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Summer 2011

Ancient Virtues in a Postmodern World

book cover imageTruth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century by Howard Gardner.
Basic Books, 2011, 244 pp., $26.

Jason R. Edwards

As author of Multiple Intelligences, Harvard professor Howard Gardner stands as perhaps the most celebrated, and misapplied, educational theorist alive today. Gardner has published over twenty books, but his most recent Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century has the potential to be his most important. The classical virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness are arguably what make us distinctly human, and as Gardner states, this “trio of virtues . . . remain essential to the human experience and, indeed, to human survival.”

Though a relatively short book, and written in a manner accessible to the nonacademic reader, Gardner powerfully argues throughout that “if we give up lives marked by truth, beauty, and goodness—or at least the perennial quest for them—to all intents and purposes, we resign ourselves to a world where nothing is of value, where anything goes. Lest we succumb to such a joyless or normless or pointless existence, it is vital to revisit the conceptions of the trio in clear light.”

Though trained as a psychologist, Gardner intentionally adopts a broad interdisciplinary approach to his examination of the three classical virtues. His discussion incorporates, by his accounting, history, prehistory, biology, sociology, anthropology, humanistic scholarship, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. For Gardner, one of the “most alarming” trends of contemporary thought is an embrace of reductionism that too often implies “humanistic study is expendable” and he demonstrates the folly of such a notion through his writing.

According to Gardner, the reductionism he rejects arises from two other fields that “have gained undue ascendancy in recent decades”—namely, evolutionary psychology and mainstream economics. As Gardner notes, his book “may be read as a sustained argument against the hegemonies of biological determinism and/or economic determinism.” While Gardner does not completely disregard the worth of these disciplines in their proper spheres, he does prove that “biology or economics hardly ever provide the definitive account of human actions, decisions, and thoughts. Even when they work together . . . their explanatory power proves remarkably limited.” Gardner calls attention instead to “the remarkable capacity of individuals to make their own decisions” and “the importance of unique histories, distinctive cultural profiles, and happy—or unhappy—accidents.”

Furthering the value of his trenchant critique of contemporary thought, Gardner also analyzes the damage done to the virtues from two additional sources. According to Gardner, “in recent decades, conceptions of the true, the beautiful, and the good have been subjected to considerable, perhaps unparalleled, strain from two unexpected quarters—both quite new: the ideas that we describe as postmodern and the ever-expanding ever more powerful digital media.” For instance, the postmodern denial of truth’s existence combined with a Wikipedia world where anyone at anytime can change the “facts” of an entry to suit their opinion makes instructing the young in the importance, or even the existence, of truth a greater challenge in the twenty-first century than perhaps ever before.

Gardner’s analysis and critique of what one is tempted to call the four contemporary horsemen of the classical virtues apocalypse—biological and economic determinism, postmodernism, and digital media—is well reasoned, insightful, alarming, and needed. The impressiveness of his stunning ability to digest a grand menagerie of modern scholarship is dwarfed only by his even more remarkable ability to explain it in digestible form to the layman.

While offering an invaluable critique of contemporary thought, ultimately Gardner hopes to offer solutions to these twenty-first century challenges. Here, Gardner is far less successful. While technically supporting the classical virtues, readers expecting a spirited defense of traditional understandings of truth, beauty, and goodness will be disappointed. For Gardner, “there is no single truth and certainly no absolute truth,” but we can move toward “confident judgments.” Likewise, Gardner redefines beauty merely as interesting, memorable, and worthy of revisiting.

Regarding goodness, Gardner does better, especially when he notes the underappreciated problem of today’s young people who “find no one to admire, or restrict their admiration to individuals known only to them and their immediate circle.” Likewise, he notes we “adults need to examine ourselves in the mirror. If the standards of behavior have become lax, it is because we served as inadequate role models of admirable behavior, as well as inconstant, reluctant, or absent sanctioners of unacceptable actions.” Nevertheless, readers are far more likely to find diagnosis than cure.

Ultimately, as Gardner notes, “where anything goes, nothing will endure.” Truth, beauty, and goodness need defending. Gardner offers a “reframing” instead, but his offering is nonetheless a welcome antidote to the anomie-inducing forces aligned against civilization in the twenty-first century. Parents, teachers, and citizens ignore Gardner’s warnings, if not his solutions, at their peril.  

Dr. Jason R. Edwards is an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College and a fellow with The Center for Vision & Values.

Posted: July 3, 2011

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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