One of our guests on today’s program will be the celebrated educational theorist Howard Gardner. Scholastic Magazine recently invited leading educational thinkers to offer advice for President-elect Obama in open letters. Howard Gardner will be our guest to discuss his advice, which is published below.
Many individuals will advise you about what to do. I suggest that you not do anything, at least for a while. Don’t pay attention to the so-called experts who have reflexive views on issues like merit pay and a national curriculum. Rather, try to understand the demands of today’s world, and what we should prioritize in terms of future citizenry. Only then should action be pursued.
With this warning, here’s my recipe: Begin with what kinds of human beings we would like to have. I submit that we want to have both Good Workers—excellent technically, personally engaged, and ethically behaved—and Good Citizens—well informed, with a disposition to act and a desire to do the right thing by others. We’ve had too many years of people behaving selfishly. You will not be able to bring about change with a populace like that.
Clearly, these goals can’t be achieved by schools alone; they are a community affair. But in the 21st century, they won’t be achieved unless the educational system supports them.
Next, consider the kinds of minds that need to be cultivated in the future. I’ve identified five:
The disciplined mind is familiar with the major ways of thinking (scientific, mathematical, artistic, historical); has mastered one profession; and continues to learn. You have a disciplined mind yourself.
The synthesizing mind knows how to organize information, so we can hold onto it and communicate it to others. You excel in this area as well.
The creating mind goes beyond the disciplines to conceive of new questions and solutions. I hope that at least some of your advisers have these traits.
The respectful mind acknowledges the enormous differences among individuals and strives to make common cause. You have exemplified this trait like few others in current public life.
With the ethical mind, one thinks of oneself as a worker and as a citizen, and tries to behave responsibly in both roles.
No singular national policy could possibly satisfy Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Ventura. Our affluent suburbs have entirely different opportunities and challenges than do inner cities or our vast heartland. Learn from our admired, amazingly varied college system. Avoid using a hammer when many scalpels are needed; that’s the fatal flaw of NLCB.
As President of a country where education has traditionally been local, don’t try to orchestrate the details. Identify model programs and help people who want to learn from those models. In a democratic society, only those who want to learn will do so effectively. You can’t mandate quality, only facilitate it.
Last point: Excellent educational systems can differ dramatically from one another. Compare Finland and Korea, Sweden and Singapore. What they share are not national standards or merit pay. They share teachers who act and are treated like professionals, and families that respect education. Use your singular pulpit, and your profound insights into our history, to look deeply for solutions—around the world, but equally, within our own national fabric.