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Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century

reviewed by Suzanne Rice - June 29, 2011

coverTitle: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century
Author(s): Howard Gardner
Publisher: Basic Books, New York
ISBN: 0465021921, Pages: 256, Year: 2011
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Virtues and Values

The title of Gardner’s book suggests that he will provide an alternative to an existing conception of truth, beauty, and goodness: reframing implies that there is a frame to begin with. Rather than presenting such a frame for comparison, however, Gardner offers a stand-alone conception of his trio of virtues, which he summarizes as follows:

Each of the virtues [truth, beauty, and goodness] encompasses an abstract realm of experience—verbal propositions, evocative experiences, and relations among other human beings, respectively. Each is best exemplified by certain human activities: Science and journalism traffic in truth; art and nature are the sphere of beauty; goodness concerns the quality of relations among human beings. (p. 13)

Gardner calls truth, beauty, and goodness “virtues,” but his discussion about these concepts suggests that (the first two especially) might more accurately be described as values. The concept of “virtue” speaks to certain intellectual and moral attributes of persons. For example, it is customary to describe those who are reliably aboveboard and candid as possessing the virtue of honesty or truthfulness, but not truth per se. There are also any number of virtues that aid in the discovery or discernment of truth (however that is defined)—curiosity, perseverance, discernment, for instance—but these virtues also differ from truth itself. And Gardner does not argue that individuals should cultivate beauty in their persons, but rather that they should experience and develop an appreciation for beauty, particularly beauty that is perceived visually. In short, Gardner treats truth and beauty not as virtues, but rather as values to be pursued.

The case of “goodness” is somewhat different in Gardner’s account. He wants young people both to value a particular understanding of goodness and to be “good,” and particularly in the latter respect, this quality most resembles a virtue. For Gardner, “goodness” comprises the qualities of neighborly morality as well as what he sees as the “role ethics” of the good worker and good citizen.

If only by way of contrast, locating his conceptions of truth, beauty, and goodness in relation to other alternatives would have helped clarify Gardner’s ideas. There are a great many different, competing understandings of truth, beauty, and goodness, some of which are connected with virtue ethics and many that are not. Are all of these understandings equally threatened by postmodernism and digital media? Are those conceptions in which “virtue” plays a role especially vulnerable? Are Gardner’s own conceptions of truth, beauty, and goodness immune from postmodern criticism or more compatible with digital media than others? Discussion of such questions is absent from Gardner’s analysis, and readers who are not already sympathetic to the ideas that truth, beauty, and goodness should be conceived as virtues and that their pursuit as such is worthwhile, may be unconvinced.

Questions of categorization and conceptualization aside, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of truth, beauty, and goodness in Gardner’s eyes. They are, on his account, “essential to human experience and, indeed, to human survival” (p. 13), and without them, he says, we are consigned to an existence that is either joyless or pointless (p. 7). Such a gloomy outcome may eventuate, Gardner believes, in the wake of postmodernism and digital media.

The Threat from Postmodernism and Digital Media

Gardner often refers to postmodernism and digital media in the same breath, indicating that in key respects he finds them problematic in the same ways or in ways that are mutually reinforcing. As expressed in one passage,

The postmodern critique and the digital media. . . make strong and powerful bedfellows. Either force alone should engender anxiety in those of us who value truth, beauty, and goodness; taken together, they should give pause to even the most confident among us. (p. 4)

But of these perceived threats, digital media appears to be the less worrisome to Gardner. (Gardner rarely distinguishes between different kinds of digital media.) Gardner notes, for example, that while digital media may make the discernment of “truth” more difficult when Photoshop or a similar program is used to alter images, it also increases access to works of art and to different experts’ evaluations of those works (p. 178). His appraisal of postmodernism is far less sanguine.

In his introduction, Gardner divides postmodernism into two strands, one “skeptical” and the other “aggressive” (p. 3). According to skeptical postmodernists, Gardner says, “[A]ssessments of what is true or beautiful or good reflect nothing more than the preferences of whoever holds power at a given moment; in a multicultural, relativistic world, the most to which we can aspire are civil conversations across often irreconcilable divides” (p. 3). On this skeptical account, “beauty,” to pick one of Gardner’s virtues, does not refer to qualities of objects but rather to qualities that just happen to be valued at a given time. Of the second strand, Gardner asserts: “[They] would throw out the term beautiful altogether—claiming either that the concept is meaningless or something even more venal. . . . So, too, my statements about truth and goodness would be seen as arrogant, subjective, or meaningless” (p. 3).  

The distinction between strands of postmodernism disappears after the introduction, and in most of the book Gardner treats “postmodernism” as a unified, homogeneous ideology; accordingly, Gardner generally refers to the postmodern perspective, the postmodern critique, and (singular) postmodern thought. Gardner attributes “‘anti-virtue’ assertions” to postmodernism as a whole rather than to particular strands or specific authors (p. 139).

