Stanford University News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Gardner discusses "issues behind the issues" in education

STANFORD -- Tough educational issues will continue to beset us until we focus on the "issues behind the issues" - in areas involving renewal, community building and shared values - John Gardner told an audience of educators Thursday, Oct. 28.

Gardner, a lecturer in the School of Education and the Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service, spoke about the barriers to educational change at a dinner discussion for the Friends of the Stanford University School of Education.

He noted that "we are hearing many vigorous calls to action today," but not all of them are pertinent or coherent. He compared them to Casey Stengel shouting, "All right, men! Line up alphabetically according to height!"

Gardner, a former secretary of health, education and welfare, founder of Common Cause and a 1964 recipient of the Medal of Freedom, said society must consider the larger issues that surround "the accomplishment of group purpose" rather than focus exclusively on educational leadership or gritty educational problems.

"Suppose that our shared values have disintegrated to the point that we can no longer lend ourselves to any worthy common purpose," Gardner said. "Suppose that our institutions cannot adapt themselves to the tumult of contemporary change. Suppose that we are hobbled by our internal conflicts, which grow more numerous and multidimensional every day. Suppose the cynicism, alienation and self-seeking impulses of our citizens ensure that the game is lost before our team even takes the field.

"Do we have it in us to build a future worthy of our past?" he asked. "It depends, in my judgment, on the extent to which we deal effectively with the 'issues behind the issues.' "

Gardner detailed nine themes he saw as fundamental to educational change:

  • The release of human possibilities.

Gardner said society's greatest asset is the talent and energy of its people. However, he noted that "most societies have effectively stifled both." Their loss occurs "on a large scale in corporations, in government agencies, in nonprofit organizations."

"The battles we wage against physical and mental illness, prejudice, political oppression, ignorance and poverty are not just exercises in compassion. They are battles for the release of human talent and energy."

According to Gardner, "We are just beginning to see that the individual's potentialities may be blighted by early discouragement, by an early environment that diminished the sense of self-worth, by excessive pressures for conformity, by narrow specialization, by a lack of opportunities to grow."

  • Institutional redesign or renewal.

Gardner acknowledged the universality of institutional decline: "Business journals recount the growth and decay of commercial enterprises. Motivation tends to run down. Values decay. Group loyalties block self-examination."

He nevertheless urged the audience to remember that "renewal is possible" and warned against the tendency for means to triumph over ends in situations where "people become prisoners of procedures."

  • The dispersion of initiative and responsibility.

In large, intricate systems, said Gardner, delegation is an "inescapable requirement."

"It isn't just a matter of democratic sentiment."

  • Community building.

Gardner said that "as a society, we have tested the limits of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement, and we don't like what we see down that road."

"The idea of wholeness is implicit in the term community. But everything we know about cults and totalitarianism tells us there is such a thing as too much 'wholeness.'

"Wholeness incorporating diversity is the transcendent goal of our time, the task for our generation worldwide.

"If there is to be wholehearted participation, every segment of the community must feel that it counts, that it is respected, that it will be heard."

  • Collaboration and conflict resolution.

While conceding that conflict is a "normal ingredient of human interaction," Gardner noted that today the goals of "humaneness and civility" are threatened by "the ancient impulse to hate and fear the tribe in the next valley, the tendency to relegate those who are 'not like us' to the status of non-persons and therefore permissibly harassed, discriminated against and persecuted."

Gardner said that 2,000 elementary schools are now teaching conflict resolution. "More research, more training and wider application are needed."

  • Citizen action.

Gardner said that government, our largest system of organized power, must be accountable.

"The ballot box alone has not proven capable of monitoring and controlling our vast political system."

He pointed out that the establishment of national parks, laws governing industrial safety, pure food and drug legislation, the vote for women, child labor legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and environmental laws all grew out of citizen movements.

  • Shared values.

All societies define "what things are legal or illegal, virtuous or vicious, good taste or bad. They have little or no impulse to be neutral about such matters.

"The time-honored reaction to disintegration of values is hand wringing and despair. But we have an uncelebrated capacity to generate and regenerate value systems and moral orders, to counter disintegration with new integrations," Gardner said.

"The values to which the culture gives its stamp of approval are not unchanging realities. Some of the great builders of the value framework, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King Jr., spoke for values that were not universally accepted when they lived but are now. There must always be room for dissent - with consequent enrichment and refining of the value framework."

  • Motivation.

People must be prepared for frustration without abandoning their enthusiasm and optimism, Gardner said.

"And we must understand that the 'goal' isn't a true endpoint where we can climb into a hammock and relax, but a starting point for the next stage in a journey of endless renewal," Gardner added.

"What is needed is tough-minded optimism."

  • Meaning and commitment.

When people find meaning in their struggles, said Gardner, "they are capable of heroic effort and endurance." While in earlier times such meaning may have been found within community and tradition, today we must build meaning into our lives through our commitments - "whether to your religion; to your conception of an ethical order; to your family, group or community; to the rights of others; to unborn generations."

Gardner said that, despite the problems society faces, he remains an optimist, "which is a pretty unfashionable thing to be. Everyone makes fun of it. They say pessimists got that way by financing optimists."

Adding that he had "been around more than a third of the time that the United States has been in existence," he commented that philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that "a person who sees two or three generations is like someone who watches the magician at the state fair and sees the tricks through two or three performances. They were meant to be seen only once.

"That's a somewhat cynical remark, but despite my years, I'm not cynical. Not even slightly. I enjoy seeing the tricks several times. And it doesn't bother me that I'm no longer young enough to know everything."



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.