Howard Gardner, PhD, has heard enough about charter schools, teacher unions, national standards and the debate over whether phonics is better than "whole language." These discussions, important as they may be, skirt the fundamental question, which is, he says: Why do we people go to school anyway?

"Why do we need to have an education?" he asked hundreds of attendees at an October Smithsonian lecture in Washington, D.C. "The main reason for going to school is to understand the disciplines and use that understanding to make sense of the world."

The meat and potatoes of education, says the Harvard University professor, should be learning to think. But what kids are being served instead is a plateful of facts that don't add up to knowledge. What they need is a deep understanding of truth, beauty and goodness, a training that will help them better understand why the world is as it is and how life can and should be lived.

The topics people choose don't matter, says Gardner, who revolutionized the educational field with his theory of multiple intelligences. The key, though, is to study them deeply.

Gardner's own favorites--and ones he explores in his most recent book "The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests, the K­12 Education That Every Child Deserves" (Penguin, 1999)--are the theory of evolution (truth), the artistry of Mozart (beauty) and the historical lessons of the Holocaust (goodness).

Cramming useless knowledge

The problem in today's "cultural literacy" environment, Gardner points out, is that so many topics are clamoring for attention that teachers are forced into taking the approach of, "Well students, that's enough on the Holocaust, let's move on to holograms."

Students end up learning a hodgepodge of facts without knowing how they relate to central themes. "Absent such disciplinary texture and glue," says Gardner, "these facts are likely to be soon forgotten."

When we forget the facts, he says, we revert back to childhood theories about the world--and these theories represent the biggest obstacle to understanding concepts.

"Research shows that when children are young," Gardner explains, "they develop what you call intuitive theories. It's like powerful engravings in your brain. Teachers don't recognize how powerful they are. At school, you may learn a lot of information, lots of facts called literacy, but early theories don't disappear, they stay on the ground."

Gardner offers this example: Students are discussing complex historical events, like World War I, considering the politics in each country and other issues that take the topic of war beyond the "good guy and bad guy" representations most of us grew up with. But ask the same students about a war in a different part of the world and, instead of applying complex thinking to understand what's going on, many students lapse back into good-guy, bad-guy script.

Rewriting the script

The best way to change these flawed engravings, says Gardner, is to confront these misconceptions, then fashion new ones. Gardner urges educators to take a more systematic approach for teaching children how to think--developing a curriculum based on his three-prong principle. Here is why:

  • Truth. Unless you have some understanding of the key notions of species, variation and natural selection, as well as an appreciation of the struggle among people for survival, you can't understand the world around you. Gardner says you also need to understand the notion of evolution when talking about the merits of cloning or the advisability of genetic counseling.
  • Beauty. Gardner says he chose Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro because it represents the pinnacle of beauty, and it portrays characters with deeply held human emotion. A grasp of Mozart's achievement, he explains, can also help you appreciate other works of art--and even inspire new creations.
  • Good. Understanding a sequence of events like the Holocaust, he says, is critical because everyone needs to realize what human beings are capable of doing. Although the Holocaust is mostly an account of unprecedented human evil, there were also many incidents of goodness in that time period. Studying a historical period is important, he adds, because people can make better decisions when they've learned how others have dealt with pressures and dilemmas.

What's the best way for students to learn these principles? Through multiple intelligence techniques. Some children learn subjects better through story-telling, others relate better to numbers.

"Because there are so many different types of students," he writes, "multiple intelligences can become a powerful partner in effective teaching."

The most effective way to involve students, he writes, is through the use of dramatic, vivid narrative. You can capture the students' attention by telling the fascinating story of Darwin, a young man with promise but problems as well. Those who are more adept at math can be taken in with the story of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. Once you've captured their interest, Gardner advises, up the ante by bringing the students into full contact with content. Using metaphors is a good way to get their attention. You can compare Mozart's opera to the design of a new building or the launching of a business, where many people play a role in the development and each person's actions affect the workplace.

Gardner acknowledges there is nothing sacrosanct about this trio of topics--other than the fact that he feels passionate about them.

"Another book," he says, "on another day, could focus upon relativity, revolutions and the rages of southern India. And I would devour such a book."

Marcela Kogan is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md.