Teaching Truth and Beauty

Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century
by Howard Gardner
(Basic Books, 256 pp., $25.99)

When I was invited to review Howard Gardner’s latest book, I was, frankly, skeptical.  After all, while regarded in many quarters as the ‘eminence grise’ of distinguished educational discourse, he is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences.  I have to say that I have found this proposition contrived at best and simplistic at worst.  I was frankly fearful that his new book would discard these traditional values of Western civilization (truth, beauty and goodness)–throw out the baby with the bathwater–in favor of post-modernist thought.

I could not have been more wrong.  In his thoughtful analysis of the unprecedented technological changes in contemporary culture, Gardner wisely posits a symbiosis of the old with the new.  He is keenly aware that truth today is frequently the victim of the mass media, which almost invariably emasculates its integrity through misrepresentation and simplification, which obscures rather than elucidates.  Rather, every generation has reinterpreted truth to accommodate its own predilections.

As far as beauty is concerned, Howard Gardner is not unaware of the storm of criticism the French Impressionists encountered initially.  To put it simply, “Beauty has always been in the eye of the beholder,” even though much of contemporary art is sufficiently baffling to prevent many of us from discerning its beauty easily.  As the publisher puts it, “Our understanding of beauty is bombarded by air-brushed advertisements and photo-shopped portrayals of perfection.”

Moreover, to cite a few examples, the concept of the “good” is increasingly politicized and debated as we determine who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter, or which liberties are inexorable and which are negotiable in the name of national security.  Gardner argues that is imperative for thoughtful people to reinterpret traditional moral principles in the context of the contemporary world.

While all of this may sound rather “pie in the sky,” this book is full of realistic examples of mutual accommodation.  Gardner is particularly concerned that the nation’s children be taught how to reconcile these seemingly contradictory ideas.  He stresses the importance of children recognizing the interrelatedness of the conventional disciplines.  How can art properly be taught in a vacuum, when it is so naturally connected with history and the sciences?  How can our understanding of cognitive development avoid being influenced by our current perceptions regarding contemporary societal values?

In fact, this is a highly thoughtful book dealing with complex issues in an extraordinarily logical and rational manner.  As one of Gardner’s colleagues observes, “As we struggle with education in a conflicted time, Howard Gardner’s voice is an inspiring one to have on our collective stage.”  I could not agree more.

-A. Graham Down

You can find more book reviews by Graham Down here.

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