Howard Gardner

The Disciplined Mind, Part I

VTR Date: May 26, 1999

Guest: Gardner, Howard


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Howard Gardner
Title: Howard Gardner … “The Disciplined Mind”, Part I
VTR: 5/26/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And because he has quite so accurately been hailed as “one of America’s most interesting psychologists” … because his concept of “multiple intelligences” has provided such a profound insight into education generally … and because the titles of quite so many of his many, many distinguished books resound loud and clear on this program … The Quest for Mind, The Shattered Mind, Frames of Mind, To Open Minds, The Unschooled Mind, Creating Minds, Leading Minds, Extraordinary Minds, and now, The Disciplined Mind, published by Simon and Schuster, I’m delighted to have as today’s Open Mind guest Dr. Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Adjunct Professor of Neurology at The Boston School of Medicine, with many more titles, 12 honorary degrees, a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, 18 books in all and several hundred articles.

So of course, I’m particularly taken with my guest’s latest book — The Disciplined Mind, What All Students Should Understand. For clearly Howard Gardner’s own extraordinary mind is wonderfully disciplined as well as wonderfully open.

So I want to ask him right off just what all students should understand. For I know he hasn’t simply another little — or long — list up his sleeve consisting of the facts, perhaps the artifacts, that usually signal so called “cultural literacy”. What should all students know?

GARDNER: The short answer that I give to that question is that by the time they finish their education, which is school, but not only school, students ought to have a good sense of what in their culture and their time is considered to be true and not true, beautiful and not beautiful, and good and evil. Those are, of course, very classical terms, and I use “true, beautiful and good” quite deliberately. The reason that I use those terms though is because I see them as a way into thinking in a disciplined manner. And when I mention a “disciplined manner” what I mean is that the disciplines have developed over many, many years, really over centuries to help us think well about issues like truth, beauty and goodness. The history discipline, the science discipline are ways of thinking about what human beings are, where we came from. There’s a scientific answer … we evolved from other creatures over long periods of time. There are, of course, historical answers … where did Americans come from? Where did Europeans come from? What’s happened in the last thousand or two thousand years? And you can’t really begin to answer a question about human beings and human nature in a meaningful way unless you can think in a scientific manner or a historical manner. And other major disciplines – – mathematics, the arts, ethics – – are ways human beings have developed again over long periods of time to come up with better answers to the question about the true, beautiful and the good. Every child who looks around wants to understand where we came from. Everybody’s interested in the earth and what it’s shaped like and everybody’s interested in what good and bad is. And you can proceed a certain extent on common sense, or what one of my teachers used to call “common nonsense”. But we have the option of going beyond that. We have the option of saying, “Well, what is really understood about human beings and who we are? What is really understood about the arts and about nature? What is really understood about war and peace and conflict?” But the only way to get into those questions is to learn to think in a disciplined way. And as you said in the introduction, we do have a contrast case which is particularly flagrant in the United States and that’s the notion that somehow being educated is knowing lots of stuff. Knowing lots of facts … factoids as they call them now on CNN. Now I have nothing against people knowing facts, it’s a good thing. But facts are really discipline neutral, they have nothing to do with particular disciplines. It’s only when you have facts that are connected in the effort to understand some kind of phenomenon and then to be able to use your understanding, so to speak, to illuminate a phenomenon that you haven’t encountered before, that you can’t … somebody can’t already explain to you a priori that you begin to show off your disciplined muscles. And to me that’s the one real gift that we can give kids … are those disciplines which have been developed over a long period of time.

HEFFNER: You say “the one real gift we can give kids”. How successful are we doing that today in this country?

