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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Educator of the Nation

President Obama has done an outstanding job of delineating the challenges ahead, while at the same time motivating and mobilizing the public to address those challenges. He has done so by wearing the mantle of the educator-- a mantle that has too little been used by American leaders in recent times. With respect to his audience, an educator does not presuppose knowledge. Rather, he/she has to give names, numbers, and substance to the topic and also identify the frames--the interpretive schemes within which to place these details.

Until recently most Americans have not appreciated the extent and the depth of the problems that we face and there is not a current rhetoric for addressing difficult problems--"go shopping" has been the the glib regimen. And we are better at assimilating "it is morning in America today" than we are at "blood, sweat, tears, and toil". And so over the last months, weeks, and days, it has been Obama's task to itemize the difficulties, communicate that they will not be solved rapidly or easily, and display an impressive pragmatism in how they will be tackled--an approach reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt at the beginning of his term and, for that matter, of Churchill in the dark summer of 1940.

I listened to the Inaugural address with these thoughts in mind. I thought that Obama struck an excellent balance between challenges/long-road-ahead/responsibilities of citizens, on the one hand, and can do the job/ resilience/resources/energy on the other. In that sense, he continued to fill the role of 'educator of the nation.'

At the same time, I must add that the speech itself was a slight letdown. I looked back at his speeches that I most admired--the March 18 'race and religion' speech in Philadelphia and the November 4 "victory speech' in Chicago. In each of these cases, Obama fulfilled the role of leader as I have defined it: an individual with a powerful story to communicate to a heterogeneous audience, an individual whose own life embodies that story. In the March 18 speech, Obama told us about race and religion in America, and he used his own life as a vivid example, with which most of us could identify. In the November 4 speech, he used the powerful vehicle of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106 year old woman whose life embodied the civil rights movement. These vivid biographical sketches gave clarity and memorability to the speeches.

While the inaugural speech did have some vivid imagery-- a journey through difficult weather, the picture of dusting ourselves off and getting on with the job of rebuilding-- it lacked an overarching story or image: either the story of an individual, or, what might have been more appropriate here-- a story of America. And so we were given a set of points, more reminiscent of a State of the Union address than of an address that marked an occasion and provided a single, powerful inspiration.

Having critiqued our President, let me end with a confession. As an Obama supporter, I have had many ideas along the way about what he should do and say, and what he should avoid. Just about every time I disagreed with Obama, he turned out to be shrewder or sager than I was. So perhaps the speech was perfect for the occasion, and I am off base.

By Howard Gardner

 |  January 21, 2009; 11:02 AM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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