Arts & Culture

Truth, beauty, goodness

4 min read

Howard Gardner probes the enduring values that matter

In his own words, Howard Gardner is a pessimist who tries to live like an optimist.

But the ever-prolific Gardner remains upbeat in his latest book, “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed,” a contemporary look at how our conceptions of these three virtues have shifted over time. Yet, Gardner insists, these virtues remain the crucial bedrock of our existence — even in light of postmodern skepticism and the side effects of technological advances on our attention spans and ways of thinking.

In an era of constant flux, where Wikipedia has become a go-to source for information, Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says the odds of ascertaining the actual truth about something are actually better than ever.

“In a totalitarian society, they only give you one version of the story. When I was growing up, there were only three television networks, so you’d watch them or you got no news at all,” he said.

“But now we have huge amounts of information available, and if we have the patience to go through it, to sift what has evidence and what doesn’t, we have a better sense of figuring out what’s truth than ever before. And that’s the wonderful thing happening now in the Middle East, where ‘mind control’ is no longer possible.”

For Gardner, education is crucial for parsing the truth. “The only way you can learn to think like a disciplinarian is by studying those things in depth — not by surfing the Internet or casual postings on Facebook.”

The story on beauty is also optimistic, he maintained. “We’re no longer going to have a single canon where a central authority will be able to decide what’s great and what’s not.” But, he contrasted, “Everybody can make his or her judgments about beauty, and it doesn’t impinge on anybody else.”

Still, judgments can’t be made just on a whim, he said. “The crucial thing in making judgments of beauty is whether you can perceive the distinctions between experiences: one work of art and another, one performance and another … because then you can decide which one you think is more beautiful.”

Gardner defines beauty as something that’s interesting, that has a memorable form, and that invites revisiting. “And as a bonus,” he said, “it gives you a tingle.”

He suggests keeping lifelong portfolios of beauty, either in our brains or a physical catalog that chronicles the experiences, music, art, and more that we find beautiful over time.

The most important distinction in Gardner’s concept of goodness is what he calls “neighborly morality” as contrasted with “the ethics of roles.”

He likens the former to the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule, basic principles of not cheating, lying, stealing, or committing adultery. “But what the Ten Commandments don’t tell us is how to behave as professionals or citizens,” he said.

“People have always worked, but you didn’t have a problem with good when everybody was a farmer or a hunter gatherer. Now we have dozens and dozens of different roles, and we did not evolve as a species to know what to do as journalists, or lawyers or pharmacists.”

The test now for a citizen, said Gardner, is how to behave not just for “numero uno, or for your neighbors, but for a wider public.”

Given that technology has linked humanity in unprecedented ways, “We have a greater opportunity than ever before to become global citizens,” said Gardner, who was recently bestowed with the 2011 Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences, an award that honors individuals whose research has significantly contributed to the progress of their field and to humankind.

“We have to revisit things like truth, beauty, and goodness all the time. What would a world be like where no one had any agreement about truth, where there were no longer any experiences that people called beautiful, and where good and bad were indistinguishable?”