Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner on Truth, Beauty and Goodness

VTR Date: July 2, 2011

Howard Gardner discusses educating for the virtues in the 21st century.


GUEST: Howard Gardner
AIR DATE: 07/02/2011
VTR: 05/12/2011

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

And my guest today has joined me quite frequently at this table over the past dozen years – though not often enough, I must say, to satisfy my own need for him to share his always compelling insights into what makes us all tick…and how we might tick better and more wisely.

Long ago dubbed “one of America’s most interesting psychologists”…whose concept of “multiple intelligences” has provided such an insight into and guide for the educative process … Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University.

Now Basic Books has just published Dr. Gardner’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed – Educating For The Virtues In The Twenty-First Century.

Of course, I realized as I read this quite compelling attack on determinism – with its insistence that “Human agency matters enormously” – that today I must first ask my friend whether his new book isn’t in a most fundamental sense a sort of would-be antidote to the despair he and his colleagues in Harvard’s famous “GoodWork Project” must have felt in their discoveries about what really motivates so many of today’s professional workers. Fair … or not, Howard?

GARDNER: It is true that for 15 years my colleagues and I have been studying what we call “GoodWork” and it’s a study of what happens to professions when they’re under huge pressure from market forces. Whether it’s law, journalism, philanthropy, even the clergy … when accountability and profit and loss and degree of visibility become the dominating motivations for professions … then the kind of thing which I respect … namely professions that try to be disinterested, that try to do the right thing even if it may not be the most profitable thing … the, the professions are really in extremis.

And both my discussion of truth and my discussion of goodness really address this issue in the 21st century. Beauty is a separate question.

HEFFNER: I wondered about that, I wondered whether … seriously … whether this book was … as I say, an antidote to those awful, awful feelings you must have gotten from the responses to your Harvard inquiry.

GARDNER: Well, let’s be specific. Truth is being attacked in two ways. On the one hand there is the post modern critique which says, “Who decides what’s true?” It’s just a question of power … you know, who ever controls the microphone, whoever controls the press … they determine what’s truth.

On the other hand, there are the new digital media … the Internet, the web … things like Wikipedia … where anything can be put forth, whether or not has truth … “truthiness” or complete falsity.

And this makes the establishment of truth very, very difficult.

So I went back to the professions and to the disciplines, to the academic disciplines and I came up with the conclusion that the best antidote to the attack on truth is understanding the methods that expert people use to determine the truth.

HEFFNER: Such as?

GARDNER: What … what do scientists do to figure out what’s really going on as opposed to false positives. What do historians do to figure out what really happed? And so on. That’s from the point of view of disciplines.

And then when we go to the professions … there’s what I call practical truth. A journalist isn’t just somebody who asks one person one question and writes it up or sits in his or her office and says what would be.

The good journalist, the journalist who is well trained … asks many people questions … doesn’t go off the record unless it’s absolutely essential. Is willing to confront somebody who’s critical and say, “I’m going to publish this tomorrow, what’s your reaction?”

And those practical truths are equally important. So if you said to me as a teacher or as a parent, “How can I help young people today or people of any age, establish what’s true”, I say you have to understand the methods that human being have developed over hundreds if not thousands of years, of separating the truth from the chaff.

And I think it can be done. Indeed, I’d even go further, Dick. I think at this point in human history … if you’re willing to work at it, if you’re willing to be skeptical without being cynical, the chances of establishing what’s really true are greater than ever before.

I think you and I have talked about this before. Thirty, forty years ago there were three networks … Walter Cronkite would tell us, “that’s the way it is” and then Eric Sevareid would explain the reason.

And this, I think, made many people feel good, but in fact, lots of things they said didn’t have as much authentication as is needed. And now, if you’re willing to, to take the effort of looking at many, many different sources and evaluating them, the chances you can really figure out things are greater.

Now, you probably ask me, how many people bother to do that? And …

HEFFNER: I’ll ask you … how many people bother to do that?

GARDNER: (Laughter) And I guess my answer is “not enough”. We’re well aware in studying the digital media what are called “echo effects” or “mirror effects” or “the big sort”, where people basically pay attention to those sources, those blogs, those websites which are in agreement with their own judgments or prejudices, while ignoring those which challenge them. That’s, that’s not a good situation.

