15 Minutes Has Turned into 25 Years
Or how one professor and his theory of multiple intelligences is proving that Andy Warhol’s famous saying isn’t quite right
By Lory Hough
He has a school cat in Washington state named after him, an orange male whose dominant intelligence, says the principal, is mice and moles. Professor Howard Gardner is that famous.
Twenty-five years after his seminal book, Frames of Mind, disputed the notion that there was only one intelligence that could be measured by a test — and catapulted him into a stratosphere of fame unreached by many academics — the list of schools, conferences, books, dissertations, theater companies, theme parks, and, yes, school pets dedicated to him and to his theory of multiple intelligences continues to grow.
But Gardner, who just turned 65, is still unfazed by the attention. Sitting in a Harvard rocking chair in his stark office, he says he is not interested in himself as a personality. Then, restating the phrase he has used many times over the years when asked about the fame, he says, “My goal is to have my ideas read and talked about, not to be recognized in the airport.”
Still, like a musician who continues to play the old favorites because that’s what his fans want (expect, even), Gardner patiently answers question after question about MI, as his theory is commonly known throughout the world, starting with the possibility that when all is said and done, MI will be the one thing he is most remembered for. Will it bother him if his New York Times obituary reads: Howard Gardner, Creator of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences? “I’m not going to be around, so it’s not an issue,” the developmental psychologist deadpans, then adds, “but yes, I’m slightly bothered.”
Gardner is bothered because although he says he has “enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame,” he has also, as one of his doctoral students says, “moved way beyond MI.”
“I think of myself as more of a fox than a hedgehog,” Gardner says. “A fox does many things, a hedgehog does one. I do lots of things.”
Academically, this includes writing lots of books (more than 20), general interest articles (300), and scholarly pieces (400). He’s been a visiting fellow at several institutions, including the London School of Economics. He was a founding member of Project Zero, an educational research group housed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education focusing on cognition and the arts. And his research in the past two decades has gone far beyond intelligence, with projects on creativity, leadership, professional ethics, and trust, including an ongoing project that looks at ethical decisions that young people make in cyberspace. Most recently, Gardner has been leading undergraduate “reflection” seminars at Harvard, Amherst, and Colby colleges along with Professor Richard Light in the hopes that students will consider public service careers, not just those that start with six-figure salaries. “It’s a project I’m feeling good about,” he says.
As one of his students, Katie Davis, Ed.M.’02, says, “that’s key to what makes him so compelling to a wide audience. He’s adept.”
Advisor of Choice
By all accounts, especially from those who know him well, Gardner is also genuinely interested in other people and in being a good citizen.
“After the success of MI, he could be a prima donna, but he’s not,” says Professor Kurt Fischer, who has known Gardner since the late 1960s, when they were both graduate students at Harvard. For the past seven years, they have cotaught HT100, the yearlong “meat and potatoes” course, as Gardner calls it, required of students in the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, which Fischer and Gardner started and which Fischer now directs.
“He wants to be a good colleague and to think about what’s good for the community,” Fischer says. “He doesn’t always turn everything into Gardner.”
Former dean Patricia Aljberg Graham hired Gardner in 1986 as a tenured full professor after a decade-long hiring freeze for tenured faculty. It was, in some ways, a leap of faith. Although Gardner had been at the Ed School since 1972 as a researcher with Project Zero, he had rarely taught classes and had not “climbed the ranks” from assistant to associate professor, which, for faculty, means joining committees and being involved in school activities.
“The decision to hire Howard as a full professor, therefore, was taken by the senior faculty of the Ed School in the belief that he would be a good teacher and a good citizen,” Graham says. The leap paid off. “Despite his immense scholarly productivity and his prodigious fundraising successes, he is one of the most loyal, faithful, and effective teachers and community citizens both for the Ed School and for the university,” she says. “This is a rare achievement for anyone, particularly for one whose national and international recognition is so broad. We are most fortunate that he has chosen to spend his professional life with us.”
