Wrapping up Five Minds for the Future

Thursday May 31, 2012

Five minds for the future
by Howard Gardner (yes the multiple intelligences guy)

I started this book, stopped, wrote up some interesting selections in another post, then finished reading the book. It's an okay book. I think I initially got it because I had Gardner confused with someone I like more. But Gardner's not bad. I like a lot of the things he has to say in this book.

Here are selections that I comment on:

"Teachers ought to illustrate the several ways in which a particular math problem can properly be solved or a literary passage can be interpreted; ..."

Maybe this is an important difference between math and literature. In math, there can be many ways to solve a problem, but after a solution is reached it is either correct or incorrect. Of course there are cases where perhaps only one of several solutions is found, and then this all does get more complicated at advanced levels when we are concerned with proving theorems and, more to the point, first finding theorems to prove - but correctness is in some sense fundamentally verifiable. In literature, it seems the focus is often on multiple equally viable interpretations. Perhaps I am wrong here, but at the very least it does seem that the experience of reading and benefiting from literature varies much more and depends much more on uniquely personal interactions between reader and text in ways that are different from the experience and benefits of doing math.

"A truly respectful individual offers the benefit of the doubt to all human beings. As much as possible, she avoids thinking in group terms. She reserves censure for those who truly deserve it. She remains open to the possibility that her judgment may have been wrong. And she is on the alert for a change in behavior that will in turn reinstate a feeling of respect toward that other individual.

"In my view, respect should not entail a complete suspension of judgement. When a person consistently acts disrespectfully toward others, that person should be called to account. And should disrespect persist, and deteriorate into frankly antisocial behavior, that person should be ostracized from society. (On rare occasions, an entire group may forfeit its right to be respected.) Mahatma Gandhi kept reaching out to Hitler; the Indian leader wrote a letter to Hitler, addressed Dear friend,' calling on him to change his tactics and promising him forgiveness in return. In turn, Hitler remarked, 'Shoot Gandhi, and if that does not suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress [Gandhi's political party].' When unconditional respect inadvertently encourages antihuman responses, it is counterproductive."

This is interesting for two reasons. First, I had never heard that story of Gandhi and Hitler, and it's an interesting story. Second, this is one of several places where Gardner recommends ostracizing some people. Maybe this is the only reasonable choice when faced with true sociopaths - but it is still troublesome, seemingly inconsistent with virtue, and certainly not an option open to, for example, a teacher in a classroom faced with a sociopath student.

"Particularly valuable evidence comes from studies of rescuers - inhabitants of Nazi-occupied Europe who, at considerable risk to themselves, elected to hid Jews or other hunted individuals. According to Samuel Oliner, rescuers appeared quite ordinary on the surface; they resembled many others who were bystanders and even some who actively aided the Gestapo. Closer study revealed telltale differences. Rescuers were marked by a childhood during which their parents avoided physical punishment, opting instead for lucid explanations of rules and practices. The rescuers stood out from their fellow citizens in the strong values - often but not invariably religious - that they absorbed from their parents; a constructive and optimistic stance that they assumed toward life; feelings of connectedness to others, even those from a different group; and above all, an intuitive (indeed instinctive) reaction that what was being done to the innocent was wrong and that they themselves were capable agents who ought to (indeed, who must) take corrective action.

This is really interesting. I think it speaks to the importance of ideas about the nature of the universe that are formed (and perhaps largely influenced by external environment rather than genetics) at an early age based on the family setting.

"In what kind of a world would we like to live if we knew neither our standing nor our resources in advance?"

I really liked this question, used in introducing ethics.

Here are selections that I like, without comment:

"Syntheses are put forth all the time - for example, most textbooks and many trade books (including this one!) are frank efforts to synthesize knowledge about a possibly unwieldy topic so that it can be assimilated by a target audience. Determining what constitutes an adequate synthesis is not possible; as with the proverbial question "Does a string stretch across a room?" the answer must be contextualized. It turns out that arriving at an adequate synthesis is challenging, and anticipating the criteria for a judgement even more so."

