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April 04, 2007

Howard Gardner: Seven? Eight? And Now Five?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What a nice franchise Howard Gardner has. First he sells the idea that intelligence doesn't come in one flavor but in seven. (He later upped the number to eight.) Now he's back with a new book, this time arguing that the future will demand and value five different types of thinking . How do you suppose Gardner settles on these magical numbers of his?

I find Gardner a strange case. I dislike much of what he stands for. He's one of those progressive educators who believes that it isn't important whether students learn any facts, for instance -- instead they need to know how to "solve problems." My personal bullshit alarm goes off extra-loud when I run across that particular opinion.

I also find it telling where Gardner's approach leads him. He's now questioning freedom of speech: The cartoons of Mohammad that caused such a fuss a while back shouldn't have been published, he argues. While being skeptical of tradition and custom, he seems to believe that it's possible to create laws that will guarantee courtesy and respect. And I'm happy to agree that the science behind his eight-types-of-intelligence notion seems shakey at best.

All that said ... Well, I do think it's clear that talents come in many flavors, and I do think that that's a fact well worth standing up for. I wish Gardner weren't arguing about intelligence per se. There does seem to be such a thing as raw intellectual horsepower, after all, and why not assign it a number if your measuring-stick seems trustworthy?

But Gardner wants no part of such a project. Why not? Though kindness may play a role in Gardner's thinking, his main motivation seems perfectly obvious: He dislikes the fact that some ethnic groups score higher on IQ tests than others. He finds the fact unacceptably harsh. It's hard to avoid thinking, "This Howard Gardner is a bit of a 'if the fact hurts, then ban the fact' kinda guy, isn't he?"

Still: nothing wrong with kindness. And nothing wrong with recognizing that talent comes in many flavors. (If life teaches us anything ...) IQ may be an important topic, but it's certainly possible to make too much of it. Physical prowess, craftsmanship, musical ability, loyalty, a gift for relationships, verbal pizazz, erotic attunement, a knack in the kitchen, emotional insightfulness, persuasiveness, social adroitness, humor, visual flair -- these are all talents as well, each one of which strikes me as eminently worthy of respect, and of nurturing and guidance too.

No need to feel bad for Howard Gardner, btw. Though he seems to have a knack for portraying himself as a beleaguered rebel -- hey, that's a talent too -- he has a secure position at Harvard, some of his books have been huge sellers, and he has even won a MacArthur "genius" grant. He hasn't lacked for influence either. Harvard is re-doing its curriculum to come more in line with his thinking, and he serves as a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art.

Modernist art ... Progressive educational theories ... Hmmm.

I honestly don't know what I meant by that "Hmmm." Somehow it just felt right.

Related: "G And the Arts."



posted by Michael at April 4, 2007


I don't know who is right in the intelligence controversy, and I have a sneaking suspicion that there may be something to what Gardner says; but when you compare the almost worshipful response that Gardner's work has gotten with the Establishment trashing and smearing of "The Bell Curve" a few years ago, it would be hard to argue that the playing field has been level in this debate.

Posted by: tschafer on April 4, 2007 4:43 PM

I don't know squat about this Gardner fellar, but I think your bullshit alarm is a fairly attuned device.

As a kid I highly suspected I was a genius, mostly because I have this overly developed sense of justice and just knew everyone had to be equal somehow. But of course this is only true in the way that mom's love their children. And in this sense, we should be glad that the question of intelligence isn't one that got answered, finally, with the Enlightenment.

There are differences, to be sure. And it may very well be true that social formations, in their infinite variety, make it so that certain cognitive styles and emotional constitutions thrive while others struggle. I'll bank on that, actually. But as an epistemological endeavor, categorizing types of "intelligence" falls prey to the most devious (and prevalent) academic thinking. On its face, coming up with seven types of intelligence is hysterically funny to me. I have sat through enough grad courses to know bullshit when I hear it. It's really about the tone of the conversation, I think. What has happened is that people like Gardner become the very thing they criticize. For someone like Gardner it is likely that to him these seven types of intelligence are "just so obvious"--but what isn't obvious to him is that they are so only in the way that it is obvious that Jesus died for our sins. So, like any religion, you end end up throwing the baby out with the bath water...