Gardner arrived in Cambridge from Scranton, Pa., in September 1961 to start his studies at Harvard College (assuming he would one day be a lawyer) and, except for a year spent in London, basically never left. “I loved Harvard and I loved Cambridge,” he writes of his student days. “For the first time in my life, I could talk and argue with individuals who were my peers — and, in not a few cases, my superiors — in every sense.” He expects, he says, to be a “Harvard lifer.”
His doctoral advisees, especially, appreciate his dedication to growing the next generation of researchers. When asked to best describe Gardner, many use the words “professional” and “precise,” something that stems, perhaps, from his training in the ’60s and ’70s studying under psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, behavioral neurologist Norman Geschwind, and Project Zero founder Nelson Goodman. “I was very turned on by being here as a student,” he says. Today, “I have great doctoral students, reminding me of my own curiosity, motivation, and ambition when I was a student.” Although, he adds, “we were more inclined to give our teachers the benefit of the doubt.”
Davis says, “He really seems to have a sense of who he studied under and his role in passing that down to his advisees. He keeps us in the loop.”
Scott Seider, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’08, now a professor at Boston University, says that the four years he spent as one of Gardner’s advisees were “an incredible experience. … He makes sure he’s doing justice to his roles as an advisor, a scholar, and a professor,” he says. “He is also very generous about inviting his graduate students to write with him and to do research with him. The opportunity to think through a writing piece with him or work on a project together has been a privilege.”
As a student, Seana Moran, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’06, cowrote many papers with Gardner. “We trusted each other,” she says. Now a researcher at Stanford University, she says they have continued working together, including on a new project that Gardner suggested: a book with chapters written by scholars, school principals, and teachers from around the world who have implemented MI, including Mia Keinanen, Ed.M.’98, Ed.D.’03, who wrote a chapter about MI in Norway. The book is due out next spring.
Students say that Gardner is also generous about sharing his ideas with them. After he attends a lecture, he’ll write a long email reflecting on the topic and how it applies to his own work, then send it to students and friends. It is an example, Moran says, of wanting to fold his students into the field.
“Howard travels a lot and comes into contact with so many ideas and people. When he comes back intellectually stimulated by something new he’s encountered, he’s very excited, wanting to share with the students what he’s learned,” she says. “Students can learn about the accepted core of a subject through the readings, but also the cutting edge from his travels.”
However, one thing Gardner doesn’t do is expect students to work on his research. “That’s typical at the Ed School in general,” says Seider, “but it’s especially true of Howard.”
He wants his advisees to be independent and rigorous thinkers, says Davis. “As an advisor, that’s what he helps us do. He doesn’t expect us to follow his line of research.”
Instead, he is able to hone in on the good ideas that students bring to the table, says doctoral student Joanna Christodoulou, Ed.M.’06. “He is great at extracting and parsing information and pulling out what’s good. He really sees things clearly.”
Gardner, in fact, has never taught a course on MI at the school and doesn’t limit himself to working only with students studying intelligence or the mind. His doctoral advisees’ projects range from social justice to leadership in China to child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
Gardner says, “I’m the advisor of choice for people who want to be mavericks. They are all over the map.”
Impressed or Not?
All the doctoral students interviewed for this story couldn’t be more positive about Gardner, but not all students are as impressed — something that seems to bother Gardner, who met with his teaching fellows last semester to go over his recent so-so course evaluations. “Howard recognizes that others are magical teachers,” says Davis, who is a teaching fellow for H175, Gardner’s Good Work course. “He doesn’t have to care, but he does.”
One problem could be that students are intimidated. Despite the fact that Frames of Mind came out 25 years ago (when many students were still in diapers), he is Howard Gardner, one of the most famous academics in the world and a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant.” Last spring, he was even named one of the world’s top 100 leading public intellectuals by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines.
“I think Howard should take note of the impact his presence has on students. I don’t think he realizes how much of a rock star he is to education students,” wrote one student in a recent course evaluation. Similar comments have included:
“Howard is intimidating whether he intends to be or not.”
“I think we were all aware that we were in the presence of one of the most significant people in our field.”
“He was a Harvard institution himself.”
