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Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist and the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He holds positions as[…]

Question: Is our culture biased towards one type of intelligence over another?

Howard Gardner: Well the theory claims we all had these eight intelligences and people are different from one another in their profile of intelligences and there’s no necessary link between one intelligence and the other. It also is based on the assumption that we wouldn’t have these intelligences if they haven’t been valuable in human evolution. An example I like to use is that the—we developed the natural intelligence so we knew what to eat and what not to eat, to be able to pay attention to which animals to run away from and which animals to hunt and of course which plants to eat and which ones—there’s a reason why we're sensitive to the world of nature.

Now most of us, particularly people who watch this, they go to super markets and they don't have to know anything about the wild, but I think that the neural networks which evolved to help us get around in the Savannah’s of East Africa 50,000 years ago, they're now being used for consumer society and we decide which shoes to buy and which car to buy and we're looking at the same kinds of things that our ancestors did but we’re doing it in terms of walking through the mall rather than walking through the—running though the Savannah and hoping we won’t get eaten by some kind of a creature.

As history unfolds, as cultures evolve, of course the intelligences which they value change. I would say, until a hundred years ago, if you wanted to have higher education, linguistic intelligence was important. I teach at Harvard and a 125 years ago, 150 years ago, the entrance exams were Latin, Greek and Hebrew. If, for example, you were dyslexic, that would be very difficult because it would be hard for you to learn those languages, which are basically written languages. People don’t speak Greek when they were in ancient Greek.

Over the last century, clearly the logical mathematical intelligence is something we pay a lot of attention to and the linguistic intelligence is a little bit more of an option. But once one looks at the world of occupations, we have hundreds of occupations and I think the reason that Dan Goleman’s work on social and emotion intelligence has got so much attention is because while your IQ, which is sort of language logic, will get you behind the desk, if you don’t know how to deal with people, if you don't know how to read yourself, you know you’re going to ending up just staying at that desk forever or eventually being asked to make room for somebody who does have social or emotional intelligence.

When the singularity occurs and the machines are smarter than we are, then it’s the artistic kinds of intelligence or intelligence used artistically to be more precise, which will come to the fore.

Question: Is the theory of Multiple Intelligences reformist?

Howard Gardner: I think you can talk about reformism in two sentences, one is it’s clear that when I developed this theory in the late 1970s I was trying to reform the way psychologists and other people think about intelligence. So certainly I had an iconoclastic or reformist inclination there. I was kind of surprised the psychologists didn’t all line up in a row and say, "You’re right. We’ve been wrong for 100 years." That’s somewhat facetious but I was surprised in how much interest there was within the educational world, and there I would say gradually, I switched from simply saying this is how I think the mind is organized and how it has developed to I think there are maybe there are things differently in education because of the theory.

Then really in the last 15 years, I think I’ve become much more reformist because I have been concerned about the ethical dimensions of our society. That doesn’t grow in any natural way out of multiple intelligences theory. If I look at it somewhat autobiographically, as a young person I was very much involved with music. I was a serious pianist and while I never thought about a career in music, music was and has been very important to me. Then when I got to college I became interested in the art forms and then I spent a year in England as a Fellow and I really immersed myself in drama. It’s great to do in theater in London and art galleries and sort of expanded my artistic horizons and then when I went to graduate school in psychology I was stunned at how the arts were never mentioned.

To be a developed person cognitively meant to be a scientist and to think scientifically. We could speculate about why that’s so, but the serious book I wrote was called the Arts and Human Development. And what I said in that book, this was in the early '70s, is all the developmental psychology has thought of science as the apotheosis of human development, yet science is a modern Western invention and we might well never have invented science, if we had not Galileo and Copernicus and Newton. On the other hand, arts exist in just about every society and they’re very important, so can we conceptualize development in terms of the arts as well as the sciences.

Question: Is intelligence determined more by nurture or nature?

Howard Gardner: Well, as you probably know, as the viewers probably know, nowadays nobody takes extreme positions on that issue. Maybe someday the press will learn not to take extreme positions on the issue. And I certainly believe that every intelligence has genetic components; how else would it exist? And every intelligence has certain heritability; that’s the technical term for how much of the variation of population has to do with who your biological grandparents were, because that’s a better set of genes than your parents because you have four sets rather than two.

