Varied paths to a good education

In his new book, Harvard University Prof. Howard Gardner discusses curriculum choices for US schools in the future. What follows is an excerpt, with a conclusion provided by the author.

Ten or fifteen years ago, it was said that America's economic woes were due to its inadequate schools, while the triumph of East Asia was due to its excellent schools. Now, at the cusp of the millennium, the United States is the nation most successful in the economic sphere, while few if any would argue that its schools have substantially improved. Indeed, recent international comparisons suggest that American schools are mired in mediocrity, if not worse. Clearly, the link between a certain kind of education and economic prosperity is tenuous at best.

Just because of America's current hegemony, however, the country finds itself in a unique position. It does not have to model its educational system on those of other, putatively more successful countries. It does not have to excel in - or even accept - other countries' tests. This country is at liberty to embrace the system it wants and devise measures it finds suitable. For the reasons stated in the earlier part of this book, an education aimed toward understanding is best suited for a world that is changing rapidly. It makes sense, for other countries as well as the United States, to establish pathways for understanding.

But I am not a dictator; in fact, I am a democrat. I still want my children to have the education of my choice, but I am realistic enough to recognize that the rest of the world will not necessarily endorse my preferences or the reasons for them.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? My solution is a surprisingly simple and straightforward one. We should move toward the creation of a manageable number of distinct pathways.

Analogies can be found in airline or long-distance telecommunications companies. There is no need for a single national airline carrier or telephone company; we know the limits of these monopolies. On the other hand, it is not necessary, or even advisable, to have dozens of airlines or carriers from which to choose.

The rational educator in me suggests that half a dozen pathways, designed according to quite specific guidelines, would be the best alternative, particularly in a heterogeneous nation like the United States. The pathways will have different textures: or, to use my implicit metaphor, they should be variously "landscaped." In the shadow of the year 2000, here is a plausible set of six pathways:

1. The Canon Pathway. Inspired by Allan Bloom, William Bennett, and Lynne Cheney. For those who desire a system that features traditional American (and Western) historical and artistic values. Students from all over the country will have read the same books and be able to discourse on American constitutional and historical issues. Citizens of France will most readily recognize and perhaps resonate to this pathway, though of course French "Canonites" will be reading Victor Hugo and Jean-Jacques Rousseau rather than James Madison and Mark Twain. Similarly, other things being equal, for Brazil, Singapore, or South Africa.

2. The Multicultural Pathway.

Inspired by James Banks, Jesse Jackson, Ronald Takaki, and many recently formed university departments. For those who desire a system that features the nature and identities of America's chief racial and ethnic groups. Students will study their own cultures and compare them with other groups, particularly those that have hitherto received unfair treatment at the hands of America's majority population.

3. The Progressive Pathway. Inspired by John Dewey, Francis Parker, and Deborah Meier. For those who desire a system in which individual differences and growth patterns are respected, the curriculum grows out of community concerns, and democratic values are lived, not merely studied. Students will be genuinely involved in community activities and will seek to create and sustain a school community that embodies democratic values.

4. The Technological Pathway. Inspired by Bill Gates, Louis Gerstner, and much of the American corporate-financial world. For those who believe that America must maintain its competitive edge, and that mastery of technologies represents the best way to ensure a well-trained and flexible workforce. In these schools, the particular curricula will be less important than immersion in a full range of technologies. Students will learn to use these technologies - for example, to create and critique media products.

5. The Socially Responsible Pathway. Inspired by assorted civic organizations, including environmentally oriented groups, agencies that foster social entrepreneurship, and the Educators for Social Responsibility. For those who are conscious of the world's enormous social and economic problems and want to encourage the development of human beings who will be actively involved in improving the world. In these schools, the curricular focus falls on national and global issues that are susceptible to solution.

6. The Understanding Pathway. Inspired by Socrates and presented in this book. For those who believe that human beings have a desire to explore and to understand the most fundamental questions of existence, and that curricula ought to be organized around the tackling of these epistemological concerns - familiarly, the true, the beautiful, and the good. Students in this pathway visit and revisit these classical questions, armed, in succession, with literacy skills, disciplinary skills, and the possibility of multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approaches. They exhibit their understandings publicly; they are motivated to ponder these questions, and their interconnections, well after formal schooling has ended.

* * *

Were I completely neutral, I would simply close at this point. In my new book, "The Disciplined Mind," however, I argue strongly that an understanding of the principal disciplines (history, mathematics, the arts, the sciences) provides the preferred -indeed, the indispensable -education for the future.

I base this conclusion on two considerations. First, the scholarly disciplines represent the most important intellectual achievements in human history; every student deserves a chance to understand the world in a disciplined way. Second, powerful media and technology will make it possible for students to accumulate much of the "wisdom" of other pathways that I've enumerated. Only a formal education of at least a decade, however, carried out under the tutelage of informed disciplinarians, suffices to introduce the ways of thinking of the several disciplines.

*Howard Gardner is professor of cognition and education at Harvard University and author of 18 books.

*From 'The Disciplined Mind' by Howard Gardner. Copyright (c) 1999 by Howard Gardner. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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