I often say I particularly value what happens Friday at 5:00 o’clock on National Public Radio, when David Brooks and E. J. Dionne discuss what’s happened this week. They don’t agree, but they do it in a civil way.

I think that’s the kind of opportunity which the digital media provide. But not if we’re only going to turn on Fox or MSNBC which make no effort to really get the story right.

HEFFNER: But, Howard, you write a new volume, a beautiful new volume, a good new volume, a truthful new volume … Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed.

What do you mean “reframed”? You say … your … your subtitle … “educating for the virtues in the 21st century”. You’re, you’re saying this is a temporal thing.

GARDNER: Let me, let me give you the background. I started as a psychologist, and was interested in how the mind works and what surprised me … particularly with reference to my work on intelligence, was that it was educators who really glommed on to my work and I hadn’t been trained, particularly, as an educator. But about 15 years ago I sat down with myself and said, “What do I see as the purpose of education?”.

I wrote a book called The Disciplined Mind … we may have discussed it …

HEFFNER: We did, indeed.

GARDNER: … in the late 1990’s and I stated there a position which I believed in, but which I now realize was quite naïve. I said the purpose of education is to help people understand what’s true and what’s not. What’s beautiful and what’s not. What’s good and what’s not.

And I guess I took the man on the street, the woman on the street view that it was kind of obvious what’s true, etc.

But then two things happened. On the one hand I would give academic colloquia and people of a relativist or post-modern perspective would say, “How dare you say that you know what’s true or beautiful or good. It’s just a question of, you know, whoever has the, has the hegemony.”

And then I began to observe my children and other young people and began to play around with the digital media myself. And I realized that the terrain was totally different than it was in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s because anything could be posted, anything could be changed, anything could be morphed.

The digital media are a Wild West, there are no ethics there that anybody understands. And so I said, “Look, Howard ..

HEFFNER: Either you address yourself familiarly …

GARDNER: That, that’s how I work (laugh) … I said, “Look either you can throw truth, beauty and goodness away, altogether.” Which I refuse to do and none of us could live if we really threw them away, if we really didn’t have any belief in anything.

Or you can assume they’re totally obvious or they’re God-given or they’re from the 10 Commandments or they’re in logical equations … or you can say, “How do we think about these things nowadays?”

And what I would say if I was trying to justify the book … I think I’ve raised a question which every serious person has to address … namely, what’s left of truth, beauty and goodness in the 21st century? And if you don’t want to scuttle them altogether, how do you think about them as well as you possibly can?

And I don’t think I’ve go the answer completely correct, but I’m willing to say I think I’ve probably gotten closer to the answer than anybody else.

And I hope people who doubt that will read the book and argue with me and tell me how I’ve gotten it wrong.

HEFFNER: Well, I’ve read the book. And I have the feeling … beauty here is in italics … and I had the thought when I finished the book and I turned back and realized that, that it was quite appropriate because it’s something aside and that when you deal with truth and goodness, they’re different. Why did you … or you’re going to tell me you had nothing to do with the cover of the book?

GARDNER: (Laugh) I certainly had a lot to do with the title of the book. Beauty actually is the most wonderful story.

It’s the one for which I think there are no negatives. There may have been an earlier time where there was a canon and everything was judged about whether it had the right ratios and whether it was photographic or realistic. That is gone. That is over.

We now live in situation where you can have access to any work of art every created, whether it’s a visual, musical, performance. You can even interact, you can create things.

And there’s no reason in the world why you can’t develop your own sense of beauty. And the analogy is food. If you lived among the bongo-bongo and you only ate what they did, you know you didn’t have any real variety, but now anybody with … who lives in any kind of a modern country … is exposed to many different cuisines. There’s no reason to think that what you valued at 10 or 20 is what you have to value for the rest of your life.

And you don’t impinge on anybody else’s sense of security by developing your own palette. In fact, it’s wonderful.

