Howard Gardner has enjoyed a long, impressively productive career as a scholar and public intellectual, one amply recognized and celebrated both within and outside of academia (he has, for example, worked in association with Harvard University on numerous projects and is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” prize). He is, by training and original interest, a psychologist though his works—to date some 20 books and numerous articles—range across a broad disciplinary terrain, including philosophy, literature, music, art, and education.
He is perhaps best known for the theory of “multiple intelligences”—the notion that intelligence is not simply a uniform mental substance, some kind of vague quantity of “smarts” but, rather, a multifaceted and complex set of aptitudes and cognitive abilities, unique to the individual. Put simply, a person might be a math whiz but not so great at biology; or an excellent reader might be a poor musician. And even within particular fields of intelligence a given individual might function at different levels of comprehension. He or she might, for example, have a profound understanding of the underlying structure of a language even while showing little aptitude for, or interest in, memorizing vocabulary lists.
While Gardner’s theory has been contested by psychologists, it has, apparently, found near-universal support in education curricula and practice. It is, also, just one example of the innovative and sometimes controversial work Gardner has done in his career. As he notes in his latest work, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century, his interest several decades ago in cognitive neuroscience, now essential to the study of psychology, was met with disinterest and discouragement by the esteemed scholars who served as his mentors.
Given his willingness to break away from prevailing intellectual paradigms and accustomed habits of thought, Gardner’s determination to explore what he terms the “classical” moral and aesthetic virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness might seem an oddly conservative move. Indeed, their very mention seems rather fusty in the context of the language of “metrics” and “outcomes” that proliferate in the discourse of educational psychology. Moreover, what role can these qualities—long central to, at least, Western education and intellectual endeavor—play in the age of hyperkinetic media exposure and information transmission we now occupy?
Reconciling these traditional virtues with, or reframing them for, present realities is precisely the aim of the book. Their twin enemies are, according to Gardner, postmodernism and digital media. The first because it has inculcated in the general population a general skepticism toward a universal standard of ethical or aesthetic correctness. The second because it has massively altered how individuals encounter and experience art, literature, and music. According to Gardner, both represent a profound, though not entirely unprecedented, break with the past and if the cardinal educational goals are to persist in any recognizable way they must acknowledge and accommodate new sensibilities and modes of experience.
It’s an ambitious and interesting premise. Alas, the argument is profoundly lacking. Gardner’s prose, and the organizational structure behind it, is clear and accessible—for which it is to be commended—but the price is a vast oversimplification of some pretty complex subject matter. For Gardner, postmodernism—a contested and still very vague appellation that refers to innumerable social, cultural, and political phenomena—is basically a complete repudiation of traditional aesthetic and ethical standards, one that leaves the individual to wander blindly in a kind of intellectual darkness.
The result is reluctance—in fact, inability—to make value judgments of any sort. The postmodern person (the contemporary college student is exemplary of the type) is a kind of amiable relativist or nihilist according to Gardner. He or she is generally nice enough but incapable of condemning even the most outrageous behavior or “art”. He or she also occupies a deeply unstable world, one in which the assertion of traditional virtues is nearly impossible according to Gardner due to sweeping political and social transformation. Here is a typical passage:
”Thanks to the French Revolution, the Marxist revolution, the computer revolution (take your pick!), the pace of change has quickened, and the places and periods of stability are few and far between. Parents, institutions, societies that seek to impose their versions of the virtues on the young have their work cut out for them.”
This is so general as to be completely nonsensical and its central, astonishingly broad assertion cannot, in any conceivable way, be proven or disproven. How would one even go about indexing the effect of the French Revolution, to cite just one item from the catalogue of seismic historical events that Gardner casually gathers into a single sentence, on “the young”? And why are they particularly influenced by its deleterious effects since, presumably, everyone alive today, young or old, was born well after 1790 and is therefore subject to the quickened pace of change it allegedly ushered into the world?
Unfortunately, this passage is characteristic of the book as a whole. Nearly every page contains at least one instance, and usually several instances, of discomforting historical generalization, specious use of personal anecdote, or citation of at-best quasi-scientific evidence. This is a harsh assessment and it’s not offered happily. Gardner is a genial, sincere authorial presence and seems deeply concerned about the erasure of what he believes to be essential virtues from the landscape of the contemporary mind. But even if one were inclined to believe his gloomy diagnosis of the ills of the contemporary mind (a big “if”) the proposed remedies—a thin gruel of vague platitudes (young people should pay attention to the values of old people; old people should learn how to use computers, for example)—don’t amount to much. The same can be said about the book as a whole.