GARDNER: I would say that probably all over the world we’re not nearly as successful as we could be. But I think we have a particular disease in this country which I pin to some extent on the television quiz shows, the “Jeopardy”, “Wheel of Fortune” way of thinking that we believe that a person is educated if they have lots and lots of information. It’s what you might call the idiot savant notion … a person who’s read the encyclopedia and memorized it, is the person who’s seen as being the most erudite and the most educated. A very interesting comparison has been done across twenty or thirty countries … it’s called the Third International Math and Science Comparisons … kids all over the world, East Asia and Europe and the Americas take a bunch of tests about math and science. Not only do American kids not do well in those comparisons, but deeper study has shown that in fact the United States … we’ve tried to cover two or three times as much stuff in our math and science. So needless to say, it’s very superficial, we’re a mile wide and an inch deep. And in these other countries they cover fewer topics, they go into them in more depth … there’s a better chance of the students really understanding something like evolution or the laws of mechanics. And amazingly, sometimes the students in these other countries actually do better in questions which they haven’t studied because, so to speak they’ve learned how to think about things, they’ve learned vocabulary, and they can say, “Gee, I really didn’t know that much about light, but if they’re asking the question this way, this must be the right one out of four choices.” The American kids, if they were sick the day that they did light, it’s all over … there’s no way they’re going to get the right answer to the question. So, while disciplined thinking is not as well developed anywhere as it should be, I think our fetish about covering stuff … as I often say, “getting from Plato to NATO in 36 weeks” is a money back guarantee that there may be a lot of stuff there at the end of the year, but there isn’t much understanding. And, of course, the stuff disappears pretty quickly. We all know enough not to give kids an exam two or three years after the course is over.

HEFFNER: Well, you say “a money back guarantee”. Isn’t money the question here or is it something more political, more philosophical, more basic?

GARDNER: I guess I would say it, it’s more than any one thing. I think that in the United States we begin with a fascination with quantity and with enumerating things … and we like to rank everything … in athletics, in stock market and how much stuff kids can answer and answer quickly. I think a second point is that this country has gone very, very far … been very, very advanced without being particularly intellectual. There isn’t a high value placed upon learning for its own sake.

HEFFNER: On discipline … in your terms.

GARDNER: Right. And I also think while our American teachers do the best that they can, and I have no desire to “dis” them, that … especially when we get to the secondary level, most American teachers do not have the kind of training that teachers in European and East Asian schools do. They tend to be people who really are masters of discipline. Some of our teachers are like that. But many of them are people who did not have a strong liberal arts education and the discipline themselves. And so their own understanding is tenuous. And if your own understanding is tenuous, you’re a very … you’re afraid to say, “I don’t know”. It’s much easier to have a workbook and just have kids do what’s in the textbook or in the workbook, rather than saying, “this is a hard question. I don’t understand it completely, but let’s probe as deeply as we can”. Which is, of course, the way you come to understand something better.

HEFFNER: But you know, what interests me, having read so many of your books, and I have … I know the enthusiasm that you bring to all the subjects with which you deal. How can you be enthusiastic when you state what you just have stated … a very grim picture of education?

GARDNER: I think nobody would be involved in educational reform the way I’ve been unless they have a strong passion to try to do things better. And it’s a question, really, of a half-empty, half-filled kind of glass. I can get very depressed in the morning if I take a look at the situation, both in our country and elsewhere … then I go out to a school, or travel to a part of the world where people are doing exciting things. I see the kind of learning that can take place on the Internet, the kind of contact that people can have with one another. I see the incredible discoveries that are being made in cyberspace, in genetics and so on. And I say, “if we can only get kids, teachers and parents to want to push this, I mean it would be terrific. So I try to invigorate myself, and hopefully a few other people at the same time. I also think that America’s a tremendously complex country and it’s tremendously diverse, education has been local ever since the country started. And so, while I think we are right to be discouraged by some of the results in inner-cities, where the conditions are very difficult, there are a lot of schools and a lot of school systems and a lot of wonderful teachers and principals, and curricula, the kind of technology that’s being produced now which carries curriculum, is in many ways … it’s fascinating. If you turn on the website for the Museum of Modern Art and you see the kind of thing anybody nowadays for free can get … simply by surfing through on the different kinds of works of art which they have on display there. The questions they ask you. You can even produce works of art and send them into the Museum. It’s a very, very … it’s a very, very exciting time, so I, I try to make …I try to put some sugar in my coffee each morning as I think about these things.

HEFFNER: Prophesy for me, if you will … look into the crystal ball … realist you are, optimist perhaps. But you’re certainly a realist, what do you see in the future?

GARDNER: You talking now about in education?

HEFFNER: In education.