I think it’s exactly the same situation with works of art. We can continue throughout out lives to develop our own esthetic sense … we can determine what we consider is beautiful and why. It doesn’t impinge on anybody else.

But let me make two further points. One, I think this is most likely to happen if you develop what I call a “portfolio” … a personal portfolio which traces you own changing tastes over time. And I impose myself on the reader by showing how my tastes have changed enormously over the last 50 years.

In fact, the book is, is dedicated to the Museum of Modern Art …


GARDNER: … where a lot of my eyes where open … were opened so to speak. And the other thing is that there is no reason in the world to challenge somebody’s sense of beauty unless they can’t see the difference or hear the difference between things.

In other words if your sense of beauty is only because it was done by Cezanne and you can see no difference between Cezanne and Pazanne and other people… then I don’t take your sense of beauty seriously.

It’s no different than, Dick, if you said “well this wine is so much better than wine … and I blindfolded you and you couldn’t taste the difference then, then there really is a … it’s a judgment without basis. But I think nobody wants to fool himself or herself and our tastes should be based on discriminations we can make in our own work and the works of other people. So beauty is a great story because there’s no villain.

HEFFNER: But because there’s no villain, I guess I felt it was a less compelling story than truth and goodness on which so much count.

GARDNER: Except as I say in the book, and this maybe just me, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. It might be about food, you and I have broken bread together.

For many of us what’s most important in our lives, other than our family, is the chance to be involved with art. For me, it makes an enormous difference. I mean I played the piano for many years, I was pretty good at one time. I go to concerts, plays … museums wherever … whenever I can … and it’s what gives meaning to my life and I have more agency over beauty than over anything else.



HEFFNER: Now we come to it.



GARDNER: But I don’t think people have put it quite that way. In fact as you know, many estheticians threw out the world “beauty” altogether. And I think that’s a mistake because I think there are things which, I say in the book, are interesting … memorable in form, worthy of re-visiting and make us feel good and that’s what I want to use the word “beauty” for. But again, you can be an Elliott Carter fan, a Stephen Sondheim fan, you could be a rapper fan and that’s absolutely fine.

But when you say it’s less important maybe in the sense of what happens to the world … it’s less important … but I don’t think it’s less important for what happens to human beings in our … as it were … emotional, spiritual and cognitive lives.

HEFFNER: You see that’s the feeling I had as I read the book. You’d … although truth and goodness are here and very much here in the book … it’s easier … you use the word “agency”, you don’t have agency over truth and goodness. You do over beauty because it is so personal.

GARDNER: That’s right. But maybe … and I didn’t do this in the book … in beauty, I focus on art because that’s what’s important to me …


GARDNER: But I could have focused on nature, which is probably … historically and pre-historically has been more important to people.

I could also talk about human relations and people whom we value. We could think about our relationships with people, not in the sense of whether they’re good or bad, but in the sense of do we want to be with them.

And so this is, I guess this is kind of an accordion … I used as my central example the arts. But what I call beauty could … I mean, why do people love cities? And many of them do?

HEFFNER: Because of beauty?

GARDNER: Well, walking down Fifth Avenue in the first week of May when the weather was really nice here, I’ve never seen it so crowded in my life. It’s just … people … it’s like they’ve been pouring out after a winter of our discontent.

And I think for many people it’s probably a beautiful experience, even though it wasn’t something you’re going to hang up in, in the museum. So, all I’m saying is I think from the point of view of our experience … beauty is very important.

In fact I have a little formula in the book “Truth is about propositions … statements. Goodness is about relationships among people. Beauty is about experience.” And certainly you wouldn’t argue experience isn’t important.

HEFFNER: No. Not at all, but again it comes back to this question of agency. And I, I was so taken with your saying … “when I examined my own motivations for writing the present book, I realized that I have been stimulated in significant measure by the need to respond to two powerful analysis of the human condition. One emanating from biology, the other from economics”. And that’s your anti-determinist concept. Because you want agency.

GARDNER: Those are my villains.


GARDNER: And I have to say the book is not a … all points attack on evolutionary psychology or on rational choice economics … but it is a statement that every, every era has its predominant analytic frameworks.