We don’t know what the heritability is of most intelligences, but from a lot of research we know that on the average human traits are about 0.5 heritable. That means that genes make a big contribution but so do parents, culture, the media, peers and so on.

I guess I never put it this way before, but maybe what I would say is the intelligences that you favor are probably ones where you have a genetic predisposition, but how use those intelligences is going to be overwhelmingly determined by the culture in which you were born and your parents and what they value and whether you get along with your parents and that kind of thing. So the deployment of intelligences is probably largely a nurture factor. But if say if the Bach family had a lot of genes going for it in the music area and probably that was pretty likely that they were going end up being musicians even if they hadn’t—even if they been so to speak separated at birth and they’d been raised in another kind of family.

Question: If there are so many ways to be smart, what does it mean to be stupid?

Howard Gardner: The first thing I would say is that life isn’t fair and some people are going to be strong in a lot of intelligences and some people aren’t. I think of the intelligences as a set of computers. If you wanted to summarize my theory in a sentence, we used to think there was just one general computer in here and if you were good at one thing, you’d be good at everything. If you’re lousy in one thing, you’re smarter across the board. Stupid across the board. I think the step I took, I would call it an advance is you can be very smart with language, average with music, lousy with understanding other people, or vice versa. There’s no necessarily correlation between the two.

I think stupid has two very different connotations. One is that your computer isn’t very good. For example, I’m not biologically very good spatially, but the truth is with a map and a position determiner and some special attention to the environment I can do perfectly well, but I suppose if there were a test of spatial intelligence I wouldn’t do very well.

So, one meaning for stupid is it takes you a long to do what it takes other people who are smarter in that intelligence. I’m very musical, especially when I was younger, I heard something once, not only could I remember it, I couldn’t forget it. So that’s smart in kind of a technical sense.

But the other sense of stupid, but I think is much more important, is how do you go about leading your life? Do you know what you’re trying to do? Can you achieve it? When you make mistake, do you make same mistake again? Or do you simply stick in a rut? That has to do with your own understanding of yourself, what you’re trying to achieve; what I call intra-personal intelligence. I much rather to have somebody who was stupid in the first sense but had a good sense of how to negotiate their way through life, than somebody who had the computers going full blast but kept knocking their head against the wall.

I make fun of Mensa—I don’t know a great deal about Mensa, that’s the high IQ group—but I say, "To get into Mensa, you have to have a high IQ, and once you get in, you spend your time congratulating people who are in Mensa with you." To me that’s a pretty stupid way to spend your life.

Recorded On: September 3, 2009


Question: How do we change Americans’ conception of success?

Howard Gardner: I’m not going to give a course in American History, but we’ve had periods of greed and we've had periods which were much more generous. I think we are certainly have been in a period of incredible greed. I think certainly dating back 20 or 30 years, that’s not going to be changed overnight. What my perception is that what societies do is a co-occurrence of a set of ideas that have developed, usually by thinkers, by think-tanks, and with charismatic leaders who can bring about those changes. So to use things which most people couldn't have access to -- Franklin Roosevelt build very much on the ideas of the progressive era, which were develop in the teens, and then people like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, built very much on the neo-conservative ideas which would develop by William F. Buckley and his national review and other such thinkers in the 1950s and '60s.

What I’m hoping is that some genuinely progressive ideas, some general liberal ideas, ideas for example of social entrepreneurship which have grown enormously in the last 10 or 20 years, will intersect with a President who not only totally gets it but has a generous dollop of charisma.

I think what we’re realizing now is this is a significant part of the population tends to more republican than anything else who would rather destroy the Presidency and the President than to come to some kind of a belief that the country can and should be different. But it’s a huge educational effort, education, not just in the sense I do it, but in terms not only of Government but of private leaders of philanthropists, opinion leaders, and folks like me who are trenches and they’re not going to be up there in the stage but who believe in this and try to work on it.

Thomas Friedman who writes a lot about this, clearly is searching for a mission for the United States, because the United States has been essentially the world leader in the last century in terms of policies and of role models. I think he realizes that now a lot of things we stand for is exactly what the world doesn’t want and doesn’t need.

