During this thoroughly depressing season of American life, I have been re-reading two books by Howard Gardner, the professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. I was privileged to spend a morning with him this past March at the School’s Library Leadership for a Digital Age professional education forum. I was impressed again by his humanity, long-range vision, and insight that people are rarely either at their best or at their worst.
The two books are Five Minds for the Future and Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed. Five Minds was originally published ten years ago, and Gardner added a substantial new introduction to the paperback edition of 2008. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed was published five years ago, and he added a new introduction to the paperback edition of a year later. Rather than simply becoming out of date, if anything these books are more urgent than ever. Disciplined, respectful, creative reflection: what could be more foreign to the spirit of 2016?
Five Minds alludes to Gardner’s famous work on multiple intelligences, but takes a different approach to minds which are made up of varying mixtures of intelligences and connections. The disciplined, synthesizing, and creative minds figure most prominently in education, whether formal or informal, and form the great content of many people’s work, whether mental or physical. The respectful and ethical minds, by contrast, figure the “how” of life, both to members of a group, and to other human beings in relationship (the respectful), and in relation to the wider impact of behavior and work on society (the ethical). What makes work “good,” both in a technical sense and a moral sense? The respectful mind elucidates personal morality and reciprocity; ethical work elucidates citizenship and the “common- wealth” in an eighteenth century term. Of course this brief summary elides a great deal of content, context, and subtlety.
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed extends this work: the five minds addressing the classical virtues and their uneasy transition into a digital world. Gardner defends these classical questions against the determinism of free market theory (in which value tends to equal price), neurobiological determinism (in which truth is a result of genetic controls), and “hard” post-modern relativism, according to which truth, beauty, and goodness are inherently unattainable, and merely cloak the acquisition and exercise of power. Gardner’s extended defence and arguments are not easy to summarize. Suffice that these are fundamental to a respectful, ethical human society and in a hyper-connected, fleeting, digital world become more important than ever as anchors for human flourishing.
In a broad sense Gardner pushes back against radically reductive economic, neuro-psychological, or radically skeptical currents that would dislodge the major claims of liberal arts education. “Liberal arts” as a term never appears in these books, and yet implicit in his convictions lies a strong claim that in fact the unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates’ foundational claim). The great peril of unreflective, technological, market-driven capitalist society is not that it does not know enough to function, but that it cannot reckon what it does not know –greatly to its undoubted, eventual undoing. A reflective mind is a necessarily modest mind.
What does this have to do with an academic library? Everything. If a neo-liberal university is exclusively driven by utility –what sells? –what do users already know they want to use? –what is the return of utilization for price? –what keeps them paying tuition so they don’t move to a cheaper competitor, or away entirely? Then the question of minds simply goes out the window. In that view, a disciplined, synthesizing, and creative mind only matters if it can make money and further the aims of the organization’s management. Respect and ethics means only doing work that is good enough, behaving in the right way, and not being too nakedly self-centered or opportunistic. In that case, the library becomes simply a managed environment for stenographic repetition of known thoughts. Concepts of truth, beauty, goodness –however tenuously re-worked—are simply beside the point, lovely luxuries for those who can flaunt high-end educational branding.
If on the other hand a university can find a way to articulate the fundamental values of reflective thinking in an unthinkingly reactive, pompous, and dis-respectful era, then the library has a place as a center for self-directed engagement with potentially transformative truths. In such a context the library enacts the university’s mission of nurturing sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom by creating the physical and intellectual space where a biology student can become a biologist (just one example). Gardner’s books have everything to do with the why of librarianship. David Lankes has been quoted that a room full of books without a librarian is just a room full of books, but an empty room with a librarian is a library. (Of course the latter case is really easier to do with at least a few books.) That focuses on the why of librarianship: it is what librarians do; the library is all the people (librarians and readers) and their thinking, not just their stuff. The librarian’s and the user’s actions can transcend their self-interests. They can create and re-create their minds for a respectful and creative future.