Howard Gardner
Source: Howard Gardner

It’s comforting to think that our intelligence isn’t reducible to a single number. Indeed, especially in education circles, the theory of multiple intelligences is widely embraced. 

In today’s The Eminents interview, I spoke with that theory’s creator, Howard Gardner. We spoke about that and his  work examining higher education and ethical issues in the professions.

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard. He received a MacArthur "Genius Grant,"  and has received honorary degrees from 31 colleges. He’s twice been selected by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of the world’s 100 most influential public intellectuals. He has written 30 books that have been translated into 32 languages

MN: Say a little about the theory of multiple intelligences.

HG: Multiple-intelligence theory has never been embraced by the psychometric community but has had enormous influence in education in many parts of the world. Most of my thinking has focused on educational uses—individualizing education and multiple ways of presenting concepts--and criticizing proposals that seem wrong-headed, for example, describing groups in terms of their "dominant intelligences," or creating short-answer tests that purport to reveal the test-taker’s intellectual profile.

MN: So it’s more of a philosophy than data-based?

HG: No, the theory is entirely empirical, based on a huge amount of data gleaned from several disciplines. But it’s not experimental—You can’t do a test to prove the theory right or wrong. Rather, like many theories in non-experimental fields like geology, archaeology, astronomy, or even evolution, it’s a synthesis of data. Its survival is based on whether better syntheses come along.

MN:  Over the years, has the theory changed?

HG: For the most part, it has withstood the test of time. I have added one intelligence (naturalist) and contemplated the evidence for two additional ones (existential and pedagogical.) But I’ve now moved on to other topics, for example, examining higher education on several campuses around the nation and considering how it might best be transformed. Once again, the study is based on data—My team and I will carry out about 2,000 interviews. Our findings will be our synthesis of what we’ve learned.

MN: I believe that a core problem with undergraduate education, especially at research universities like Harvard, Stanford, NYU, etc, is that most teaching is done by PhDs who, by temperament, training, interests, and rewards, are researchers first. So they spend most of their time and energy probing a snip of a field’s cutting edge. In my view, the attributes needed to be a transformative undergraduate instructor are pretty orthogonal to that. It would seem that undergraduate education would be superior if there was a separate track for teaching faculty. Your thoughts?

HG: At institutions with which I am familiar, advancement and tenure is generally evaluated in terms of research productivity, with teaching evaluations and institutional service considered as well. In the future, I favor adding the components of "helping students to grow" and "strengthening the institution.” American undergraduate education in the liberal arts has been justifiably admired around the world. Citizens with means seek to send their children to Stanford or Swarthmore or Skidmore and many countries crave connections to American universities—See Yale-Singapore,  NYU-Abu Dhabi. We do need to ask more of teachers but also of students, parents, and policymakers. The goal of our current study is to point the way toward quality higher education in the United States and in the rest of the world.

MN: Your current work also focuses on ethical issues in the field of education. Here’s one I’m particularly curious about. Is it fair to subject the nation's students to the full range of instructor quality? Mightn't more students, rich and poor, learn more from an online, highly-immersive interactive individually paced, differentially taught online course team-taught by a dream team of the nation's most transformational teachers and supplemented by an in-person discussion group?

HG: Initially, there was ecstasy about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)—They were going to solve all of our educational challenges. Then, there was the inevitable reaction: Most individuals don’t complete MOOCs, and those that do tend to be already well-educated. And so, hardly a solution.

MN: I’m talking about something different. I’m talking about making online courses available not just to the well-educated but as part of the curriculum for all college students. And because they were developed to serve the entire nation, they could be taught by a team of highly transformational instructors, supported by, for example, gamification and virtual-reality designers. And, as I said, it would be supplemented by an in-person discussion group

HG: MOOCs are already available for all, though, as you note, they tend to be completed by individuals with sufficient expertise and motivation. I’m sure that they will steadily improve and will eventually be taken for granted. However, accessibility is not the same as affordability. To create a quality MOOC is costly—and to include discussion facilitated by qualified instructors also requires resources. So far no one has found a way to educate on the cheap—Education is still more like a string quartet with little economy of scale than like the production of widgets.

MN: I do have to push back a little here.  If a course, say, calculus, were developed to serve the nation's let alone the world's students, the development cost per student would be amortized across millions of students and thus much lower than a nationful of traditional courses.

Let's turn to psychotherapists. After all, this is Psychology Today. It is difficult to control enough variables to ascertain therapy’s effectiveness or even a modality’s effectiveness, let alone effectiveness for adolescent African-American girls with moderate depression, 40%ile verbal intelligence but 70%ile emotional intelligence from a 20%ile SES living in rural Alabama. So therapists and patients alike end up relying on gut feeling to decide, for example, whether and with whom a patient should spend money and time in an attempt to heal. What is the ethical obligation of the individual psychotherapist and of the profession as a whole in that regard?

HG:  I am a trained psychologist but not a clinician and don’t have special knowledge on which to draw. That said, our work on ethics TheGoodProject.org and my blog The Professional Ethicist does offer a way to think about such issues.

The way to deal with ethical dilemmas is to create a common space—often called a commons-- in which trained personnel can describe a dilemma, consider courses of action, and look for the best solution.

The commons doesn't end with the decision. It's important to examine the decision’s consequences, to learn positive lessons and reflect on the difficulties and failures to see whether a better decision could be made in the future.

You rightly point out the difference between the individual professional and the profession as a whole. Any profession should have norms around the issue you raise. And, in the words of the great economic thinker Albert Hirschman, we all owe a measure of loyalty to professional norms. But when the norms seem unhelpful or unproductive, one needs to speak up—to activate voice. And in the extreme, if the profession and one’s colleagues seem estranged from a thoughtfully selected course of action, you need to consider the possibility of exit. Of course, if you knowingly violate norms or laws, you need to be prepared to face the consequences—or to lead a revolution!

MN:  You will soon be 73. What’s in store for the future?

HG:  Contradictory precepts that have guided me for as long as I can remember: 1: I will live forever.  2: I will die tomorrow.

I see no reason to alter this dual allegiance: Though I am now past the Biblical threshold of 70, I’m at what has been dubbed the "still" age: still teaching, still conducting research, still writing.  To that list I’ve added two welcome descriptors: grandparent and mentor. I try to fill both roles competently.

As for my work, this interview has touched on its three principal phases.

  • MI theory is now past adolescence and I am allowing it to fend for itself.
  • Colleagues and I have now worked for two decades on issues of ethics, good work, and good citizenship. Our efforts now are to share what we have found—our concepts, our overall framework, our toolkits--with educators, other professionals, parents, students, etc. We also are seeking productive collaborations with other individuals and institutions that share these missions. I owe a special debt to Lynn Barendsen, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Bill Damon, Wendy Fischman and Carrie James who have been true partners in this work.
  • Our current work is a large national study of liberal arts and sciences in the 21st century. We are studying ten deliberately disparate campuses. Our wonderful team is headed by Wendy Fischman.  We are not ready yet to publicize our findings—indeed, we don’t yet know what they will be. Stay tuned!

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.

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