Creating Ethical and Healthier Minds

A preeminent Harvard professor is on a mission to develop more ethical minds in high-achieving youth

Howard Gardner, a preeminent Harvard professor, discovered a disturbing trend during many years studying the most talented students in our nation. Most of them cheated.

These were students at the leading high schools and colleges in the country. “They know what is ‘right,’ but they are afraid that they will fall behind their peers who aren’t choosing the most ethical behavior,” Gardner says.

He spoke about this recently to more than 1,200 North Shore residents at two talks sponsored by the Family Awareness Network (FAN), New Trier High School and Make It Better. My husband and I are raising a New Trier family—you know, the “best public high school in the country” New Trier. Four of our six children have already graduated from there. Every one of those four complained tearfully at least once during their tenure about the intense competition at our otherwise beloved high school. Was it possible that a culture of cheating contributed to their angst? I hadn’t considered this issue until I heard Gardner’s recent comments.

One son confirmed that his New Trier experience matched the norm Gardner describes. “Almost everyone cheated at least a little,” my son says. “There was such a pervasive feeling that you had to do everything you could to get ahead and stay ahead.”

I hurt now thinking about the stress that must have caused him, his siblings and their friends. New Trier isn’t the only high-achieving school in our area. The North Shore is home to some of the best schools in the country and a student population that likely feels similar pressures to succeed.

To help counter the pervasive high-achieving, corner-cutting norm, Gardner has become an activist for ethics education. He now advocates that ethics and responsibility should be two of the five pillars of the ideal 21st century education. The other three pillars are creativity, discipline and the ability to synthesize complex information.

Gardner founded the “GoodWork Project” and the “GoodWork Toolkit” to help develop ethics, excellence and engagement by students. But good parenting will be even more effective than his GoodWork curriculum. “Parents are still the greatest influence on students’ development,” Gardner says.

He offers simple guidelines that are as likely to help counter the stress of competitive school cultures as any other technique. I like that they also sound like simple common sense to my maternal ears: Show your kids that you care and that you are there for them unconditionally.

“Parents are still the greatest influence on students’ development,” Gardner says.

Try to understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Nurture the strengths. Remember that character is more important than intellect.

Be calm about college admission, show that you are open to many possibilities—including some time off. Emphasize that your child can get an excellent education at any one of hundreds of schools.

“I can’t emphasize the last point enough,” Gardner says. “Any notion that it is Yale or nothing else, is simply wrong… and destructive.”

I’m fairly certain that I did all the wrong things with our oldest son—like pushing him hard to build the kind of resume that would help him get into the best possible college. I didn’t pay enough attention to his interests and aptitudes.This couldn’t have helped him deal with the stresses of his school’s competitive culture. Hopefully though, the damage wasn’t irrevocable.

With the last two children, my parental challenge will be quite the opposite. I don’t fear adding to the pressure as much as I’m worried that I’m just not paying enough attention. When is the ACT? I haven’t a clue. Are we scheduling college visits? Only if our kids insist on it.

Whether parents pay too much or too little attention, Gardner’s mission to curb cheating and build more ethical and responsible students is laudable and exactly right. It’s likely to ensure a better future for our world. If we embrace his suggestions and techniques, future North Shore students may be spared the stress that my son described.

You can learn more about the GoodWork Project and GoodWork ToolKit at:,, or

Need a few book suggestions? Here are our favorites from Professor Gardner:

Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice –This book explores the theory pioneered by Gardner that intelligence goes far beyond a single intelligence, based on IQ testing, and actually expands into eight different intelligences to account for a broader range of human potential in children and adults.

Five Minds for the Future –This book explores the five “minds” that will be critical to success in a 21st century landscape of accelerating change and information overload.

The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think And How Schools Should Teach –This book offers a call to reexamine the way children learn in their earliest years and to make use of those new findings in classrooms.


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