Much of Gardner’s critique is more rhetorical than substantive, as if the problems he attributes to postmodernism were so obvious that they need no elaboration. Take, for example, the following excerpt from the chapter on “goodness”:

These [American] students may not have read key texts by French and American intellectuals, but they have picked up some of their ways of thinking and expression. And so, over and over again, one hears that one person’s truth may not be the same as another’s; that two perspectives can be equally valid or equally right; that one has no right to judge people from another background or culture; that everyone has both good and bad qualities. (p. 98)

Gardner does not explain why such views should be cause for concern; he merely asserts that they reflect a “troubling situation” (p. 98) which, he says, is related to still another “equally disturbing” trend: “Young Americans seem to lack an ethical compass” (p. 98).

Gardner’s criticism of postmodernism is scattered throughout his book and varies in severity. In much of his analysis, the term “postmodernism” is used as a synonym for vulgar relativism, but there are a few points at which Gardner appears to positively value postmodernism (and even more so digital media). And at the book’s end, Gardner reaches this surprising conclusion: “The concurrence of postmodernism and the digital media may, ironically, hold out the potential for a second age of Enlightenment” (p. 196).  

One possible explanation for this is that Gardner’s views evolved as he worked on this volume (and that the chapters appear in roughly the order they were written). However it is the view of postmodernism and digital media as threats, not boons, that dominates this work. Gardner’s educational recommendations are intended to promote the development of the threatened trio of truth, beauty, and goodness.

Educational Recommendations

Gardner’s recommendations for education differ in relation to the particular attribute under consideration and often according to students’ ages and/or developmental stages. The following excerpt on teaching to instill regard for truth reflects Gardner’s preference for what is often called “academic rationalism,” a curricular orientation concerned mainly with the academic disciplines and expert knowledge: “[W]e need to introduce and model the kinds of explanations employed by experts. . . . Over time, and with judicious scaffolding by sympathetic mentors, young students will shed their misconceptions and begin to embrace the truths of knowledgeable experts” (p. 128). Regarding education in relation to beauty, Gardner recommends exposing youth to classic and well-known works, but encourages students’ development of personal tastes. He writes: “Our goal in the arts should be the development, in each person, of a portfolio of personal preferences, and the reasons for them, and, as appropriate, a record of what seems beautiful, and why” (p. 142). And on educating adolescents on goodness, Gardner proposes:

[W]e should help young people value those individuals who recognize moral and ethical dilemmas, wrestle with them publically (sic), strive to arrive at the proper course of action, reflect on what did and did not happen, and attempt to apply those lessons to future encounters. (p. 148)

Gardner is mainly concerned with children and youth, but he also includes a short chapter entitled “Learning Throughout Life” where he discusses how adult learners might continue their education in relation to truth, beauty, and goodness by engaging with tech-savvy young persons (p. 167).  

One would think, especially in light of the seriousness of the threat Gardner sees in postmodernism and digital media, that his educational proposals would respond clearly and directly to these phenomena. Instead, for the most part, they appear to be practically incidental to his own suggestions.  

References to postmodernism become less frequent when Garner is making suggestions for educational practice, but he often refers to digital media. Where truth is concerned, he writes:

The advent of the digital media has not fundamentally altered the establishment of truth. The insights, findings, and methods of disciplinary specialists and of practitioners are enduring. But any expert who wants to remain current, or even relevant, must rethink his or her processes in light of the digital media. (pp. 152-153)

As for beauty, digital media are credited with giving greater access: “Nowadays, one can easily access hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of critiques of what is beautiful (and you can substitute whatever evaluative adjective you favor)” (p. 178). And where goodness is concerned, Gardner says, “When it comes to young children’s use of digital media, the foregrounding of good behavior, and the minimization of destructive behavior, takes precedent. Healthy habits established at that time are crucial” (p. 145). With the possible exception of Gardner’s second claim immediately above, it is instructive to substitute “television,” or even “the printed word,” for “digital media.”  

Concluding Comment

Postmodernism and digital media, separately and together, do raise interesting questions in relation to education for virtue and education more broadly. Gardner’s book brings several such questions to light and in that respect makes an important contribution. The book is less successful in providing a conceptualization of truth, beauty, and goodness as virtues, a coherent analysis of the problems Gardner sees in connections with postmodernism and digital media, and a proposal for education that clearly responds to the perceived problems. More than the lack of context or theory in relation to what Gardner calls his trio of virtues, and more than the cursory treatment of postmodernism and digital media, it is likely that teachers and others concerned with education will be disappointed with the conventionality and thinness of Gardner’s recommendations for practice.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 29, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16456, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 1:22:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Suzanne Rice
    University of Kansas
    E-mail Author
    SUZANNE RICE is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. Her interests include philosophy of education and critical curriculum studies. Recent work addresses such topics as tolerance and the educational significance of listening and appears in Educational Studies, Teachers College Record and Educational Theory (forthcoming).
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