I think if Obama doesn’t succeed, hopefully he will serve two terms and be alive; hopefully he’ll try. If he doesn’t succeed, I think it’s going to be -- I think the United States will be finished as a moral force in the world. And maybe that’s okay. After all, I’m not running for office, so I don’t think United States is exceptional and I don’t think it has to be the moral leaders

Question: What is the US getting wrong?

Howard Gardner: I think that not only have countries like Denmark and Sweden that I know the best—worked out the best kind of balance of individual initiative, creativity, entrepreneurship with some kind of a concern, not only about the country, but the rest of the world. But the people there are much happier and I would love for someone to do a detailed study of the United States and particularly the people who are, I’m going to call the “Destroyers,” to see what kind of understandings they really have of the other possibilities. I’d love to know how Americans have given the choice of one in million becoming a trillionaire, but actually much more likely at the age of 55 losing their job, not being able to get another one, and no matter what their insurance is, the first time something bad happens they get bankrupt or making a little bit less money, making somewhat higher taxes, but knowing that their kids will have a decent education, that there's a safety net.

I’d like to know how many people would really rather choose the first, because I don’t know. I will say something which was a shock to me and shows that I’m very much out in the mainstream. Some years ago I wrote an article for Foreign Policy. They said, “How can we change things for the better?” I know they wanted me to write about education, but it’s a free country, happily. So I wrote about what I wanted, and I said the average household makes about $40,000 a year, I think that nobody in America should be allowed to keep more than $4 million dollars a year, 100 times as much. They can make as much as they want, but anything above $4 million they either have to give back to the government or they have to set up a charity.

Then I said, well, people make money for no more than 50 years, so let's multiply $4 million a year by 50, and we get the $200 million. And I said no American should be allowed to pass on to their progeny more than $200 million. Again, they can make $200 trillion, but everything beyond that $200 million—a sizable sum, I think we would agree—ought either to go back to the government or to some kind of a 501(c)(3) philanthropy. I could not believe the guff I got from people who are wealthy, people who are average, and truck drivers and cab drivers. They all hated it because somehow, I made it, it's mine, and no one can take it away from me. That's insane. It's insane in any analysis, and yet I think that's what we have breathed in in our air, probably to some extent over hundreds of years, but certainly in that toxic Reagan/Gingrich—what did Reagan say? “Government is not the solution; it's the problem.” That's the stuff we've been sniffing. It isn't marijuana; it's that markets can do no wrong.

Question: If you had 90 seconds with President Obama, what would you say?

Howard Gardner: I’ve never met Obama, I don't know whether I ever will, but if I had 90 seconds with him in an elevator this is what I would say: Mr. President, American society has been dominated by the three M’s: moneys, markets and me. Especially the young, the best, and the brightest, the students that I work with they want to be rich, they believe totally in the market, even though that’s a very complicated thing and it’s all about me. We have to switch them, first of all, 90 degrees to the three E’s, which I hope will be visible on the camera. Excellence, engagement, and ethics; that’s what I call good work. Good work is the people who know what they’re doing, are engaged in it, and try to do it in a responsible way.

Then we flip the E another 90 degrees to W, for we. You can’t ask other people to be good workers unless you do it yourself and joining together to do good work is the replacement for money, markets, and me, and the way that we spread excellence, engagements and ethics.

Recorded On: September 3, 2009

Question: How has the culture of creativity changed in the United States?

Howard Gardner: I think one of the good features about the United States—since I've been bashing it—is that it's built into our DNA to take a chance, and if we fail, to try again. And that's why, with the good and the bad, Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley all over the world are icons, particularly for young people, particularly young people with ambition. And I can remember back 30 years or so ago I had a steady stream of people from East Asia—Chinese, Korean, Japanese—saying, we want to be creative. Tell us the 23 steps to being creative, in order, please. And I kept saying it doesn't work that way.

