Beyond Wit and Grit

Professor Howard Gardner adds his unique perspective to the emphasis on wit and grit in a contemporary context

October 3, 2014
Photo of Professor Howard Gardner

With his eight-minute allotment ticking away, Professor Howard Gardner reviewed his 30-years of work — excerpted below — into five acts as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Bold Ideas & Critical Conversations event on September 19, with much of that time focused on issues of wit and grit.

Act 1: Common Sense and Common Nonsense

“If I were to ask what do you need to be successful at any time, the answer from common sense would be you need wit, you need to be smart — and the way we know how smart someone is we see how good the brain is, how good the computer is inside their head — and you need grit. You need to work hard and persevere. But one goal of social science … is to transcend common sense when it is instead common nonsense … and so today we are going to re-examine wit and grit.”

Act 2: Wit Pluralized

“Thirty years ago when I and others looked at the data … we determined that wit is better thought of as pluralized in terms of number of relatively independent computers, which we call the multiple intelligences — mathematics and logic, music, spatial information, bodily kinesthetic, understanding of other people, understanding of one self, and the ability to make discriminations in the world of nature — but there is no reason to think that being good in one predicts being good or bad in any other one so what I did as to pluralize the word intelligence … and the idea spread very widely.”

Act 3: The Rise of Grit

“In many educational environments today, there is a move beyond wit or wits to look at what Nobel Laureate Jim Heckman calls noncognitive skills; social skills, emotional, empathy, and the ability to reflect and wonder. And there’s a star in this galaxy and that’s grit, glittering grit. If you listen to Angela Duckworth who teaches at Penn, or you read Paul Tough’s book on ‘How Children Succeed,’ you would learn about the importance of grit. And I love grit. I’d like it in everybody I know. It sounds great, but….”

Act 4: The Limits of Grit … and of Wits

“These folks had lots of grit, these soldiers marching in step in Nazi Germany.  No absence of grit whatsoever…. About 20 years ago I learned that a whole state in Australia was using the theory of multiple intelligences and I was very excited until I learned that one of the curricular edicts was a list of all the racial and ethnic groups in this state and which intelligence it had and which ones it lacked. I realized that you throw a unit of meme into the world and you really don’t know what kind of use people will make of it.”

Act 5: The Goods

“What I believe, and I have been working with colleagues on this for a long time, is that grit and wit are not enough. They have to be directed to becoming a good person, a good worker, and a good citizen. Now, about good persons. This is something we’ve known about for millennia, and if you follow the golden rule or the 10 commandments or other religious or historic texts that tells you how to be a good person; what to do and what not to do. Work and citizenship are more complicated. This is not something people have known how to do for thousands of years. Rather different professions have developed over the last decades or centuries and years. Citizenship is a concept for democratic societies … so what does it mean to do good work or be a good citizen? We spent 10 years analyzing this … and it is a triple helix of good work and good citizenship: excellence, ethics, and engagement.”

For more information on wit, grit, and multiple intelligences, visit The Good Project and Multiple Intelligences Oasis.

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