work in multiple intelligences, I saw people using it in ways which I found very mischievous, or worse.
For example, taking all the racial, ethnic groups in Australia and describing the intelligences they had and the ones that they lacked. And I found this horrifying. And I said to myself … literally, as well as figuratively. “If I don’t intervene and blow the whistle on this, who can I expect to do so?”
In other words, where does my responsibility begin? And that was one of the major factors that led to the GoodWork Project that we’ve talking about.
But then, again, I went into the GoodWork Project trying to understand basically what’s happening to professions in our society. My colleagues, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, William Damon and I believed that if markets control everything, if markets are very, very powerful and there’s no counter-balance to markets, then professions, which depend upon a certain amount of trust and autonomy and letting people make complex decisions under uncertainly … law, medicine, journalists and so on … that professions would be very vulnerable. Because if everything gets judged by the bottom line, then it’s just a question of how efficiently and quickly you can give the service and not any kind of margin for time and for making mistakes and for things like that.
Anyway, my interest was in documenting this. But then when I saw young people … the age of my children and many, many other children I know, thinking about the world very, very differently, in ways which I felt were essentially, as you’ve already implied … leading down a bad path.
For example, “the ends justify the means”. If some day I’m going to be a good worker, it doesn’t matter what I do now. When I saw that I realized that maybe what I ought to be doing in my latter years is spending time with young people. So my colleagues and I have been working the secondary school and colleges on issues of good work. We haven’t at all figured out exactly what to do. But we certainly have seen a hunger on the part of some young people, not all, to have deeper reflection about the choices they have and what they mean for themselves and the society.
So it’s had about as big an impact as anything could, unless … except for a personal tragedy, which I hope I don’t have to confront.
HEFFNER: Preacher Gardner rather than Teacher Gardner?
GARDNER: (Laughter) Well, I much prefer to have these ideas discussed by young people. Rather than my preaching. In fact, when I intervened and said, you know if you’ve going to lie on your resume, you better realize that you could get fired. That was not my preferred stance. I would much rather have somebody else say that.
But, yes, I think at a certain point, part of the responsibility of a teacher is when the discussion completely ignores something, whether it’s good, bad, or … it is your job to bring it up.
HEFFNER: But isn’t it the teachers job, always, to bring up good, bad and evil …
GARDNER: Very good question, but if I can be a bit simplifying. In the 19th century both at the university level and below … it was … classes were seen as being … having a moral dimension to them.
The … a lot of the McGuffy Reader, Pilgrim’s Progress kinds of work in schools was kind of a rough American Protestantism. And at colleges and universities, the college President would teach the senior seminar and the idea was to bring knowledge together with wisdom and morality and so on.
That completely disappeared in the 20th century. I would have defended the disappearing of it because I would have been very nervous about character and moral education … but the truth is, if it isn’t happening in school, if it isn’t happening at home and if the media, with all due respect to the medium which we’re now sharing … you are a very small minority, are basically doing a lot of misinformation, and a lot of glamorizing of things which should not be glamorized.
Then the school as the educational system becomes kind of a last resort. And when I work with, with students at college, I say what I’m doing is somewhere in between a formal course and a bull session.
In a formal course there are requirements, there are papers, there are grades … we don’t have any of that.
On the other hand a bull session you just talk about whatever you want and there’s no one to kind of keep you on task, and there’s no necessary connection from one session to another. And I think one needs to, one needs to be more rigorous about thinking about yourself and your, and your life choices.
HEFFNER: More rigorous. You think that where we, in part, went wrong? When we became less rigorous?
GARDNER: Or, what I would say, rigor tied to very instrumental ends.
HEFFNER: Instrumental ends. What good is it going to do me? What about that bottom line, etc.
GARDNER: Yeah. I was quite surprised … again, another surprise … that, in some of the places I’ve been working, when students are invited … even by the President of the University … they don’t even bother to answer. And so I discussed this with a, a, a student who was quite knowledgeable.
He said, “Well, this particular President cannot get me a job at Goldman Sachs. And why should I get in touch with the President. If the President had those kinds of contacts, I would”.
I must say in my day, and I suspect in your day, even if you didn’t want to meet the President, you at least had the courtesy of writing a response. But, you know … if it came to getting a job with, with McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, you can be sure the invitation would be answered.
HEFFNER: Indeed, when Nicholas Murray Butler once summoned me to his presence …
GARDNER: Columbia University …
HEFFNER: … at Columbia … the whole faculty was beside itself with wanting to tell me how to behave …
HEFFNER: … when I went into his august presence.
GARDNER: Why did he summon you?
HEFFNER: Oh, this was so long ago. It had to do with my chairing a war relief committee since I was a 4-F in the Second World War. But I devoted myself to the war relief. And we were asking President Butler to come and address a rally. And he did.
Of course I was frightened to death in going before him. But it didn’t have to do with his getting me a job at Goldman Sachs. But look, you know and have been so kind as to talk to my grandson, Alexander.
I said, no, we wouldn’t talk about him. But he has gone to Andover which is just a wonderful, wonderful private school. And I asked Barbara Chase, the head mistress … the head of school to come here to the Open Mind and when she did we, we talked about something she said about their emphasis upon moral values; upon that aspect of schooling.
And I think you’re so correct … we, we just shunted that aside. I wouldn’t blame it on John Dewey, but I wonder whether in my day and shortly before my day the decision wasn’t made that you separate information and knowledge from ways to use that information and knowledge … morality.
GARDNER: No, I, I agree. And I think in part the motivation was good because typically the moral, religious thing was quite skewed toward the majority and did not have much space for anyone else.
