Campus & Community

The man in the mirror

6 min read

GSE's Howard Gardner explores good work

Howard
Howard Gardner: 'We were convinced that you can't run a society based solely on the market. … We were interested in how people who are intelligent and creative and leaders can use those abilities and talents in a constructive kind of way. That is good work. Good work is work that is expert in quality and work that also is responsible.' (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

In today’s workplace, where Wall Street rules, the World Wide Web sets the speed limit, and change is status quo, doing work that is both professionally excellent and ethically responsible is harder than ever. Yet some professionals manage, even amidst this turbulence, to do good work. Others fail. Why? What conditions need to exist for workers to look themselves in the mirror and be proud of what they do for a living?

In 1994, as Newt Gingrich was drafting his Contract With America and market forces were gaining dominance, Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Graduate School of Education, grappled with these questions. That year, he joined two other prominent psychologists, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, to launch a multiyear study of professions and professionals engaged in, striving toward, or failing at “good work.” Their labors have produced a book, “Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet” (Basic Books, October 200l) as well as numerous articles and an ongoing study.

Despite the three colleagues’ varied political leanings, says Gardner, “we were convinced that you can’t run a society based solely on the market. … We were interested in how people who are intelligent and creative and leaders can use those abilities and talents in a constructive kind of way. That is good work. Good work is work that is expert in quality and work that also is responsible.”

Gardner describes the “three M test,” a series of questions professionals ask themselves to determine whether they are engaged in good work. What is the mission of your profession? Who are the models of your domain: “Whom do you admire, whom do you emulate, whom do you think about when you are faced with a difficult issue?” he explains. Models could be positive or negative; a journalist might look for inspiration in Edward R. Murrow or take a cautionary glance at Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge. Finally, says Gardner, there’s the mirror test: “If you look at yourself as a worker in the mirror, are you proud of what you do?”

“Whether you are somebody who works on the Harvard grounds, or as a professor, or as a dean, or working with health services, all of us can ask these questions,” says Gardner.

After interviewing hundreds of people in varied professions, from theater to business, jazz to higher education, the trio focused their first collaborative book on the professions of genetics and journalism. “We wanted to pick the two most important forms of information in the world,” says Gardner. Journalism and the media tell us what’s going on in the world, and genetics inform us of what’s happening to our bodies.

Genetics and journalism proved ideal subjects for examining the roots of good work for another reason: the surprising differences between them. Interviewing more than 100 practitioners of each domain, Gardner and researchers found that the geneticists reported that doing good work was relatively easy, whereas journalists struggled to balance professional excellence with personal ethics. Geneticists, who were upbeat about their work and their profession, are in a profession that the authors call “well-aligned.” All the stakeholders in genetics – shareholders and company owners, geneticists, the public at large – want the same things: research resulting in improved health and longer lives.

Journalists, on the other hand, described a profession that is distinctly misaligned. While journalists strive to tell important stories with fairness and accuracy, they’re at odds with a public whose appetite for celebrity and scandal is ravenous. The newspapers and magazines, television and radio stations that employ them are increasingly motivated by profit and look constantly over their shoulder at the encroaching shadow of the World Wide Web.

In “Good Work,” journalist Ray Suarez, former host of National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” and now senior correspondent for the Public Broadcasting Service’s “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” describes how an ethical battle he fought against the commercial news program he worked on nearly defeated him. “At the time NPR hired me, I was making active plans to get out of the news business,” he tells the authors.

Issues of alignment and good work are not as clear-cut as they may seem, says Gardner, noting that professions like teaching, medicine, and social work face misaligning forces like standardized tests or HMOs. “Superficially, it seems easy to do good work when you’re in a profession where that’s the defining purpose,” he says. “I think the problem there is often personal efficacy. You want to do good work but you feel powerless to do so.” This kind of conflict, Gardner notes, is what drives public school teachers to independent or charter schools.

Nor are alignment and misalignment static. Since 1999, when the researchers completed interviews for “Good Work,” the genetics field has seen the completion of the Human Genome Project, the rise in stem cell research, and bioterrorism, all of which put more complex ethical pressures on geneticists. Gardner warns that one “genetic Three Mile Island” would topple genetics from the lofty status it currently enjoys.

Journalism, on the other hand, entered a period of greater alignment. “September 11 has given journalists a new lease on what it is they should be doing,” he says. “Whether in the long run, that will re-align the domain, it’s way too early to say. It’s also worth pointing out that The New York Times … has lost huge amounts of money in the past quarter compared to last year.” Since the terrorist attacks, advertising is down and very expensive coverage is on the rise. Market forces, Gardner cautions, could misalign journalism again.

“Good Work” is part of what Gardner and his colleagues hope becomes “a cottage industry of people looking at good work in different spheres,” he says. This cottage industry, which they call the Good Work Project, has several other books in the works. Three research teams, including 15 investigators working with Gardner, are publishing papers, available on http://www.goodworkproject.org.

Gardner acknowledges that his fervor for the Good Work Project is more activist than intellectual. “We ought to have people talking about this. We ought to have people saying ‘is so-and-so a good worker, and why or why not?’” he says. “While I don’t think I’m ever going to be a full-time political activist, I would be disappointed if in the end we understand the phenomenon a lot better but there’s no increase in the incidence of good work.”

Gardner is looking into his own mirror more these days, too, evaluating his own work as a teacher and a researcher. “Anybody who dares to write about this has to expect to have his or her work scrutinized,” he says. “I certainly interrogate myself a lot more about issues as a result of this work.”

Contact Beth Potier at beth_potier@harvard.edu