On Howard Gardner

I want to like Howard Gardner. His ideas about multiple inteligences and, along with it, his skepticism toward the value of the sort of educational testing we do these days, are valuable. So I decided to check out The Disciplined Mind. I’m not far into it, and he’s already made some good points. For instance, he stresses that education is always faced with certain perennial choices. (The words are his, I’ve arranged them into a bulleted list, omitting his elaborations on each point. These are from pages 36-39):

  • breadth and depth
  • accumulation and construction of knowledge
  • utilitarian outcomes and intellectual growth for its own sake
  • uniform and individualized instruction
  • education by private parties and education as a public responsibility
  • an education that ignores or fuses disciplines and an education that stresses diciplinary mastery
  • an education that minimizes or critiques assessment and one that is rooted in assessment and evaluation
  • relative, nuanced standards and high universal standards
  • an education that showcases technology and an education that highlights the human dimension

These points provide a good thumbnail sketch of many of the big debates in education. And, thinking over them, its easy to imagine educational systems that emphasize certain ends of each one of these specturms.
It is precisely when he starts talking about technology; however, that Gardner goes off the rails a bit. For example, consider this unqualified sketch of the technology access of kids in “modern society”:

In modern society, children have access to a range of media that would have seemed miraculous in an earlier era…: televisions, cellular phones, personal computers with CD-ROMs, fax machines, videodiscs, personal stereos, and still and video cameras, just to name a few.

I know Garder has heard of the digital divide. He’s surely too smart to think that every kid in modern, westernized countries has unproblematic access to such things, but the fact that he doesn’t mention it makes me cringe. Since the book came out in 1999, we’ll forgive the mention, with wide-eyed wonder of CD-ROMs. But, as a person who has spent a good deal of time in public schools (both as a student and as an educator), I can’t forgive the utopian portrayal of our youth. It gets worse when this discussion of technology turns into a discussion of postmodernism (or, at least, the strawman that Gardner discusses instead of discussing postmodernism). First off, he seems to confuse postmodernism as some sort of endorsement of the will-to-power (page 55):

Postmodern “purists” claim that knowledge is essentially about power, and that those in power determine what is true and what is not, such determinations changing when “hegemony” (controlling politial authority) changes.

First off, hegemony, even in 1999, shouldn’t have needed a gloss. And, if it did, it certainly shouln’t have needed such a reductive, innacurate one. Secondly, Gardner does nothing to challenge, much less refute, that power and knowledge are bound up together in a mutually reinforcing way. He seems to think that, simply by summing up, however clumsily, the position, that his readers will stand back and say, “Yeah, man, how stupid is that!” He also seems to miss the point that the description of power that he puts into the mouths of postmodern theorists is meant to highlight an unfortunate way that things are, not a desireable way for things to be. Furthermore, there’s always room for citiques of power to coexist with it, a point that Gardner overtly misses (page 55):

If the only standards are those of power, why should one pay attention to the writings of deconstructionists.

Here, in missing the point he almost gets it: the thrust of much postmodernist thought questions the basis of valuing things, especially truth claims. Power isnt’ a “standard”; it’s a force–and one to be reckoned with, lest it roll right over you. Postmodernism is method of critique, not an endorsement of power.
It’s odd, though, that Gardner makes such slips, since, when he’s describing his own view, rather than trying to sum up postmodernism, he presents a nuanced and reasonable perspective that isn’t at odds with a postmodern perspective. He often mentions that education, and the subjects it teaches, are culturaly grounded and that we should recognize the “contingent status of all knowledge” (57). So it seems the term “postmodernism” gives him far more pause than the fruits of it, which he incorporates into his own view.