Great minds think

Howard Gardner

Pioneering scholar in ethics, human intelligence, and social science.

Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero. Among numerous honors, Gardner received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981. He has received honorary degrees from 26 colleges and universities, including institutions in Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, and South Korea. He has been cited as one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world.

Q: If newspapers disappear, should we care?

I don't think the survival of newspapers, as a daily paper entity that is delivered to homes or available on “newsstands” is important. Young people under 30 prefer to read online, and there is no reason to expect that to change. In fact, I think that in the future, only art books and certain kinds of magazines will continue to be printed and available for sale and probably online.

But if you ask whether journalism as a profession is necessary, the answer is a resounding yes. Journalism came into its own in democratic societies over the last century and made an enormous difference in the health of those societies. It is hard to think of American history in the latter half of the 20th century without thinking of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and more recently, the investigative journalism that did or did not take place concerning the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We look to trained journalists to describe what is happening as accurately as possible, not to play favorites, not to distort, to avoid anonymity except when absolutely necessary, to triangulate sources, and to correct errors promptly. While one can learn from blogs or amateur journalists, the distance between a trained investigative journalist and a blogger is as great as the difference between a trained physician and a barefoot doctor. The loss of journalism as a profession would be so grievous a loss that, as Thomas Jefferson anticipated, it might not be possible to retain a democratic society.

Q: Please elaborate on the assertion you make in your book, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, that media are “an early warning sign.”

The Good Work Project was begun in 1994-1995. Psychologists Bill Damon, Mihaly Csikszentmihalhi, and I are not critics of markets per se. But we raised the question of whether any profession could survive over the long haul, if markets were all powerful and there were no significant counter-forces, of a religious, ideological, communitarian, or governmental sort. In the intervening 15 years, we have seen professions like law, accounting, education, even parts of medicine move more and more away from professional conduct toward a simple (or not so simple) supply and demand model - indistinguishable from any business. In many ways, the media - and here I am speaking particularly about print and broadcast journalism - were the first professions to be buffeted about by unrelenting market forces. Even the paper of record, The New York Times, makes huge obeisance to market forces, and the television and cable network outlets are a far cry from anything that I would call journalism. It is a sad situation.

Q: What forces or characteristics do you see in the Internet and digital realm that could help journalism?

No technology is moral or immoral in itself; it is only the uses to which the technology is put. Without question, the new digital media expose us to more sources of information, and to more voices, than could have envisioned even twenty years ago. For those of us who are willing to trawl through various sources, including (especially) those with which we do not agree, and to travel beyond our own shores (literally and metaphorically), there is a greater possibility of finding out what is really going on, than ever before.

However, unless people have both the skill of surveying widely and dispassionately, and the will to do so, the digital media will reinforce the worst tendencies - superficiality and banality and sensationalism - of the once solid, if somewhat stolid, old media.

Q: What is the role of citizens, government, foundations, academia, other segments of society in intervening into the current crisis around journalism and newspapers?

I don't have much hope of government in the U.S. aiding in the preservation of journalism. Indeed, large segments of the government, on the left as well as right, would just as soon that newspapers and journalism slither way, so that they could do brainwashing without the free exchange of ideas and uncensored news, which is the hallmark of a free society.

Foundations are doing their part, but could do much more. If Bill Gates (or George Soros) were to give several hundred million dollars to The New York Times, they could endow investigative journalism in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.

There are many citizens and citizen groups that lament the current situation, but so long as they are disconnected both from the political process and from deep pockets, what they can do is quite limited. Personally, I wish that education - from the elementary years right through four year colleges - would do a great deal more about journalism, how it works, why it is so important, how to separate the journalistic wheat from the pseudo-journalistic chaff. It is that important.

I applaud Alan Miller and The News Literacy Project, for their excellent work with young people. I wish that every secondary school and college/university worth its name would undertake an analogous exercise.

Q: In the closing passage in Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (p. 221), you say of journalism: “The danger is that with all goodwill, we are cheerfully encouraging trends that might turn the information inside our bodies and minds into a chaotic jumble. And then 1984 and Brave New World will no longer seem quaint period pieces.”

Let me put it another way. The Nobel prize physicist Murray Gell-Mann once commented that, in the 21st century, the most valued mind will be the Synthesizing Mind. He is right. We are all deluged with information, data, much of it false or dubious. And even those data that are true are uninterpreted. Unless we as individuals (or as larger groups) learn how to sift through this miasma, and make judgments of quality and relevance, we will be far worse off than we were in the 1960s, when Time magazine told us on its cover who mattered, and when Walter Cronkite announced each evening, "That's the way it is."

So the amount of information is great, but the imperative to evaluate and make sense of it is greater than ever. This, however, is a task for education - very few of us will learn on our own how to synthesize. And it is also a challenge of motivation - we need both to want to develop these synthesizing skills, and then to make use of them regularly, rather like a muscle that improves with practice.

Spring 2011

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