Basically, I don't think I had the word startup. I said you've got to try something out, try to get some other people to support you, and if it doesn't work, what can you learn from it? And so I think it's in our national DNA. But creativity is completely neutral; it can be used—I mean, Osama bin Laden is very creative, and he's changed the history of the world, but I don't think we really want to engender more Osama bin Ladens. Bill Gates is very creative, but 20 years ago a lot of us were pretty critical about him, and I think, so to speak, he has redeemed himself by what he's done with his resources. So to me it's really wedding our, let's say the societal DNA for taking a chance, with doing something in a responsible way. One thing we have learned, though, from our research recently with young people—and this is kind of a surprise to me, and these are again rather privileged young people—is they're quite risk-averse. And this is especially in school; they want to know what's required of them, what's the right answer.

They don't want to take any chances there. And I even wonder if you take a look at Wall Street and the major peccadilloes of the last 10 years or so whether the young people were kind of getting signals from their bosses about what they're supposed to do and what they can do. So that's a rather different view of creativity than Thomas Edison, you know, alone in his lab, you know, coming up with new ideas and trying them out. So I guess what this soliloquy is convincing me of is, creativity isn't kind of a fixed entity over the time and over the milieu, and clearly the secret is to bottle up what we've done well, but not to assume that it's going to be done exactly the same.

Creativity used to be sitting alone in a garret in Paris, or tinkering with your test tubes in New Jersey, or being a patent officer in Berne, Switzerland. And now it's global. And how that takes place when everybody's connected to everybody else, and any art work can be initially not only transmitted, but morphed and Photoshopped and Flickr'd and messed around and so on. We need to have different analytic tools than we had in the days of solitary creativity.

Question: How has the internet culture changed people’s creative engagement?

Howard Gardner: What's interesting -- in our own studies we have what we call the Good Play Project, which is about kids and computers -- is that every child, every young person, is wired now, and most older people as well. The overwhelming use is either social networking, which is basically hanging around the front of school, but doing it now 24/7, wherever you are; gaming -- some games are intellectually challenging, but a lot of them are just can you get the other guy before he gets you? They're usually guys. Then -- and here I'm talking about the work of Mimi Ito in particular -- there's some what we call messing around, where people have ideas and interests and pursue them a bit, but the way -- in my day I would have read a book about something and talked to some people and gone another way.

And then there's what's called geeking or geeking out: people getting seriously interested in things. And that's still a small percentage of the population. Whether it's bigger than before I can't judge. And the -- I am old enough to have lived through the promises, the educational promises, of radio, television, the filmstrip, DVDs, CDs and so on. And of course, school hasn't changed very much. I do believe that the new digital media will change education radically and they will change workplace radically.

Question: How can the internet leverage non-expert participation?

Howard Gardner: A book that I just read on wiki government by Simone Noveck argues very persuasively that in thing like giving a patent we can make use of expertise in the population, and in fact it's probably imperative because there are way too many applications, and the Patent Office is overwhelmed, and it takes years for it to make a decision. And then they almost always say yes because they don't have a good argument to say no. Now if you simply were to post an idea for an invention and let everybody in the world say whether it should be patented, that's nonsense, because 99 percent of the people would have no idea about how to analyze it and wouldn't have the knowledge to know whether it was original or not.

So the idea of wiki government—and it seems to work in the patent area—is that people have to be technical enough to be able to read the stuff and to be able to comment in an appropriate way, and ultimately raters themselves will be rated the way they are on eBay, so if John Smith pipes up all the time, but what he has to say is nonsense, he gets a very low rating. And the decision in the end is made by the U.S. Patent Office, and they see which people to pay attention to and which not. That seems to me, on the face of it, to be a plan worth taking seriously. On the other hand, all you would need to have is three multinationals who decide to corrupt the process by pretending to fakery, the way many people on the left and the right have thousands of e-mails sent to a political candidate, and if the political candidate isn't sharp, they think it's their own constituents rather than, you know, IBM or whatever paying for it. Gaming the system is not going to disappear just because some people have a good idea of how to use lay expertise.

Recorded On: September 3, 2009

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Howard Gardner: What keeps me up. Other than the faucet dripping…Well, I'll give an honest answer. Number one is, I sleep very well. Number two, I'm much more likely to be kept up by family kinds of problems, especially ones which I think that I should be able to solve than I can, than by cosmic problems. But what gets me to work each day -- I think that's the deeper question that you're asking -- is whether there's anything that I can do in any particular role to nudge upward the amount of good work that's done, work that's excellent, engaging and ethical. And I made a big decision five or six years ago to begin to work much more with young students, secondary students, college students, trying to get them to think about ethical issues at a time when they aren't already having to hit a payroll and do what the boss says. And I'm still feeling that way.