You know, maybe it was Marxism at one time. Maybe it was French Revolution … liberty, equality and fraternity. The, the dominant narratives now … and this does come out in the sense of the … of our work in the professions … is we, we are the way we are because of our evolution and we may as well like it. And, in the end, systems of human relations work the best when everybody is just a rationale agent doing what helps him or herself and then markets will bring equilibrium to the society.

Well, having lived through, you know, more, more than enough economic chaos just in the last decade, it’s quite clear that markets have no internal genius to them and having lived through a period where people’s selfishness is very, very damaging, I don’t at all believe that, you know, people acting in their own self interest is the best way to go.

So, I’m saying “wait a second” for … about economics and coming out of psychology myself, certainly I understand that there are certain things, particularly having to do with the relationship among sexes and probably child rearing as well, where there are evolutionary reasons for the way that we are.

But when it comes to explaining truth or beauty or goodness, I don’t think that evolution gives us much purchase at all.

In fact, I have a long passage in the chapter on beauty where I attack, viciously, the notion of neuro-esthetics, namely the sense that if we know about the nervous system, it can explain what it is that we’d like in art.

The most it can explain is the most primitive forms of kitsch. And anybody looking at the 20th century, even if knew … what every neuron was doing … could never predict Picasso or Andy Warhol or Mark Rothko … could never predict Stravinsky or the Beatles or rap.

So the notion that somehow the works of art that we produce or indeed the works of mind that we produce are dictated by either our nervous system or by genetics, that’s only true in a completely totological sense. Totological meaning we couldn’t do it if we didn’t have a brain and we didn’t have genes.

But a wonderful example which actually comes from Alan Wolfe… the political scientist … was in the 1960’s huge changes occurred in America. There was the civil rights movement, there was the woman’s movement and there were changes, which are still taking place in how we think about sexuality.

There is nothing, nothing in either evolutionary psychology or rational choice economics which can give you any kind of purchase on that.

And, in the very end of the book I talk about how human being matter. I happen to think that Gandhi was the most human being of the last thousand years.

HEFFNER: I didn’t understand that, explain it to us.

GARDNER: Okay, but let, let me just say there’s no way anybody could ever have predicted a Gandhi or made, made him happen.

You know, this was a guy who was born in India in 1860-something and he came from a family with some political knowledge.

He went to England and became a dandy … you know, dressed to the T … fooled around with all sort of vegetarian and spiritual things.

Then went to South Africa, was thrown off a train and that’s when it all started.

Why do I think Gandhi is the most important person of the millennium …and I say “millennium” because I don’t want to step on Christ’s toes.

Because Gandhi realized that in this world we not going to survive unless we can disagree and dispute without killing one another. And going beyond Christ’s turning the other cheek, he actually worked out what my teacher called an algebra of how you can protest. And the influence he had in India we could debate about.

But the influence he had in America, in the civil rights movements, in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, in China with Tiananmen Square and now with the Middle Eastern spring … where in Tahrir Square in Egypt, people are standing there without guns. This is Gandhi, but it will take long before everybody who’s watching this program is dead, to know whether Gandhi’s message has been, has been heard.

But I really do think that … as, as Einstein said of Gandhi, “it will be difficult for people to believe that a man like this could have walked the earth”.

And this doesn’t mean that he was a saint in every way. I could give you pathography of Gandhi which would take the rest of the show.

But what we learned from people is that they all have flaws, but what they are at their best are the things which can inspire us, and I’ve already listed the inspiration that Gandhi had which dwarfs the inspiration of any other figure in the last millennia.

HEFFNER: Howard, going back to your title … you chose it … “Educating for the virtues in the 21st century.” That’s a, that’s a strange way of putting … I, I think it’s … it’s, it puzzles me … I’m trying to figure out what does it show, what does it tell about my friend Howard Gardner … where is he today … that you see them and you want to educate us for them? I don’t think so. You see something about the 21st century.

GARDNER: Well, I think …

HEFFNER: What is it?

GARDNER: I think there are two points. One of the points which I actually like in the book is education is no longer for the first 20 years of life. It’s a lifelong project and here you and I are … in our elder years (laugh) … continuing to probe for these things.

