One Virtue at a Time, Please


Any book with “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” in the title will stir questions in the reader’s mind. Is the author about to defend Keats’s assertion that “beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth, and all you need to know?”

Catching sight of Howard Gardner’s subtitle—“Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century”—will the reader not think of Plato, who spent much of his life wondering whether virtue can be taught? Part of the provocation for Plato was the career of the Athenian popular hero Alcibiades, who had been Socrates’ favorite student and the ward of Pericles. Alcibiades was dazzlingly clever and attractive, and a military leader of genius, but he was a libertine, and in due course he betrayed Athens to Sparta and Sparta to Athens, before fleeing to the Persian court, where the Spartans had him assassinated. If he could not lead a virtuous life with all the advantages of upbringing and natural talent, Plato asked, was there any reliable way of producing virtuous Athenian citizens? We hardly need to search far for modern parallels.

It will do the reader no harm to bear Keats and Plato in mind, even though Gardner is not wholly on their side philosophically. He denies Keats’s claim that beauty is truth as well as Plato’s claim that the virtues form a unity. Nonetheless, Gardner is firmly on Keats’s side in wanting us, in our efforts to educate the young and ourselves, to take beauty seriously, to cultivate our aesthetic sensibilities, and to learn how to form intelligent judgments about works of art of all sorts. He is on Plato’s side in being deeply troubled by relativism; he fears that “postmodern” thinking and the new digital media have undermined the belief that there is a truth about the world against which our assertions about it can, and must, be judged.

Postmodernism of the kind endorsed by some followers of Jacques Derrida, for example, seems to Gardner to sustain a good-natured, lazy relativism that allows us to say “that’s true for him, even if it’s not true for you”; and he thinks that this is the death of intellectual discipline. He is equally frightened by the ease of spreading any amount of misinformation on the Internet. Any teenager with time on his hands can edit photographs of historical events, persons, or works of art, and the editors of Wikipedia have found it almost impossible to keep out the malicious and the deluded. Gardner fears that when so many sources of information are unreliable, we may lose all confidence that “reality” itself provides a check on what we think.

Howard Gardner may well be the best-known educational theorist in America. He has written on a great range of issues, but from a lay point of view perhaps his most important achievement came some twenty years ago when he put into circulation the concept…

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