GARDNER: I think that if one has to take a look … in a dream way and in a nightmare way. And then I’ll tell you what I think one does with that. I think the dream way is that the United States is now the most successful country, really, in history … it’s almost dazzlingly successful. So we have the opportunity to not imitate others, but to figure out what it is that we really want to do.

HEFFNER: You mean material success.

GARDNER: Yes. Yes. If we were struggling to stay afloat we would sort of take helping clues from everywhere, but now we’re in a position to make our own kinds of decisions, and to do it in a way that’s rational. Also I do think that the technologies hold wonderful potentials for individualizing education in a way that John Dewey could only dream about. I mean every student can enter at a computer, using software that speaks to him or her. If the software’s intelligent, it can respond back in a way that’s appropriate for that student. And this is the line that Bill Gates takes, and he’s not necessarily wrong. I think if you want to be pessimistic, and I have no trouble thinking in a nightmare tone, I think that we’re living in a time when the divergence between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is on the extreme increase in every dimension that we look at. I think there are a lot of people who really would like to destroy the public school system. And I don’t like their motives very much, because I don’t think they worry too much about what’s going to be there in its place. I think vouchers are a … definitely a scheme which … the end result of which will be to make the public schools worse and worse so that finally people will scream and say, “Let’s close them down” and “let’s turn this entirely into a market educational system. And I thinks it’s a terrible mistake … I don’t think most countries would even think about marketizing education. The way that I can negotiate, Richard, between the dream and nightmare is to say that the choice is ours, and the …

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “The choice is ours …”

GARDNER: I am a great believer in what the individual can do. I have spent the last twenty years studying people who are extraordinary, and I’m very impressed by what they can do for good or for ill. I love what Margaret Mead said, she said, “Never despise a small group of people who get together to discuss something new … nothing important has ever happened any other way”. And America’s been a wonderful country for getting people to experiment and try stuff that’s new …sometimes it’s terrible and sometimes it’s wonderful. But the more we make these choices public and the more that we expose hypocrisy, which I think is one of the greatest weapons that one has in a democracy … the more the chances are that we can have an educational system which really serves everybody, rather than the people who traditionally have been well served.

HEFFNER: Well, you mention the various so-called reforms. And I was interested in one of the questions, and that is a national curriculum. You make the point we, we are local in our orientation toward the education. And then you write, in this wonderful new book, “On most days I could live with a national curriculum”. That means there are many other days when you feel very differently.

