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On Education And the Limits of Science and Technology

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 from Howard Gardner
“Education is inherently and inevitably an issue of human goals and human values.”

I wish that this statement were mounted prominently above the desk of every policymaker. One cannot even begin to develop an educational system unless one has in mind the knowledge and skills that one values, and the kind of individuals one hopes will emerge at the end of the day.

Strangely enough, however, many policymakers act as if the aims of education are self-evident; and as a consequence, when pressed, these policymakers often emerge as inarticulate, contradictory, or unbelievably prosaic. How often my eyes have glazed over as I have read vacuous proclamations about “using the mind well” or “closing the achievement gap” or “helping individuals realize their potential” or “appreciating our cultural heritage” or “having the skills to compete. ” Recently, in speaking to ministers of education, I’ve discovered a particularly Sisyphean goal: “leading the world in international comparisons of test scores. ” Obviously, on this criterion, only one country at a time can succeed. To state educational goals in this day and age is no easy undertaking; indeed, one purpose of this book is to posit several more gritty goals for the future.

A first caveat: science can never constitute a sufficient education. Science can never tell you what to do in class or at work. Why? What you do as a teacher or manager has to be determined by your own value system—and neither science nor technology has a builtin value system. Consider the following example. Let’s say that you accept the scientific claim that it is difficult to raise psychometric intelligence (IQ). From this claim one can draw two diametrically opposite conclusions: (l) don’t bother to try; (2) devote all your efforts to trying. Possibly you will succeed, and perhaps far more easily than you had anticipated. Same scientific finding: opposite pedagogical conclusions.

A second caveat, related to the first, is that science—even with engineering, technology, and mathematics thrown in—is not the only, and not even the only important, area of knowledge. (This is a trap into which many enthusiasts of globalization fall. See the collected speeches and writings of Bill Gates and Thomas Friedman, to name two gurus of our time.) Other vast areas of understanding—the social sciences, the humanities, the arts, civics, civility, ethics, health, safety, training of one’s body—deserve their day in the sun, and, equally, their hours in the curriculum. Because of its current societal hegemony, the aforementioned fix on science threatens to squeeze out these other topics. Equally pernicious, many individuals feel that these other areas of knowledge ought to be approached using the same methods and constraints as does science. That this would be an enormous blunder is an understatement: What sense could we make of the greatest works of art or literature, or the most important religious or political ideas, or the most enduring puzzles about the meaning of life and death, if we only thought of them in the manner of a scientific study or proof? If all we did was quantify? What political or business leader would be credible, at a time of crisis, if all he could do was offer scientific explanations or mathematical proofs, if he could not address the hearts of his audience? The great physicist Niels Bohr once mused on this irony: “There are two kinds of truth, deep truth and shallow truth, and the function of Science is to eliminate the deep truth. ”

At the workplace, the same caveats prevail. While it is obviously important to monitor and take into account scientific and technological advances, the leader must have a much broader purview. Political upheavals; migrations of population; new forms of advertising, public relations, or persuasion; trends in religion or philanthropy—all of these can exert impact on an organization, be it profit or nonprofit, dispensing widgets or wisdom. A full life, like a full organization, harbors multiple disciplines. Excessive focus on science and technology reminds me of the myopia associated with ostriches or Luddites.

Written by frrl

April 23, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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