Interview with Howard Gardner: Professional ethicists and becoming a consummate professional

2nd June 2016 at 10:01
The Global Search for Education is a blog that brings together thought leaders from around the world. This is the third in a series of interviews with Howard Gardner, creator of the theory of multiple intelligences and MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient

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“In speaking of the achievement of excellence as workers and citizens, we refer to the three E’s: Excellence, Engagement, and Ethics.” — Howard Gardner

In continued partnership with TES, we share the final interview in our three part series, In Search of Professional Ethicists with Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

In Part 1 of our three-part interview, Howard focused on problems faced by all the professions in a changing world. In Part 2, his emphasis was on the nature of education as a domain and the ethics involved in that profession. In the final installment, Howard will talk about how he believes people in any line of work can become both ethical professionals and excellent citizens. He will specifically discuss what we can do to improve the quality of the education profession.

Howard, how do you define excellence and apply it to human endeavors?

While my own energies have focused recently on ‘the professional ethicist,’ my colleagues and I have been working for twenty years on the issues of what it means to be a good worker, a good citizen, and a good person. Though these phrases may sound similar to one another, we consider these to be separate realms. An individual can be an exemplary worker and a lousy neighbor, or vice versa.

In speaking of the achievement of excellence as workers and citizens, we refer to the three E’s: Excellence, Engagement, and Ethics. Those who embody the triple helix of the three E’s (ENA, we whimsically call it) know their subject excellently, be it a profession or their civic duties; they are engaged, they care about that realm; when faced with a difficult challenge, they try to do the right thing, the ethical thing; and when they fail, as all of us inevitably do, they reflect on what can be done better next time.



Do you think being a good citizen ever gets in the way of being a good worker or vice versa?

I certainly hope that being a good citizen does not get in the way of being a good worker or a good parent. And when we have exemplary role models, for example, teachers or parents who embody all three of the “goodnesses”, we are very fortunate. But I have to stress that we cannot assume that one “goodness” takes care of the others. I consider Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as amazing leaders and citizens; but neither of them served as a good role model with respect to family affairs. And we know from art and literature that many villains at work or in high office are admirable family members.

So what can we do to increase the likelihood of Educators becoming professionals and of their practicing their profession in an ethical manner?

To begin with, no one can make or deny a group of workers the status of a professional. It is up to the individuals themselves to demonstrate that they have a set of skills and a set of values that make them indispensable to a society. That is what has happened with respect to pre-collegiate education in some nations in northern Europe and East Asia, but it has yet to happen on a large scale in the United States. Put in terms of the three E’s, we need educators who are knowledgeable, engaged, and dedicated to ethical decision-making and behavior.

How do we attract individuals of high quality and of the right qualities to the Education profession?

The best way to do this is to have a viable and attractive career path, to reward those who excel. This process begins with the highlighting of places, whether in the US or abroad, where teaching is seen as an attractive profession including sensitive and profession-appropriate measures of which candidates are promising; excellent training given over a number of years, without candidates having to acquire significant debt; placement of apprentice teachers in settings where they can be expertly inducted into the profession; expert and appealing professional development where teachers feel that they are continuing to acquire new and needed skills; and career paths that are multi-faceted and rewarding.

Next, we need to call attention to individuals who embody the best of the professions, try to understand how they have achieved that status, and draw on those lessons in the education and nurturing of future generations of professionals. We need educational heroes and we need the full range of educators to emulate them and to aspire to join their ranks.

Then, uncomfortable though it may be to do so, we need to identify and explain why some educators do not behave as professionals. And if they continue to behave in a non-professional manner, they should be removed from the ranks of educators. Such ‘dis-barring’ occurs in law and medicine; and, in a less formal way, it occurs as well in journalism and in the professoriate.

Finally, and importantly, we should honor those individuals, whether or not they have degrees or certification, who behave like professionals. We all recognize when someone in a school, be it the person who empties the waste paper basket or who sits at the entrance to the building does the right thing in the right way. We should appreciate and honor such professionalism. I hope that I will never live in a world where the phrases, “He is a real professional”, or “She behaves like a true professional”, have lost their meaning. Or, to put it positively, I want to live in a world where we point to someone with admiration and say, “She is a consummate professional.”

Howard Gardner was interviewed by C.M. Rubin for The Global Search for Education. It has been edited for length and format. Follow on Twitter @CMRubinWorld


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