GARDNER: Right. Well, I think it’s important to remind the people watching this that in most countries, the business of education is a national business. There is a permanent bureaucracy …doesn’t matter in France who the Prime Minister is … you can still say at Tuesday at 10 o’clock in the morning, what everybody in France and the former French Empire is doing in mathematics. And it works pretty well. The United States, in its wisdom, decided in the Constitution that anything which wasn’t particularly allocated to the federal establishment would be a local matter, and for 200 years we’re been pretty comfortable having education handled locally. There’s been a sea change in public opinion about this in the last ten or fifteen years. While one doesn’t use the word “national” and “federal” too vividly, most people feel, and I would agree with them, that things are too scattered and disorganized in our country. Now, I mean there are too many people doing just what they want to do. Both people on the Left and the Right agree it doesn’t make any sense to do the Pilgrims forty times in school and never to discuss what happened before or after them. So the need to rationalize what’s going on, particularly at a time when there’s so much more that people want to cover than before, I think is patent and there isn’t much disagreement. However, Switzerland, Sweden, even France are small, much more homogeneous than we are. We are a huge country, we’ve got close to 300 million people, we disagree deeply about what’s important. I have a line in the book where I say, “How could you possibly please Jesse Helms and Jesse Jackson?” And it’s not just a joke, because each of them have big constituencies. Look at the power that they have. So the chances of a national curriculum, which were pabulum, would be very high. We’d have to consider that in many states evolution can’t even be taught, or mentioned, or it’s called “just a theory” like Creationism, which is absurd for anybody who understands the difference between science and faith. You can’t make a comparison between evolution which is dis-provable and a belief in Creationism, which is not dis-provable, it’s a … it’s sort of … credo quia absurdum, you believe it because that’s what your faith says. So, I’m leery of letting a … putting a national curriculum to a vote. What I end up saying is that “the United States might be the kind of place where we could have a circumscribed set of choices”. I use, somewhat whimsically, the analogy of telephone companies or airplane carriers. I mean in many countries, and even in our country historically, we had one phone company and a couple of airlines. Now we have a larger choice, but we managed to do pretty well. What I suggest is that we have about a half-dozen or so different educational pathways. That means that when you are entering school, your family and you decide whether you want to go to a cultural literacy pathway or a multi-cultural pathway, or a technological pathway, or the pathway I would favor, one that I would call an “understanding” pathway. And you basically commit to go to that school or school system throughout elementary and secondary school. The nice thing about a small number of choices, if you move from New York to Spokane you’ll have the same choices, just like you have the same airline choices in different parts of the country. And there would be certain requirements for each of these pathways. One is they would have to cover something about American history and American government. I think that’s just essential. Obviously they would need to be civil and healthy communities. But the key is that there would be a worked out curriculum, K to 12, and people would know at the start, “This is what my kids are going to know and understand at the end of the day”, and there would be assessments, key to that curriculum so you would know how you would have to show what it is that you learned and understood at various levels. And since we don’t expect any school system to get it right the first time, they’d have to be building mechanisms for correcting the curriculum and altering the assessment, so that most of the kids thrive in that system. So to make it pretty stark, if you brought in E. D. Hirsch cultural literacy core knowledge kind of curriculum which I engage rather critically in my book, you would say at the end of first grade you would know the following kinds of information, at the end of second grade you’d know the following kinds of information and it would be pretty clear. In an understanding kind of curriculum it would be rather different. From the very beginning you would be trying to learn the habits of what it means to think scientifically, think historically, think mathematically. And here’s the key thing which I believe very fervently, but I think it’s hard for most people to swallow, it doesn’t really matter that much what the content is that you cover. If you want to learn things scientifically, you can learn it by studying geology, by studying physics, by studying chemistry, by studying paleontology, but the way to learn to think scientifically is to go deeply enough into something so you can see what are the data, what’s the evidence, how do you make sense of this? Very, very important, in America about half the people don’t know the difference between astronomy and astrology. That’s serious. Because if you are a scientific thinker you can’t believe astrology. I mean you can find it amusing and you can read your horoscope because you get a kick out of it, but you can’t really believe that this is going to predict your future.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t this point of view, this, this hope … a wish for the future point in the direction of privatizing education to provide the kinds of choices you want to provide?

GARDNER: Why do you say that?

HEFFNER: Because it seems to me that … within the public domain it is not likely that what you’re suggesting will take place. And I wonder whether it isn’t much more likely to happen as you privatize, I know that you’re negative, very negative about the concept of privatization.

GARDNER: Well, I think it’s very important to distinguish between the charter idea and the privatizing idea. I’m not a critic of charter schools, charter schools are a very recent phenomenon, where basically a deal is made, “if we fulfill certain requirements, we can get the money which would ordinarily go to a neighborhood school and the students in that neighborhood can go to our school instead. So it’s revenue neutral, so to speak. But the charter school is given a lot of flexibility in how it goes about doing things. My own idea of multiple intelligences is often adopted by charter schools, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the ideas about understanding are adopted by charter schools as well. The reason why I don’t think charter schools are a long-term solution is because of the two other words that begin with C-H-A … charisma and chaos. I think charter schools are too dependent upon the charisma, the personal magnetism of the original founders and when their kids grow up, or when the teachers and principals move elsewhere, you may just have a cruddy school. Chaos says “I don’t personally believe” and this is why I have some sympathy for a national curriculum that a country can survive with 80,000 different schools … each doing what it wants. So I see charter schools as kind of an experimental laboratory for trying out things, which I hope will eventually settle down into a smaller number of choices. Certainly I think that we could have a situation in this country where there would be public choices among six or seven options. This is already done by something called “the new American schools”, which I have a loose connection with. They supported about eleven different school reform efforts in the early 1990’s, and that’s filtered down to about seven and now in certain communities like Memphis, Tennessee, people are given a choice of one of the seven approaches, including one that I work with called “Atlas.” So it can be done publicly, there’s nothing to prohibit it. My feeling about privatization, of course, it could be done. But I am very, very nervous about essentially turning over education to business. Now, you can have private, non-profit kinds of things, which we have in independent schools, and/or parochial schools. And I do not put them in the same category as schools run by business. But I think once it’s run by business, then profit becomes the dictating variable. Then there’s a high incentive to cut costs, to dissemble about what’s really happening; to essentially take the track of least resistance. I think the best example of that, which I use in the book is the University of Phoenix. The University of Phoenix, which many people have not yet heard of, but will, is now, I think, the largest for-profit … it’s actually, I think, the largest private university in the world. And it’s for profit. It has 50 or 60 thousand different students. It’s, of course, principally in Phoenix, but it’s opening up all over the country. And it’s basically a drive-in kind of university, you decide what particular skill you want to have … if it’s computing, if it’s writing, whatever … you take the course that is almost always late in the afternoon, after work. You go in for your hour. You can do it by distance learning, too. You get the credit and then, presumably, that helps you get a job.