But let me say a bit more about my analysis of what’s happening with, with our young people.
Number one, it is so difficult to get into college now, especially the select schools that this is by far the biggest project the students have ever carried out. It may be the biggest project the family has ever gotten … carried out, namely to get into a good school.
When you’ve spent three, four years … maybe in New York City, fifteen years … with that terminus in mind and then you get to the next step, it’s completely open what’s going to happen.
Some people are relieved, some people go wild, but many people, including one of our own children, will say “What’s the next thing? What’s the next goal should we have? Is it to be a cellist in Carnegie Hall, should it be getting into medical school?”
The students who are ambitious, but not targeted then go through what I call the three seductions. Seduction number one, junior year … they don’t know what to do … in the olden days they would have gone to law school, maybe to the Peace Corps. Today maybe they’ll go for Teach for America. But the investment banks and the management consultants show up at our major campuses and they say, “Come to New York for the summer. Come to Los Angeles, we’ll give you a nice place, nice salary, place to exercise (that’s very important), you get to fly, do some interesting things. No obligations.”
And if it works out, then the second seduction will occur. “You’ll graduate from college, we’ll have a nice job for you, you’ll get a lot of money, more than your professors. You have to work hard. You don’t have to stay there. You may want to then go to, you know, law school or the Ministry, or whatever … but come … the second seduction is to come and work for us.”
And it’s often very exciting. It’s not particularly ethical or moral, in fact one of my analysis is they’re looking for people who can skate the line very much. What can you do and get away with it without getting caught.
But putting that aside, it’s exciting. You run around with a lot of bright people, you’re flying to places and helping companies solve problems … at least what the consultancy is doing or the investment banker trying to help people invest their money properly.
And then the third seduction is … will you … can you give that up for the difficult life of being a physician or public interest law or do you keep … do those alternatives keep receding? And then the most universities will hope that you become a hedge fund head, make millions or billions of dollars and give them back to the university.
So those are, those are the three seductions and they are not easy even for a young man like Alexander to, to resist.
HEFFNER: But you know, you, you leave out one thing. And that’s the responsibility, presumably now … your University, Harvard is addressing it. But …
GARDNER: We’re trying to.
HEFFNER: … the debt that these young people accumulate when they are in college, when they are in the university, the extraordinary debt that makes it much clearer that you’ve got to go to Wall Street. You’ve got to go where they promise you big bucks, you don’t go to the equivalent of a Peace Corps, you don’t devote yourself to a life of giving. You need to get to get out of debt.
GARDNER: Well this is a place where data would be extremely valuable. Number one, as you probably know, many more places are giving you either totally free admission … if your parents make less than a certain amount
HEFFNER: Yes, but, but many more places mean “some” places …
GARDNER: Right. Right. Okay. But … these are the places in a sense we’re talking about because this is where the, the New York firms do their recruiting … they don’t go to …
GARDNER: … they don’t go to Salem State. But here’s where the data would be very valuable. I frankly doubt that we’re going to find a high correlation between how much … how large your debt is and how likely it is you are to go to the, the places which will quickly help you reduce the debt.
My guess it’s a much more complicated calculus and has a lot to do with your values, how your parents think about things. The deals that you can make about repaying, as you and I both know, many debts are never repaid. I’m not recommending that, but it’s not that the sheriff comes to, to your home. And so I would love to know whether the correlation between how much debt you have and whether you go to quickly make it up at a … a New York investment house or a consultancy is point six or point seven which is high or point three or point four which is not very high.
HEFFNER: Are you studying that?
GARDNER: I don’t … that’s an economics question which I would not be able to study myself, but certainly anybody who has that kind of training and data analytic skills could give us a first … give us an approximate answer.
HEFFNER: But I would think it would be part of good work.
GARDNER: (Laughter) Well, here I am on television, giving people a thesis, if they want to do it. What’s the correlation between your, your physical debt, your financial debt at the end of college and the career choices you make?
And then, of course, when it’s, when it’s … this is the third seduction … when those debts are reduced to a very manageable level, do you then say, “Well, you know, now I’m going to go and, you know, work for the local city municipal works or can I … do I want that third McMansion?”
You know I wrote an article which appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine about a year ago. I had never gotten so much guff … and personal attack as from this article. And I took a position in the article which I thought was quite reasonable. I said the average person in America … family … person makes $40,000 a year. I believe that no one should be allowed to keep more than four million dollars a year … that’s a hundred times more … they can make as much money as they want, but if … they cannot keep more than four million … they have to either give that back to the government or give it to charity.
And I added, no one should be allowed to keep more than 200 million dollars, that’s fifty times more because you can make money for about 50 years after you, you’ve finished school. They can make as much as they want, but they have to return anything over 200 million to the government or to a philanthropy. I thought those were high figures.
But whether they were people in Wall Street or truck drivers who telephoned into, into talk radio, I was just abused. Because somehow it was seen as being … was called communist, anti-human and the worst thing was anti-American. Somehow it was seen as anti-American to have any kind of a lid.
And of course, I don’t expect this to be enacted no matter who the next President is, but it’s a thought experiment, is there any amount that’s enough?
HEFFNER: What …
GARDNER: Do you really need more than 4 million dollars or do you kids really need more than 200 million dollars? And I would say the answer is you don’t. But people think they do. And I think this leads to a kind of a duality in our society, which I think is ultimately very, very damaging ethically and I would even say in terms of functioning well in, in … just a smooth sense.
HEFFNER: And on that happy note we end this program, Howard Gardner. But you promised to sit still and we’ll do another.
GARDNER: Always a pleasure.
HEFFNER: thanks for joining me. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. 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.