The bottom line is that we are deeply conflicted in this society about the validity of certain claims to knowledge. What we need isn't to replace "fact-based education" but rather to supplement it with classes that promote an understanding of "what it is to know" and augment the classes with better teachers and most importantly, smaller class sizes. This whole thing seems less like a pedagogical debate than one that should be about the allocation of resources. What ya think?

Posted by: The Lock on April 4, 2007 5:25 PM

The trouble with the word "intelligence" is that our culture ascribes quasi-religious connotations to the term. If you say person A is more intelligent than person B, it's like you're saying their actual soul is somehow, actually, larger.

Of course, it's pretty hard to avoid this when ranking people by grades and test scores is such a constant obsession. Perhaps this is false nostalgia, but I seem to recall that back before the West fell into the hands of a fanatical monastic caste, there was something called "character."

What is an IQ test, anyway? It's a bunch of stupid little puzzles. So your score on an IQ test measures your brain's ability to solve stupid little puzzles.

It turns out that the ability to solve one kind of stupid little puzzle generally implies that you'll be able to solve another kind of stupid little puzzle. It also turns out that a lot of tasks that are productive in a complex modern society draw on this ability.

And it turns out that the ability is not precisely, evenly, perfectly, distributed equally to every individual, or even evenly within different human gene pools. Well, knock me over with a feather.

But then people have to go and use the I-word. It's like a red rag to a bull. If you support the right to abortion, you call yourself pro-choice, not pro-fetus-vacuuming.

If rather than "intelligence quotient" or "general intelligence," we used a phrase like "cognitive dexterity," or "puzzle performance," or "processing speed," or some other perfectly honest and straightforward euphemism, no one would even start to have a problem with all this.

What is the SAT? An IQ test. If they called it the Scholastic Intelligence Test, people would be flipping out in droves. But that little euphemism, "aptitude," makes all the difference.

And obviously, if there's such a thing as cognitive dexterity, there is also such a thing as motor dexterity, musical dexterity, etc. Of course it doesn't change the fact that it's a lot easier to make a living with the first than with either of the other two...

Posted by: Mencius on April 4, 2007 7:55 PM

It's funny the way people are so sensitive about "intelligence," isn't it? I mean, most people wouldn't be too miffed to be described as "not especially musical," or maybe as someone without a pro athletic future. We might have ten other gifts we're proud of, after all. But not-great-at-academic-puzzles? For some reason, we really just don't wanna hear that about ourselves. People will really get up in arms about it.

Why? Because we all went to school and are still sore about it? Is it the term "intelligence"? What if we referred to it as raw horsepower? Or how about "a knack for doing well on academic tests"?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 4, 2007 8:34 PM

Well, I have to weigh in again. As a self-described "SmartKid", did you have a certain pride about this or did you think of yourself as special in someway--towards the top of the social heap maybe? I just remember how it was for me, as a PseudoSmartKid. All my friends were the real SmartKids and I was the one who kind of got by with just above average intelligence and a sense of humor. But, still, I was jealous. And indeed these friends have gone on to rise quickly in their chosen fields. I on the other hand, struggled to find a niche in society. It's a much more complicated story than that, but I really do think that this "religious" connotation to intelligence goes very deep. I think it might have something to do with the way people relate to and perceive beauty. Both have a lot to do with genetics and evolutionary forces. And like beauty , intelligence probably has some core attributes but also great variability. A beautiful face is a beautiful face, cross-culturally speaking. But a beautiful booty? Well that changes depending on when and where you go. So, maybe my brain just had a big booty, and I wasn't going to be successful until I found a group of people that liked big-bootied brains. Thank God for postmodern liberal arts universities...

Posted by: The Lock on April 4, 2007 9:18 PM

The real problem with the Howard Gardner types is less their internal consistency than their influence. I'm sure there are education departments around the country lining up to sell his current line of hooey to doe-eyed, theory-stuffed evangelist education majors all over the US. Why is IQ such a dirty word(s)?