We don’t say “Well, I figured truth out or I’m not going to look at art anymore or, you know, there are no more ethical conflicts” … it’s a life long project. And the portfolio that I described in the arts is matched by the what I called an understanding of method with respect to truth. And what I call a commons with respect to ethics.

And the commons is where we discuss the ethical issues that come up all the time, which the Bible doesn’t tell us how to handle and the Golden Rule doesn’t tell us how to handle.

Do you publish Bin Laden’s photograph? There’s no … you can’t open the Bible and figure it out. These are on-going discussions, but what I believe in … if we have a commons where they can be discussed … this is where our insights come.

So … that’s the first thing … is this is a lifelong enterprise. The second thing is that … the digital revolution, which affects all of us … was something that couldn’t have been anticipated in the middle of the 20th century.

And it really does … its shadow is everywhere. I think ultimately this will be seen as important as the advent of writing and the invention of printing.

But whereas it took centuries to see the effects of those. Now all we have to do is look at “digital natives” … kids who are 20 or under to see that they just process the world and think about the world very differently than those of us who are digital immigrants.

And a wonderful thing, which I talk about in the book is this is a place where young and old can really work together. Because, presumably old have some kind of experience, some kind of wisdom, which is not useless … but handling the technologies, understanding information, the way it’s transmitted, being inside social networks are things which are so much at the fingertips of the digital natives that we cannot, we cannot assume that we understand them as well and can do them as well. So it’s a wonderful cooperative project and I think it might give help to both ends of the age spectrum.

HEFFNER: So you see … you see the digital age as creating the commons or re-creating the commons.

GARDNER: Well … in one sense … yes … it already exists because of the fact that anybody can connect to anyone else on anything.

But as I said earlier, it’s only a commons if we choose to take it. If we go in our own silo and only interact with people who just think the way we do, then it’s a pseudo-commons.

HEFFNER: Well, what have we done? I mean we’re far enough along, both in the 21st century and in the digital age for you to make a guess as to what we’ve done, what we’re likely to do.

GARDNER: Okay. You put me on the spot … so I …

HEFFNER: I mean to. I mean to.

GARDNER: … the best answer I can give … I think that for the people who are willing to work hard at it, the people who are really trying to … as it were … interrogate sources … and willing to reflect deeply on ethical issues … the chances of getting it right or reframing it appropriately, is … are greater than ever.

If you look at the vast population … from everything I know … the issues are not very vivid yet in their minds. Most of the use of the digital media is social networking … it’s exchanging information on Facebook and other kinds of, of social networks.

Or it’s involved with multi-user kinds of games. Not so much with virtual realities. And I would say that much, much of the use now is not, not particularly virtuous. Whether it’s malevolent … I think in most cases … no … we do know about bullying and cyber-bullying and sexting and things like that and those are things which need to be addressed. We do know about people illegally downloading and that’s a very difficult kind of issue to address.

But I would say that … here, here’s the good news. There are positive examples with reference to truth, beauty and goodness ushered in or at least amplified with the digital media. But we have to pay attention to those and try to learn from them.

The example I used of, of David Brooks and E. J. Dionne happens to be in the radio, but, but David Brooks also engaged with, with blogging regularly with Gail Collins. And again, these people don’t agree about things, but it’s a commons.

I’m hoping at, at my university to develop a commons on the basis … about ethical issues. And I’ll tell you why.

In all major universities that I know now, the people who run them refuse to talk about any kind of faux pas that anybody on the faculty does. It’s mums the word and probably because they’re afraid of legal action.

So what you then have are blogs where people anonymously say all sorts of things where there’s no particular truth value and, and it’s very hard to figure out what’s going on.

I think we need to have a commons where people will state their names and their beliefs and be willing to argue civilly with one another.

And, and that kind of thing can be very, very productive.

HEFFNER: and that’s the point at which I have to say “good bye, Howard Gardner, thank you so much for joining me today and telling the audience, my goodness … buy Truth, by Beauty and Goodness Reframed, your wonderful book. Thank you.

GARDNER: Great to talk with you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at

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.