'Schools should be places to interrogate truth, beauty and goodness' says Howard Gardner

howard gardner, harvard, education secretary, reform
'The next education secretary should focus on the importance of liberal arts and science - but should also give more freedom back to schools'

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As the presidential election approaches, leading educators have been assessing the legacy of Barack Obama and debating what the new education secretary should do to improve schools.

Following the thoughts of Andy HargreavesJulia Freeland Fisher and Randi Weingarten, this week we hear from leading educationalist Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, author of 30 books and leader of the theory of multiple intelligences.

You’ve been asked to be Secretary of Education for the new administration. What do you see as the role of the federal government in K-12 education?

It is my fortune – good or bad – to have become Secretary of Education at a time when the winds of politics and education have shifted decisively.

Until the middle 1960s, the federal role in education was modest. In the latter years of the 20th century, the federal government not only became far more involved in civil rights, surveillance of behavior and misbehavior on educational sites, and financing of education for the less wealthy; in conjunction with the governors of many states, the federal government also played a significant role in testing of students, evaluation of progress toward national educational goals, and even support for the creation and evaluation of curricula and pedagogical approaches, both live and online.

For reasons that future historians will have to unravel, the federal role in education is almost certain to become much less pronounced during my term in office.

Some might say that the federal government has achieved its principal goals; but it’s more likely that the country is simply exhausted by the ribbons of rules and regulations that have rained down from Washington without the resultant progress that had been hyperbolically promised (“Goals 2000”, “Race to the top”, “No child left behind”).

In its wisdom, the nation has determined to remand the principal agency back to the states and to even smaller jurisdictions.

Having less to push for or ask for, I will use my office as a ‘bully pulpit’: to describe what should happen in our educational systems; to call attention to positive as well as negative examples; to cheerlead for promising initiatives; and, whenever possible, to demonstrate by example the kind of education that I favor, and the kind of society that I hope we can achieve.

Our world is changing rapidly. What is your position on curriculum? How can education put our students on the right path towards shaping the future?

We need to think of education much more broadly than ever before – a new ‘when’, a new ‘where’. To many people, education means K-12 public schools; or now, that ‘college has become the new high school’, K-14 or K-16 education.

But education begins at birth, or indeed, as we now know, in utero and continues as long as the individual is active, motivated, capable.

Much of education can and should take place in schools and other formally designated community institutions. But the world beyond the schoolhouse is crucial to education; and both traditional and new media are more important than ever.

Nowadays most teenagers spend more time consuming media than they do in school. What happens – or does not happen – in the media becomes a crucial part of the education of the young, and, for that matter, the old.

So much of the media – think “Reality TV” – fosters mis-education and manipulates values. With so many changes, it’s more important than ever to honor the most fundamental values of education that have endured over millennia.

I’ll focus on the importance of education in the liberal arts and sciences. Students should learn about the long-standing values of truth, beauty, and goodness, think hard about them, and interrogate them skillfully.

Here are some questions we, whether teachers, students or citizens, should keep front and center: How do we determine which of the many statements and claims bandied about are true and which are not? What methods have been used and do they stand up to scrutiny? Which experiences do we cherish as beautiful and why? What does it mean to be a good person, a good citizen, a good worker? And how do we achieve this trio of “goods”?

How we behave and engage in our world – our character qualities – are considered by many to be strong predictors of students’ success in higher learning. How will you help create and nurture educational communities that exemplify good qualities?

Clearly, such nurturing of good persons, good workers, and good citizens is the responsibility of many...

But our formal educational institutions stand out as the places where our future citizens spend the most hours, and where they encounter powerful role models who impact how they think and how they behave.

If all goes well, the positive virtues can be seamlessly observed, emulated, internalized. But in a world that is filled with confusing and often contradictory messages, those in search of ‘the good’ should be as deliberate, mindful, and reflective as possible.

For most, the school is the first model of a community and it can be a very powerful one. We need to ensure that young people are raised in educational communities that they admire and that they will seek to emulate or re-create for the rest of their lives.

As Secretary, I want to help create and nurture educational communities that exemplify several goods. Not by creating tests or checklists or grades, but rather by telling powerful stories, highlighting catalytic lessons, and spending two days each week inside schools all around the country.

What is the importance of education in meeting US labor needs? Do you believe we should put in place career and technical education in high school?

Schools have emerged in part to pass on major literacies: reading, writing, mathematics, and, many would now add, coding. No controversy here!

And our country leads the planet in worrying about jobs and employment – perhaps not a wise use of time, since the employment environment changes so unpredictably – but this anxiety is not going to evaporate during my tenure.

My job as Secretary is not to echo or amplify the conventional wisdom of the day but to cast light on issues that are not but should be on our national radar screen.

Finally, student debt has surpassed $1.3 trillion. Should tuition at public colleges and universities be free?

Interestingly, this idea was put forth in 1947 by a national study, “Higher Education for American Democracy,” often called the Truman Report. Alas, it is not an idea whose time has come.

I favor a system where students in publicly funded institutions make a commitment: if they do well in the private sector, they will revert a certain percentage of their income to the education sector; and if they devote some years to public service, their debt will be forgiven. At least, this idea may move national conversation in a positive direction.

The original version of this article first appeared in The Global Search for Education series on CMRubinWorld.  Follow on Twitter @CMRubinWorld

TES has recently launched the free TES Teach app to help teachers create interactive lessons using digital content. For more information please visit www.tes.com/lessons


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