catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 2 :: 2003.01.17 — 2003.01.30


Can we test for that?

Howard Gardner, a cognitive scientist, has for years led the attack on standardized tests. His argument against them, that they typically measure only one or two types of intelligence, often sounds to me like an argument based on the notion that all children are created in the image of God and must have some sort of intelligence within them. In short, Gardner’s standard argument has often seemed to me to be informed by a Judeo-Christian worldview.

Of course, this is nonsense. Gardner has publicly proclaimed himself an agnostic on many occasions. How can a Christian expect for find any truth in what such a person says?

Gardner’s recent book, The Disciplined Mind, is another in a long string of arguments in favor of Christians paying attention to what the rest of the culture has to say. In it, Gardner argues again that we have too long put our faith in standardized testing, but this time, he takes a different tack. Standardized tests (whether we are talking IQ Tests, Iowa Basics, the ACT, The SAT, LSATs, MCATs, or whatever) tend to have difficulty testing for what Gardner argues are the most important things for students in our society to learn, namely the ability to distinguish truth, beauty, and what is morally right. As he puts it, “One can never attain a disciplined mind simply by mastering facts, one must immerse oneself deeply in the specifics of cases and develop one’s disciplinary muscles from such immersion.”

Gardner goes on to lay out a sort of curriculum. Citing examples of successful programs in Italy, St. Louis, Missouri, and other places, Gardner argues that students should study for a longer amount of time, subjects that allow entre into these three main ideas, (truth, beauty, and goodness). He picks three subjects: evolution, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and the Holocaust. He then points out, over several chapters, the richness of these content areas to allow students to examine the three main ideas in the light of specific situations.

Though Gardner is a little vague about teaching details, and though at times his support of evolutionary theory gets a bit unfairly negative toward a certain sort of Christian, it seems to me that he has something to say that Christians need to hear; indeed, something that is far more compatible with our worldview than we might think. Gardner is arguing for standards or absolutes upon which we can base our lives. He is not arguing that truth, beauty, and goodness are easy to discern; rather, that these important concepts tend to be messy and hard to interpret, but that the act of doing so is the most important thing children can learn if we are to have a civil and safe society.

It interested me to note, in reading some of Gardner’s other works, that he was raised as an observant Jew, and tells stories about how he learned foundational truths from his rabbi. Gardner’s worldview, I would argue, has a stable foundation. Though he now espouses a different belief system, Christians can still come away from his work with a new understanding, and an understanding that is compatible with their own beliefs.

In a similar way, though Gardner does not teach on the elementary or secondary level, his criticisms and compliments of the teaching that happens on those levels is fundamentally sound. Consider this:

Of course, many teachers lack deep understanding of their topic, and some are not motivated to enhance their understandings. Education for understanding is difficult to pursue without a cohort of teachers who are committed to understanding for themselves, as well as for their charges. The good news is that there are many ways for motivated teachers to delve more deeply into their discipline and to practice their own understandings. But the motivation to do so can only come from the teacher.

Though we might take exception to the final pronouncement of an individualist driving force behind teaching (rather than, say, the calling of God), his basic criticism is a good one.

Likewise, his encouragement that teaching is a continual process of change, begins to sound like several professors I have had at Calvin College or Dordt College, both Christian institutions.

Build change into the institutional culture and become a learning organization. Most of us were raised on the idea that there is a certain way to do things. Mostly, that way was adequate; if not, then we learned how to do something new, and that would suffice. We might call this the “unschooled” view of change.
Alas, that view won’t do anymore. Change is constant, and no solutions, however effective today, will survive unaltered in the long run. People and institutions that can learn to deal with change, indeed, to welcome it, stand the best chance of surviving and thriving.

He later says that the importance of understanding truth, beauty, and goodness remain a constant. To be sure, Howard Gardner hasn’t got the whole picture, but the chunk of it that he has laid out in The Disciplined Mind is well worth taking a look at. 

your comments

comments powered by Disqus