All a standardized test is designed for is to compare the educational ability of a broad range of kids from different schools and backgrounds. It's not much different than having a measuring tape to keep everybody agreeing on the length of a foot, for example. Its hardly a make or break number. Nobody I know ever asks for it directly. And in a country as big and with as many opportunities as we have, it hardly determines the outcome of your life.

School is basically an organized way to train kids to work in an office or factory. Nothing wrong with that, from my perspective, since its what the vast majority will do with their working lives. Solving funny puzzles makes it seem that such skills are meaningless. I don't think so. If you do, try looking under the hood of your car. That's a funny puzzle, but it sure is nice to have it solved, eh? Same with a computer, ariplane, and on and on. I think liberal arts types are more apt to think that funny puzzle solving is closer to meaningless, since things in that arena are hardly sorted out. I don't think funny puzzle solving is a small matter.

I think it is fantastic that so many skills and talents abound. But the disingenuousness of Gardner is that he tries to substitute his multiple intelligences as a feel good remedy for those coming up short in the standardized tests. I've read his books, and his standards of discovering such other abilites is vague anyway, which you would expect of a high IQ academic! School is hardly the place to go to discover these other abilities. When you think about it, a lot of success in life is determined by what you do outside of school. The test is life. I think that's serious enough.

Part of the obsession over IQ is that far more people have above average intelligences than honest-to-god talent. High IQ people are loathe to find out that all their high IQ has bought them is a good job that is usually quite tedious and demanding, since they are such great puzzle solvers, and little esteem from their same-stuck peers. The general population, including their peers, is far more entertained by the musicians, actors, writers, athletes, artists, personalities, entrepreneurs, politicians, etc, than high IQsters. Envy. The hang onto high IQ is the hanging onto of a sense of specialness in an overwhelming sea of humanity. Oddly enough, the cure for such is to concentrate more on the personal relationships one has than the impressions of and comparisons to society at large. In other words, to remain special, become a Voltairean (?), and be happy that you can solve some tricky puzzles from time to time to keep the bill collectors at bay.

Posted by: BIOH on April 4, 2007 10:11 PM

My alarm bells ring when I learn that someone has gotten a MacArthur "genius" award. Apparently being a lefty has a lot to do with being a "genius" by MacArthur reasoning. Not a 100% deal, of course, but a good approximation.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 4, 2007 11:16 PM

I call it the half full glass. Very roughly, a general factor of intelligence accounts for about half the differences in cognitive performance among people and specific talents the other half.

A specific problem with Gardner is that his categories don't seem all that helpful to understanding human beings. For example, he says that good athletes and good auto mechanics both exhibit "bodily-kinesthetic" intelligence. Yet, think about high school -- we're the jocks and the gearheads the same people? Not very often. They seem to be somewhat different skills in real people, although not in Gardner's theory.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 5, 2007 12:39 AM

Life's not fair. This elemental truth, obvious to the average 3rd grader, seems to drive some people mad. There is no equality: not in intelligence and not in physical attributes. And worst of all from the standpoint of egalitarians: superior intelligence tends to be coupled with superior physical attributes, including superior attractiveness. Get over it, you lefty freaks!

Posted by: ricpic on April 5, 2007 8:14 AM

When superior attractivenes doesn't lack in brains department either and happen to look with attention to superior intellignece, she doesn't want to stay "coupled".

Posted by: Tatyana on April 5, 2007 8:48 AM

I can't believe I'm typing this, but I agree completely with BIOH on this one.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 5, 2007 10:47 AM

Tat - Now, without that body to distract him, he'll be able to concentrate on his writing again (poor guy).

Posted by: ricpic on April 5, 2007 11:17 AM

progressive educators who believes that it isn't important whether students learn any facts, for instance -- instead they need to know how to "solve problems." My personal bullshit alarm goes off extra-loud when I run across that particular opinion.

While I agree with the remainder of your assessment of Gardner and his work, I'd like to comment on this. Having working in the IT field for the last 20+ years, I can tell you I've learned that actual "rote knowledge" is so much less beneficial than the ability to "solve problems". In IT, change is a constant, and any knowledge acquired today will be useless tomorrow. Having a large store of knowledge (such as what you get from recent college grads, most of which is even usually obsolete before they entered college, let alone after they get out) isn't very helpful. Talent and experience are what makes a great engineer or tech. I can teach anyone with the talent what they don't currently know. That's just details. But if they can't troubleshoot, they're completely useless no matter how much they know. In fact, one of the worst parts of the industry is that it's now full of people who "know" a lot, but can't "do" a lot. They got their certifications from a paper mill and think that's all it takes.