I've worked at three colleges, and my team has worked at many, many secondary schools all over the world. And I wouldn't at all say that we've discovered the magic way of doing it, but I'm a great believer that people cannot deal with any kind of complex issue unless they've had to engage and think about it, discuss it, role-play and so on. And when I began the Good Work Project with my colleagues, one of them, Bill Damon, said, "If I could cure cancer," Bill said, "I would." He said, "I can't. I think working in Good Work is the most important thing that I can do." And I agree with him. I think that's the most important thing that I can do, and I try to use every venue, including this one, to raise people's consciousness about it. I mean, the problem prehistorically was, people could be very bad workers, and they could destroy their society, but the rest of the planet would survive.

Now we're in it all together, you know, whether it's, you know, disease or money or human beings. We circulate all around the world. Somebody who wants to do mischief could destroy the planet, could destroy all the people on it. And unless we develop the Good Work muscle regionally, locally, nationally and internationally, there won't be a planet.

Recorded On: September 3, 2009

Question: What kinds of intelligent is President Obama?

Howard Gardner: Well, that's pretty easy, because whenever I describe IQ tests, I say that IQ tests take—have a combination of language and logic. And if you do well in language and logic, if you can combine them you'll have a high IQ. And I say that's a selector for who will be a law professor. And I then mention Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, all three of whom were law professors. And clearly they have the IQ kind of intelligence. It's absolutely clear to me that Obama has enormous intrapersonal intelligence. His book, Dreams from My Father, is an amazing book, and it's obvious to everybody he has lots of intrapersonal intelligence. But here's the big question we don't know, and that is, what is his existential intelligence like? Existential intelligence is one that I use kind of playfully, and that's the interest in big questions.

There's no doubt that he's interested in these himself, but it's not clear to what extent he's such a pragmatist that he will lose that sense of mission, that bigger story. John Kennedy really achieved nothing, practically, as President. But he had enormous power to excite people, to motivate them to think differently, and that's why we still remember him, you know, 50 years after the fact. And I'm not sure, speaking now in September of '09, whether the existential intelligence which Obama clearly has in his own right is something that he can mobilize more. You know, Ronald Reagan was able to mobilize that. I don't like what he did, but there was no question that he helped people think about meaning. And we thought that Obama could, but it's just not clear at this point.

Recorded On: September 3, 2009


Question: What are the biggest challenges facing global education?

Howard Gardner: Derek Bok, who was the president of Harvard, used to have this quote I don't know that it's original with him—which is if you think education is expensive, try estimating the cost of ignorance. And the truth is, until a century or so ago, formal education for the elite was fine, but there was really no need to educate the mass of society, at least beyond the basic literacies. But now it's completely obvious that unless people are not only educated to a higher level, but want to continue to learn—can be motivated to continue to learn; don't feel it's a gun to their head—that they will not be very useful to themselves or to their society.

The problem is that a small proportion of the population gets a very good education. For shorthand I would say the international baccalaureate crowd, which is a kind of education which elites are able to get whether or not they belong to the IB. But of course that's expensive education, and it presupposes a lot of parental and teacher support. In large parts of the world that's just not a practical reality, and that's why people who are in policy, which I don't, think about much more macro things ranging from one laptop per child toward making sure that women are able to go to school, to ensuring that the country isn't last on some kind of international comparison. And we can't think about education in that—as if it were just one thing.

My focus has been on educational aspirations—but that's an ideal, and I'm quite aware that it's easier to achieve at Phillips Academy Andover than it is in a one-room schoolhouse in Bangladesh with 60 kids and not enough food to eat. And if I can close with one sentence, I think the major problem with the No Child Left Behind policy, which is a completely bipartisan policy, is it uses the country to solve the problems of inner-city Detroit or D.C., and that's just mixing apples and oranges. The way I've put it is, the problem in the inner city is excellence; the problem in the heartland is engagement; the problem among the elites is ethics. 

Recorded On: September 3, 2009