Doctoral student Carlo Cerruti, who was initially turned on to Gardner when his father gave him a copy of Frames of Mind to mark his new career as a teacher, says that when he first started as one of Gardner’s advisees, it would take him an hour or more to craft one e-mail. “One wanted to be precise, and not for time reasons,” he says. “You wanted to represent yourself well. I would guess that my experience was not atypical.”
Davis admits she felt the same way when she initially came to the school, first as a master’s student, now as a doctoral candidate, specifically to study with Gardner. “I had been introduced to his work as a senior at Williams College. Then I read Creating Minds and it captured my imagination,” she says, referring to his 1993 book. “How he took his scientific theory and applied it to seven incredible minds — that ability to synthesize so many bodies of knowledge was so impressive to me.”She eventually read more of his books and decided to apply to Harvard. Her first semester, she took two of Gardner’s classes.
“Every time someone raised his or her hand in class, he’d have such a quick response. I felt really intimidated to speak,” she says. “At the end of the semester, he called me into his office and said he was impressed by my work but noticed that I was quiet. I told him I was in awe. He laughed and said there was really no reason to be. It’s taken me a while to get beyond that, but now I have.”
Some students, like Valeria Fontanals, Ed.M.’04, founder of Little Talentum, a children’s publishing company with books based on multiple intelligences, specifically took Gardner’s classes hoping to hear him speak his wisdom. However, she quickly learned that he preferred mediating student discussions. “At the beginning, I wanted him to give a lecture and listen to all the things he had to say instead of having us discuss a topic,” she says.
Fischer says this is deliberate on Gardner’s part. “He wants to have debates and Socratic dialogue,” he says, adding that when they started teaching together, they decided their class was going to “embody the way we think learning happens best, with dialogue and debate.”
“I guess all he had to say we could read in his books,” says Fontanals. (And also online: Fischer, Gardner, and Lecturer David Rose, Ed.D.’76, who also coteaches HT100, tape lectures that students watch prior to class.)
Gardner is also direct, painfully so for some, and he’s not afraid to cold-call during class. “He is blunt with his feedback, and he doesn’t mince words,” says Davis. “At first it can be jarring. You want Howard to think you’re doing good work. Once you get used to it, though, you realize he just wants to push you to do your best and to get your ideas to go beyond the same old, same old. He doesn’t want to just hold your hand or say that every idea you have is wonderful. That’s not how you learn.”
Gardner says that when it comes to teaching, he’s not interested in “seduction.”
“I prefer to provoke and to be provoked and stretched,” he says. “I try to set a good example of the engaged teacher and scholar.”
Outside the classroom, Gardner can also be outspoken. For years, he refrained from commenting on how others were using MI, which he has always maintained is a scientific theory, not an “instrument of social policy.” But then in 1995 he stepped up when he learned that Australia had created an MI-inspired educational program that he found to be offensive. “As I read about the application, I became increasingly discomfited. The smoking gun was a curricular paper in which children from different racial and ethnic groups were described in terms of their respective intelligences (and stupidities),” he wrote that year in the St. Louis Dispatch. “Violating my own previous practice, I went on television in New South Wales and dismissed this application as pseudoscience.” The following day the government canceled the program.
More recently, Gardner has publicly hit on everything from joining in on “some sort of secession” if the next administration is Republican to calling for an income cap. (This earned him an enormous amount of hate mail, he says.)
“People have said to me recently, and rightly so, that I have been speaking out more,” Gardner says, “and that’s not easy for me.”
Over the years, Gardner has also met his critics head on. With educators, MI instantly became popular, providing an academic theory that validated their instincts about how and why students learn. “It would be hard to overestimate the impact of Gardner’s MI work on education,” says Dean Kathleen McCartney. “His work has inspired teachers throughout the world not only to individualize their instruction to their students but also to broaden their conceptions of what intelligence is.”
But others, including the “IQ mafia,” as Gardner dubbed them, were less charmed. One scholar at the conservative Manhattan Institute referred to MI as “Howard Gardner’s cuddly multiple intelligences thesis.” The Bell Curve authors Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein dismissed him in their book as a “radical” whose work is devoid of quantitative evidence. Others have argued that the seven original intelligences (linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal) are not separate or that the list should be expanded. (Gardner has resisted new intelligences suggested by others such as humor, cooking, and sexual, but in the mid-1990s he did add naturalist.)
