Living Legends: An Interview With Howard Gardner, Part I

On Christmas Eve 2011, I came up with the idea of developing an interview series entitled "Living Legends," to spotlight people who are considered to be at the avant garde of their respective fields. Developing the concept was easy, but I couldn't decide who to ask to do the first interview. After many days of going back and forth, I decided that Howard Gardner was the logical choice. His contributions to the field of education inspired me to become a university professor.

For those of you who may not know Howard, he is a professor of cognition and education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, the senior director of Harvard Project Zero and the author of over 20 books. Howard's most celebrated accomplishment is the development of the theory of multiple intelligences, and he recently received the 2011 Prince of Asturias Award in Social Sciences. I could go on and on about his accomplishments, and the accolades that he has received, but even that would not do his legacy justice.

Without further ado, let's begin the interview.

ML: In 2013, your famed theory of multiple intelligences will be 30 years old. When you originally proposed it in your 1983 book, Frames of Mind, did you have any idea that it would revolutionize the way that the world viewed intelligence? Were you surprised by the negative reaction that you received from the psychology community?

HG: I had no idea that the book would contribute significantly to a widespread change of mind about the nature of human intelligence. 'Til 1983, I wrote primarily for other psychologists and expected that they would be the principal audience for my book. I was surprised as anyone that the book was soon picked up by educators, first in the United States, and then in many other countries around the world. As Andy Warhol would have put it, Frames of Mind catalyzed my 15 minutes of fame!

As for the reaction of my colleagues in psychology, I'd say that the reaction ranged from mild enthusiasm (mostly from developmental and educational psychologists) to ignoring (by mainstream psychologists) to condemnation (by psychometricians -- the technicians who make the tests and who feel that they "own" intelligence).

Biologists have been much more sympathetic to the theory, because they think -- as do I -- in terms of evolution and of brain development and organization. Mathematicians initially didn't like the theory, but they changed their minds if one of their children was diagnosed with learning problems.

I need to add that my work on multiple intelligences received a huge boost in 1995 when Daniel Goleman published his book on emotional intelligence. I am often confused with Dan. Initially, though Dan and I are longtime friends, this confusion irritated me. But when it resulted in an increase in the advance that I received for my next book on intelligences, I forgave him!

ML: The theory of multiple intelligences has been translated into practice in schools across the world in many different ways. What would a school that has embraced multiple intelligences look like?

HG: In 2009, colleagues and I published a book called Multiple Intelligences Around the World. In that volume, 42 scholars from 15 countries on five continents put forth their own implementations of "MI theory." It's quite an experience to sample the different ways in which teachers, administrators, museum directors, neurologists, and others have made use of what is essentially a simple claim: rather than the mind/brain having a single all-purpose computer (which yields a single IQ score), it is better described as consisting of a number of relatively independent computers of information, which we call the "multiple intelligences."

Still, three decades after having developed these ideas, I can state the two major educational implications quite succinctly:


Since we all have different cognitive profiles, educators should take those individual differences very seriously. We do so by teaching individuals in ways in which they can learn comfortably; and by assessing them in ways which allow them to show what they have understood (as well as ways in which they have not understood).

At one time individualized education was available only to people who had the means to hire a tutor. But now, thanks to the new digital media, we live at the first moment in human history where anyone with access to a "smart device" can have individualized learning. That's amazing!


Anything that is worth teaching can be presented in many different ways. These multiple ways can make use of our multiple intelligences. Whether we are teaching about the theory of evolution, the music of Mozart, or the Holocaust, we can approach these topics through narrative; through logical and numerical analyses; through works of art; through hands-on activities; through group work or a "jigsaw" exercise, where each learner takes on a different part of the exercise.

When we teach in pluralistic ways, there are two wonderful dividends. First of all, we reach more students, because some learn best through stories, some through works of art, some through role play etc. Second of all, we show what it is like really to understand something. If you understand something well, you can represent it, describe it, embody it in several ways. Indeed, if you can only present it in one way, then your own mastery is likely to be tenuous.

I go into this point in great detail in my book, The Disciplined Mind.

ML: In Five Minds for the Future, you outline what you see as the essential ways of thinking and behaving in the modern era. How can the "five minds" help young people be better prepared to meet the challenges of today and the future?

HG: In Five Minds for the Future, I consider how education might change in view of four factors: l) globalization; 2) the technological/digital revolution; 3) lifelong learning; and 4) increasing knowledge about the mind, the brain, and the human genome. Three of the minds that I describe are primarily cognitive: the disciplined mind (mastering the major ways of thinking that human beings have developed over the centuries); the synthesizing mind (organizing the vast amount of information with which we are all regularly inundated); the creating mind (going beyond orthodox findings and methods to innovate, "think outside the box").

The other two kinds of minds have to do with our relation with other human beings. The respectful mind accepts, indeed welcomes, the differences among human individuals and groups and tries to make common cause with the rest of humanity. The ethical mind, which I've been studying for the last 15 years, attempts to do the right thing in our roles as workers and citizens.

As for the first three minds, only those young people who achieve cognitive sophistication are likely to find work and, should they lose their job, be in a good position to secure employment.

As to the last two minds, few of us would like to live in a world bereft of respect and ethics. I certainly wouldn't! It would be nice if we could depend on parents, religion, or the media to develop respect and ethics in our young people. But, alas, for many reasons, we can't depend on these forces. And so the burden for engendering respect and ethics falls on our educational system and on the broader society -- which is to say, every one of us -- whether or not we happen to be parents or teachers.

ML: I just finished reading your most recent book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century. One of the most memorable sentences reads, "The advent of the digital media has not fundamentally altered the establishment of truth." Care to elaborate on this powerful statement?

HG: If we were to abandon concern for what is true, what is false, and what remains indeterminate, the world would be totally chaotic. Even those who deny the importance of truth, on the one hand, are quick to jump on anyone who is caught lying.

The digital media pull in two different directions. On the one hand, they supply so much information that it is easy to be deceived or to throw up one's hands or to be susceptible to what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness" -- just accepting what is repeated often enough as being true. On the other hand, everything is out there -- there are no secrets (except perhaps in completely totalitarian societies like North Korea); and so for those of us who are willing to persevere, the chances of finding out the actual state of affairs is greater than ever before.

And so, to return to your question, it's still vital to establish truth. We are not going to get rid of the digital media -- nor should we want to -- and so our challenge is to use the media to determine the truth, rather than to let the media obfuscate matters.

Well, that concludes part I of my interview with Howard Gardner. In Part II, Howard discusses his reaction to winning the 2011 Prince of Asturias Award in Social Sciences and also the state of the American educational system.