Howard Gardner on Obama's Education Speech

Big Think recently talked to Howard Gardner, the esteemed Harvard psychologist and the pioneer of the theory of "multiple intelligences", about success, intelligence, and education.  He saw several challenges facing America in the years ahead, so we asked him how well Obama addressed them in his education speech on September 8th. 

Gardner was largely happy with Obama's thoughts, writing "I would have emphasized the same points" but expressing dismay that "a significant proportion of the population opposed the president’s right to address the school population."  He called opposition to the speech "a sign of disrespect which makes our country appear irrational to those in other societies [and] as has all too often happened, Texas was the center of this disrespect."  His full letter appears after the jump.

I liked President’s Obama’s education speech. I had no input but if I had written it, I would have emphasized the same points: the importance of disciplined work, the need to take responsibility for one’s own life, the potentials that each young person has to succeed in some valued area, the reality that failure is part of life and the question is—how can one convert apparent failure into a learning opportunity? The examples of young people who have turned their lives around are moving, but even more illuminating are Obama’s reflections on his own life—and his briefe0r reflections on the experiences of Michelle Obama. We crave leaders who walk the talk.

As one who is critical of No Child Left Behind, I was not surprised that President Obama basically ignored this legislation in his remarks. Its means, and perhaps even its goals, are in many ways antithetical to the messages delivered by Obama. The legislation ignores different kinds of talents and lays responsibility exclusively on the performances of teachers with respect to scores on standardized tests. We are not having the right educational debate in this country.

Of course, the fact of the speech became a major story in itself. It is astounding that in a democratic society, a significant proportion of the population opposed the president’s right to address the school population and some parents and schools chose not to allow children to participate at all. Rather than seeing this rejection as a sign of a healthy democracy, I see it as a sign of disrespect which makes our country appear irrational to those in other societies. As has all too often happened, Texas was the center of this disrespect.

Stepping back from the speech, and focusing on the brouhaha surrounding it beforehand and on the reception of the President’s speech on health care to the Congress the following day, I have come to a distressing conclusion. Our country is engaged in no less than a civil war. One side of the conflict attempts to be civil—the other is determinedly non civil and seems close to seizing arms Unless President Obama succeeds in restoring civility to the country—and this will require support from non-fringe Republicans as well as often cowardly Democrats—all other efforts will fall on the wayside. How we educate for character—not primarily for test scores—is the challenge we must meet if a civil society is to endure.

-Howard Gardner

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