HEFFNER: And you’re not unsympathetic in your book to that.

GARDNER: I understand exactly why it has appeal now. And in fact, people have told me that sometimes people will go to liberal arts school and afterwards they’ll go to the University of Phoenix or to a community college so they can get a skill which they wouldn’t get in a liberal arts school. But my deep passion is for the liberal arts, for educating the mind in its fullest sense. For falling in love with learning for it’s own sake. This is absent at the University of Phoenix. There’s no library. What does that mean, that there’s no library there? There are no tenured faculty. People are hired because they can help you do it even more quickly and even more cheaply [laughter].

HEFFNER: But doesn’t that conform to your notion as expressed before that the Internet, that the computer will play an increasingly large role in education?

GARDNER: Right. But it’s a very “sticky wicket” as we say, because there’s nothing inherently disciplined or organized about cyberspace. There’s an infinite amount of information there, there’s no way of knowing what’s valuable and what’s not valuable. And there’s no way of going from that information to think in a disciplined way. So when I was singing the praises of the Internet and the web and its cousins and children in the future, what I should have said is these need to be used in conjunction with individuals who do have disciplinary understanding and who can help you separate the wheat from the chaff and who can take that disparate chaotic material and help you put it into a way where you can, you can think disciplined. I mean let’s take the case of evolution. There’s a wonderful kind of software now about evolution. But understanding evolution is hard. Even people who take a couple of courses in it continue to be very confused by it. And there’s no reason to think that mucking around more on the net is going to make you less confused. You need to have feedback from somebody who does have an understanding, who’ll say, “look, this is fine, but you’re not really getting this at all. Or you ought to look at this software instead. Or you ought to read this book. Or let’s do this experiment with Drissofola …”. It’s kind of like, I’ve been a music teacher and I love studying music lessons. Even music teachers who claim to use a certain method are always matching it to the particular strength and the particular interest of the child that they’re working with. And that’s what I think a real live teacher, or tutor, needs to do to help somebody navigate among the cacophony of messages.

HEFFNER: We have only a minute or so left, but it seems to me, if I may, and I’m totally computer illiterate, that you were praising the potential before …

GARDNER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: … of students being able to be “leveled up” by the computer.

GARDNER: But not the computer alone. In fact, when I talked about the website at the Museum of Modern Art, and I used that as an example, but I could have used hundreds of examples, those websites make things available which no teacher, even having a million-dollar budget could. They are incredible. You can look at every work of art close up, you can compare any two works of art, it’s dazzling. But if you just throw a child in that candy store, 99% of them will not know how to put it all together. And that’s why having Socrates or Mark Hopkins at one end of the log and the student at the other is an imperative. The amazing thing is that most Americans now no longer value liberal arts at all, but business people do. And I think it’s because they realize at the end of the day, it’s people who can think well and disciplined who are the most help. And not ones who got lots of stuff, whether they got it from television, from an encyclopedia, or from surfing the web forever. The disciplines are the irreplaceable gift which only a real education can give you.

HEFFNER: Dr. Gardner, a real education has given me the ability to read the sign that says “we’re out” …

GARDNER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … if you’ll stay where you are we’ll do a second program.


HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me today. 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 four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. 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.