On Education: A Clarion Call from Howard Gardner


I first read this important article back in October. Since then I’ve been pondering the paradox of how, on the one hand, Gardner’s theory is truly straightforward and graspable, yet on the other hand it’s been widely misinterpreted and misapplied. This is not to say that the ideas are not complex, because they truly are. However, all educators are capable of understanding and creatively implementing them, if given the time, freedom and resources to do so. So, why, then, have these misunderstandings and misapplications emerged? What are the barriers that stand in the way of effectively implementing them?

Certainly a great many of these deviations could be simply owing to the fact that Gardner’s theories are novel ones. As with any new endeavor, early earnest attempts at execution will yield mixed results. However, it seems (as evinced by Gardner’s corrective, now 20 years later) that these misapplications represent a more fundamental disconnect from his insights. So, to me the question becomes, “What are the obstacles in today’s educational models that prevent the application of this crucial understanding?”

To answer this question, it’s important to look at the present state of education and the trajectory it’s currently on. Increasingly, the trend is toward homogenization–and not in any positive sense. This is reflected in the standardized-testing-sickness that afflicts our public schools and stifles educators’ and students’ creativity. It is also seen in the implementation of the Common Core Standards. Veteran educator Marion Brady lays out “Eight problems with Common Core Standards” that should be required reading and a focal point of conversation for everyone interested in education today.

Along with this suffocating homogenization comes degrading monetization, defined by Merriam-Webster as using something of value as a source of profit. The profit sought by the capitalists steering education today is not an exploration and realization of “the potentials of humanness” upheld as a primary goal by Marion Brady, and reflected in the hopes and dreams of most educators. Instead, it’s boiled down to the lowest common denominator of our communities being “best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy” (quoting from the Common Core Mission Statement). In other words, the inherently unequal and inhumane antagonisms of global capitalism are explicitly woven into these fatally flawed standards.

Within this framework, we can see why Gardner’s primary lessons for educators, to simultaneously individualize and pluralize, run into a brick wall. With the first key ingredient–individualization–the need for smaller class sizes becomes crucial. This enables teachers to really get to know and assess their students on a one-to-one basis, and to utilize techniques that make learning accessible to all. Gardner also cites the value of “apps” in this regard, but I’ve yet to engage the relevant research. Nevertheless, we should continue to insist on smaller class sizes, and not accept the lie that the funds aren’t sufficient or available. When the government decided to bail out the banks, no such limits were imposed.

As for the second key ingredient–pluralization–this is directly undermined by standardized testing. Teachers are obligated to “teach to the test”, and increasingly their jobs hang in the balance, depending on how well their students have been trained to regurgitate facts and figures. Little space is left, then, for educators to creatively ply their craft and bring students forward as inquisitive, optimistic human beings. Perhaps the most insidious result of this miseducation is the disillusionment with education itself fostered in students, and even in teachers.

In closing, it’s important that voices of opposition stand up and fight for a far better vision of education than the one that’s being driven by the Gates Foundation and others whose interests are located outside of the classroom. Their goal is to more fully infuse the dog-eat-dog outlook of capitalism into education and convert it into yet another arena for profit-making. We must reject this path and unite with the people of Mexico, Canada, and many other places around the world who are also swimming against the educational tide, as if the future depends on it–because it does. And it must be a grassroots movement, comprised first and foremost of students, teachers, parents and communities. A recent Washington Post article revealed that the leader of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union is joining forces with a former union-busting governor and businessman to promote the Common Core. If we want justice, we need to draw on our greatest strength: just us.

1 Comment

  1. Haven’t read that book – but I feel that our current public school system is an anachronism – children who can play computer games and use cell phones can learn anything on their own with just a little right direction. Really, it all comes back to creating a just social and economic playing field – in which everyone from children to adults can realize their full potential and not be forced to working jobs they dislike or being herded into institutions call schools just to survive.


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