"Individuals differ significantly in their predisposition to metaphorize, and in their capacity or inclination to transfer lessons from one class or discipline to another. Aristotle deemed the capacity to create apt metaphors as a sign of genius."

"Secondary-school students cannot be expected to be scientific or historical disciplinarians."

"Until recently, creativity has been seen by psychologists as a trait of certain individuals; as such it should be measurable through paper-and-pencil tests; and an individual deemed "creative" should be able to evince that trait across various performance domains. In the prototypical item on a creativity test, subjects are asked to think of as many uses as possible for a paper clip, or to give an imaginative title to a squiggle, or to choose the target that can be associated with two supplied words (mouse-cottage: both can be linked to cheese). The final tally received on such a measure is believed to reflect creative potential in any domain of knowledge."

"A wit said of Camille Saint-Saëns, an aging musical prodigy who never fully realized his early promise: 'He has everything but he lacks inexperience.'

"The creator stands out in terms of temperament, personality, and stance. She is perennially dissatisfied with current work, current standards, current questions, current answers. She strikes out in unfamiliar directions and enjoys - or at least accepts - being different from the pack. When an anomaly arises (an unfamiliar musical chord, an unexpected experimental result, a spike or dip in the sale of goods in an unfamiliar territory), she does not shrink from that unexpected wrinkle: indeed, she wants to understand it and to determine whether it constitutes a trivial error, an unrepeatable fluke, or an important but hitherto unknown truth. She is tough skinned and robust. There is a reason why so many famous creators hated or dropped out of school - they did not like marching to someone else's tune (and, in turn, the authorities disliked their idiosyncratic marching patterns).

"All of us fail, and - because they are bold and ambitious - creators fail the most frequently and, often, the most dramatically. Only a person who is willing to pick herself up and 'try and try again' is likely to forge creative achievements. And even when an achievement has been endorsed by the field, the prototypical creator rarely rests on her laurels; instead, she proceeds along a new, untested path, fully ready to risk failure time and again in return for the opportunity to make another, different mark. Creative activity harbors more than its share of heartaches; but the "flow" that accompanies a fresh insight, a break-through work, or a genuine invention can be addictive."

"Executives realize at a deep level that creativity is a chancy undertaking that can never be guaranteed- only fostered or thwarted."

"Undisciplined creativity is creativity undermined."

"Turning to specific disciplines, I do not believe that science and mathematics ought to be inflected as a means of honoring group differences. As universal languages, these ought to be construed and taught similarly around the globe."

"In the long run, rule by fist, fiat, fear, and fury is destined to fail."

"'A person who is determined to do something constructive with his life needs to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to love him." (Barenboim)

"They asked, in effect, what kinds of citizens do we want to produce?"

"Perhaps, indeed, there are no truly universal ethics: or to put it more precisely, the ways in which ethical principles are interpreted will inevitably differ across cultures and eras. Yet, these differences arise chiefly at the margins. All known societies embrace the virtues of truthfulness, integrity, loyalty, fairness; none explicitly endorses falsehood, dishonesty, disloyalty, gross inequity."

"An education centered on good work

"Until the third decade of life, young persons spend more time in school than in any other institution. They are in the presence of teachers more than in the company of parents; they are surrounded by schoolmates more than by siblings or children in the neighborhood. Formal educational institutions play a key role in determining whether an individual is proceeding on the road to good work and active citizenship."

(endnote) "Benjamin Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (New York: Long-mans, Green, and Co., 1956)."

"(An aside on literacy: the first cognitive assignment for all schools is mastery of the basic literacies of reading, writing, and calculation. Because this point is an has long been uncontroversial, I need not elaborate on it here.)"

"In any event, creativity goes hand in glove with disciplinary thinking. In the absence of relevant disciplines, it is not possible to be genuinely creative."

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