Although Gardner says he’s surprised to be the center of controversies, preferring instead to “work quietly in my study, investigating topics that do not attract the interest of others, and avoiding polemics,” the jabs and comments haven’t bothered him. “When critiqued,” he once wrote, “I rise to the occasion and defend myself vigorously.” For starters, he is used to it. Plus, “over time, you also believe more strongly in what you’re doing,” he says. “And I’d rather answer the criticism while I’m alive than when I’m dead.”
His wife, Ellen Winner, a Project Zero colleague and current Boston College professor, says, “I still remember when, in 1975, Howard received an unenthusiastic review of one of his books in The New York Times. Rather than hiding the review, Howard passed out copies to his associates. I think he wanted to show us the importance of confronting obstacles rather than being overwhelmed by them.”
Two years ago, he even went so far as to collaborate on a 400-page book of critical essays, Howard Gardner Under Fire: The Rebel Psychologist Faces His Critics. He willingly did so, he says, to get the contributors to focus on more than just MI.
“The real challenge for any professional or expert is to know which of the criticisms to pay attention to and which to ignore,” he says. “I’m pretty open about it.”
Moran says she’s not surprised. “It’s my impression that he loves learning, and he understands that he can learn from feedback, both positive and negative.”
On Being Fast
As the spring semester was ending, Gardner and seven members of his immediate family went to the Galapagos Islands for vacation. In typical Gardner style, he continued to stay in touch with students. About a day and a half into the family vacation, Seider asked one of Gardner’s assistants, “Howard’s probably not checking e-mail, right?” His assistant laughed: Gardner had already been on e-mail three times that day.
“His first wife, Judy, once told me that way back, the typewriter was such a part of Howard that he felt like something was missing if he didn’t have it,” says Fischer, who says that since then, Gardner has become a big fan of e-mail, despite only being able to type with a few fingers. With students, he is famous for his lightning response speed.
“It’s guaranteed that he’ll address your e-mails within hours,” says Christodoulou. “Waiting is never a hindrance when working with Howard.”
Cerruti says, “He’s the top of the school, especially for someone who probably gets more e-mails than anyone.”
“Howard, by his example, not his words, sets an incredibly high example of how to be a productive scholar,” says Mindy Kornhaber, Ed.M.’88, Ed.M.’90, Ed.D.’97, an associate professor of education at Penn State and former Project Zero researcher. Gardner says it’s simple: “You can fall hopelessly behind, deleting most stuff, or you can stay on top of it.”
His attitude toward e-mail goes hand-in-hand with his endless energy, which can be attributed, no doubt, to good genes. His parents escaped Germany in 1938 without connections and started a new life in America. His father, Ralph, started an automotive supply business with a cousin. Nicknamed the Baron, he spoke with a thick accent and was part of a group of men who met daily for breakfast. “His friends looked to him for advice, humor, knowledge, and wisdom, and he rarely disappointed them,” Gardner says. He died at the age of 91. Gardner’s mother, Hilde, now in her late 90s and a frequent member of the audience when he speaks, still has The New York Times finished before breakfast each morning.
Asked if they thought Gardner would ever slow down, colleagues and students all said no. “Not if he has any say in it,” says Moran. Davis says that one evening at the end of the spring semester, a bunch of Gardner’s advisees had a goodbye dinner for one of his assistants. Talk was focused, as expected, on what they had in common: Gardner, and especially the fact that he was turning 65 this year — the age when most people are starting to slow down or think about retiring. (Gardner, guest teaching at New York University this fall, is cutting back to half time although he says his work with doctoral students will remain about the same.)
“We joked that Howard will never stop,” says Davis. “Even when he does fully retire from being a professor, he’ll never retire from being a thinker.”
And what of MI? Will it continue to be his crowing accomplishment? “History will tell which will be his longest-lived legacy,” says Moran.
And, as Gardner once wrote, “I never expect to have the last word on a topic. I am much too intellectually restless for that.”
Read more about Howard Gardner's current research and his lecture series at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
About the Article
A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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