Further in Gardner's defense, though, I have to believe that is true of a lot of fields, outside of the factory worker. So then does it make a lot of sense drilling into students heads WHAT to think, rather than HOW to think? Granted the overwhelming majority of folks are going to move on to tedious grind work, but does that mean we just assume everyone is?

I'm wondering if anyone from Europe would like to was my understanding that the European grading system has 50% as a minimum passing grade, as opposed to the 70% that's typical in American schools. The philosophy being that knowing at least half of the material was enough and you could figure out the rest. That would be more in line with where it appears our current educational system is headed.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on April 5, 2007 11:39 AM

Padma Lakshmi (at either 5'9 or 5'10) is also 2 or 3 inches taller than Salman Rushdie (5'7).

Rushdie's height

That creates an unstable equilibrium from the get-go.

Posted by: Agnostic on April 5, 2007 12:20 PM

Rick - maybe she's the poor one; what a curse to have brains and ambition in addition to physical attractiveness!

Geniuses are known to be intolerable and difficult to live with...

Posted by: Tatyana on April 5, 2007 12:31 PM

Hey, I once talked to Padma Lakshmi for, like, 45 seconds. She had a cookbook she was promoting, if I remember right. Dazzling physical specimen, of course, and articulate as all get-out. Impressive! Gods and goddesses walk among us.

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on April 5, 2007 1:13 PM

Maybe it's a sign of the apocalypse, but I also find myself reading BIOH's comment and saying, "Absolutely right."

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on April 5, 2007 4:55 PM

Add me to those looking over his shoulder for a sign of the Apocalypse. BIOH nails this one.

People who want to make a fetish about intelligence, or rather IQ, mumble to themselves when trying to deal with creative types like artists and musicians, who often have what in the non-talented are called learning disabilities and yet almost magically find a way to function at a high level in a concert or on the stage. But I have yet to see anyone seriously try to sell the idea of a Creativity Quotient, or a Talent Quotient or even pretend that they have found a way to quantify artistic ability in any meaningful way.

Posted by: alec on April 5, 2007 7:51 PM


The substantial g-loadings of all purely cognitive tests in the current study contradict Gardner's assertion that there are at least eight independent intelligence domains. Although Gardner has acknowledged the existence of g and has conceded that the eight intelligences might not be entirely independent, his contention that positive correlations between various cognitive tasks are largely due to verbal demands was clearly not supported in this study, in which those verbal demands were minimized. Instead, measures of Linguistic, Spatial, Logical-Mathematical, Naturalistic, and Interpersonal intelligences showed a positive manifold of correlations, substantial loadings on a g factor, and substantial correlations with an outside measure of general intelligence. The common element that saturated the highly g-loaded tests most strongly was their demand on reasoning abilities, not their specifically verbal content.

The finding that several of the partly non-cognitive tests in this study were very weakly g-loaded is unsurprising, and suggests that Gardner is likely correct in claiming that Bodily-Kinesthetic ability is quite different from the various cognitive abilities. Given the important contribution of non-cognitive as well as cognitive abilities to performance in the Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, and Intrapersonal domains, “talents” might be a more appropriate label than “intelligences”.

Posted by: dareano on April 6, 2007 1:22 PM

Bravo! You are right on all counts. Including the "Hmmmmm."

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 7, 2007 5:13 PM

People who want to make a fetish about intelligence, or rather IQ, mumble to themselves when trying to deal with creative types like artists and musicians, who often have what in the non-talented are called learning disabilities and yet almost magically find a way to function at a high level in a concert or on the stage. But I have yet to see anyone seriously try to sell the idea of a Creativity Quotient, removals or a Talent Quotient or even pretend that they have found a way to quantify artistic ability in any meaningful way.

Posted by: George on April 15, 2007 5:48 AM

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