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Needed: A Reversal of Figure/Ground

By Howard Gardner

Those who remember their introductory psychology will recall the concept of 'figure /ground.' Most graphic displays, like photographs or paintings, feature a dominant object (or 'figure') in the foreground; to the extent that background is noticeable, its function is to support perception of the central figure.

In considering education in the United States today, what's wrong with the picture? In a word, we've focused so exclusively on one figure--performance on a certain kind of standardized test instrument--that all other considerations are obscure or absent. I recommend a dramatic reversal of figure and ground. At the center of the image called American Education, I propose three dominant figures: the kinds of Persons we value; the kinds of Workers we cherish; the kinds of local, national, and global Citizens that we need.

A tall order, you are thinking. But in fact, over the course of history, these considerations have loomed large. The greatest educational thinkers--from Plato to John Dewey--have thought much about the human beings we would like to have, in the neighborhood, the individuals we'd like to encounter at the workplace, and the citizens needed for a well-functioning society.

Why, as a a nation, have we embarked on a well-meaning but misguided pathway? Principally, I propose, because a model of human existence, based heavily on market considerations, has come to dominate educational discourse worldwide, and the United States has absorbed this model totally and uncritically. I have much more to say on this topic, and I hope that those who are interested will inform themselves about The GoodWork Project and our Toolkit, our effort to move such considerations to the fore.

To forestall the most obvious rejoinder (and with a nod to my colleagues in this series of Harvard-emanating blogs): I am not for a moment saying that literacy, or numeracy, or the scholarly disciplines are unimportant. Nor am I saying that learning in these areas should remain unassessed. Nor am I doubting the importance of the biological, digital, or global revolutions. What I am saying is that unless we place in the foreground the individuals and society that we long for, all the rest will be in vain.

It has become commonplace, in this "Waiting for Superman" era, to blame the problems of U.S. society on our schools and our teachers. But that is nonsense. As David Halberstam pointed out decades ago, our misadventure in Vietnam was brought about by 'the best and the brightest.' Whether it is the massive deceptions at Enron, the greed of the financial world, or the prostitution of the academy, those with high SAT scores have lots to answer for. (The movie "Inside Job" provides far more insight into our troubles than does "Waiting for Superman"). These facts about American society today constitute the principal reason why we need a new guiding figure at the center of the educational landscape.

Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Howard Gardner's book Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the virtues in the 21st century, has just been published.

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