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Against Gardner
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  20 Sep 2008

Howard Gardner first published his theory of multiple intelligences in Frames of Mind (1983), then revised them and addressed their implications in Multiple Intelligences (1993) and Intelligence Reframed (1999). He attacked IQ tests, developed by Alfred Binet (1857-1911) to score essentially permanent intelligence along obvious grounds: often those without high IQs do well for themselves and often those with high IQs have less than inspiring careers. Of course, this is not much of a criticism: intelligence is obviously not necessarily correlated with financial success. Moreover, Binet’s tests certainly depended upon learning and aptitude at puzzle-solving as much as innate, inborn intellectual capacity. Though Gardner prefers to attend upon noting successful people who obviously use some portion of their brain to do so -- a fact borne out by increasing awareness of brain biology -- he might instead have focused on more narrow complaints of the methods with which intelligence is calibrated, and his work would have been the better for it.

Gardner would go on to identify seven intelligences: musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence -- all of which are pretty much what one would expect them to be. Of course, this is all patently Aristotelian: we might well ask, as we must so often with Aristotle’s taxonomies, “do these not overlap, and not just in a haphazard general fashion but owing to their unique natures?” We would similarly do well to ask whether we cannot break these categories down as well or add additional categories: while Gardner loves providing convenient exemplars of his intelligences, he avoids stories of those who, for example, are great employers of language but have great difficulty learning languages. This alone would reduce Gardner’s taxonomy to, at best, a useful rough guide.

Of course, we might also point out that, while Gardner’s schema is new, attention to these elements is of course not. Ancient Greek notions of the relationship between bodily and mental fitness easily come to mind, as does Socrates’s dictum “know thyself.” Olympic athletes and brilliant composers have always been valued.

But the most damaging element of Gardner’s taxonomies is not his particular choices -- which should not be taken all so seriously, though they often are -- but the labeling of all such elements as “intelligences.” Previous eras and generations did not ignore the awe-inspiring abilities of athletes and musicians and interpersonal schmoozers, but they called such things “abilities” or “aptitudes” instead of “intelligences.” As the child prodigy circuit from which he benefited demonstrates, no one doubted Mozart was a genius, though they wouldn’t come to him for political advice. He was certainly, in a way, intelligent -- but “intelligence” denotes things at which he wasn’t all that gifted, and we might better speak of his tremendous musical genius, or talent, or aptitude. In other words, outside of a tentative and problematic taxonomy, and his sometimes appalling self-reflexive theory of this taxonomy’s implications, Gardner’s great contribution was not at all to demonstrate anything new but to expand the definition of “intelligence” as a word.

To be sure, the word is much-prized. It feels almost altogether different to say that one admires Mozart’s or Michael Jordan’s or Michael Jackson’s intelligence than it does to say the same of their musical genius or athletic talent. What then is the effect of this rhetorical shift? What does it gain us?

Most obviously, it gives many such people more respect. We all know that some part of Michael Jordan’s brain is astoundingly good at the largely unconscious calculations involved in pivoting, maneuvering, and receiving and tossing a ball. But to call him intelligent -- to be able to apply that sacred word to him, to expand its definition from a narrow cadre of intellectuals, is another thing entirely. It is so culturally counter-intuitive that we balk at its oddness. Yet doing so has obvious positive effects, allowing us to openly appreciate the brain -- or a part thereof -- of many different people, greatly expanding those privileged with the label of “intelligence.”

We need also ask, however, what this rhetorical expansion costs us. No change has occurred in terms of people’s actual intelligence(s) by awkwardly describing Sting as “musically intelligent” or Shaq as “boldily intelligent” or a math professor as “mathematically intelligent” or a great writer as “linguistically intelligent.” In fact, while we praise traditional intellect, we lavish astounding praise upon athletes and musicians and the like -- probably far exceeding that which we lavish upon intellectuals. In practice, the jocks and the millionaires get the girls at least as easily as the nerds. Indeed, it seems that the designation “intelligent” is a kind of consolation, a narrow attribution of praise, having little fringe benefits, that confers status upon those who, without that attribution, might have little or none. Expanding the definition of the “intelligent” diminishes this special status: in this case, elevating some entails lowering others. Those good at sports or music are already praised as “talented” and (especially those who are “kinesthetically intelligent”) granted scholarships for study in institutions for curricula specializing in “intelligences” in which they have no special aptitude. It seems as if this expansion of what constitutes “intelligence” raises those not otherwise granted that special status while reducing those who have only that special status to the rude designations of “logically intelligent” or, worse, to some hybrid like “logically-linguistically intelligent.”

The nerds who add to humanity’s understanding can thus bow their heads a little lower while Charles Barclay and his ilk can thus prowl the streets all the prouder, proclaiming themselves no only “talented in sports” but “kinesthetically intelligent” or just plain “intelligent” -- or, worse yet, “as intelligent as anyone else” or “one of the most intelligent people in the world,” simultaneously degrading Albert Einstein to “intelligent, but only as logically intelligent as I am kinesthetically intelligent” -- preferably with an additional “yo” or “ya hear?” thrown onto the end.

Most professional athletes, like beauty queens, are profoundly stupid people: we can all recall in horror many sports players and movie stars and pop singers who have opened their mouths and horrified us -- most deeply at the fact that their ability to play basketball, look beautiful, or sell records got them the time of TV to air their inane views.

I have taught Gardner’s theory numerous times to undergraduates. Each time I am careful to point out my own bias toward traditional intelligence, a bias that has led me to the position of teaching a theory that undermines that same bias or emphasis. But it is useful to point out my students’ responses to Gardner. At state schools frankly more committed to the social experimentation of educating everyone, where tuition is often of greater concern than the quality of education this democratic “everyone” is getting, many students love the notion that their own failures or low test scores do not indicate their stupidity. And, of course, I agree. But rather than analyzing which intelligence they do excel at, students regress to taking Gardner to mean that “everyone” is intelligent in their own way. In fact, Gardner suggests -- and students love the notion -- that the ideal person is well-rounded in his “intelligences,” thus implying that the most intelligent people might actually be those who show no discernible excellence. This pattern of response, unfortunately, demonstrates Gardner’s effects in the world as a whole remarkably well, and I fail to see how it can lead to anything but lowered standards.

Gardner “empowers” people to think themselves intelligent, to pat themselves on the back and to buck the system that would disagree, without doing any of the work that allows people to not only be intelligent but, say, a great footballer. Thus one student wrote about Gardner, “The SAT’s are not accurate to be able to measure a person’s intelligence, so why do potential college students have to take it?” I hasten to point out that this student’s essay began by referring to “theories that are evidently seems to be true” and claiming that “intelligence is formed from genes, the genes from hereditary.” Are you intelligent enough to see the problem here?

The obvious response to Gardner, and to his cult, is to point out that even if the brain is used to play sports, we need not call such ability “intelligence” per se. Suppose scientists isolated a tiny portion of the brain that controlled flatulence: would we then call those who farted at the best times “flatulently intelligent?” I submit that we all know the difference between talent in various activities and “intelligence” specifically.

The SATs are exactly that: Scholastic Aptitude Tests. The do not proclaim to measure all intelligence, just the ability to succeed in school -- and they do that, admittedly with the important exception of intelligent but unmotivated students who might become motivated, remarkably well. Surely we must say that, however useful Gardner might be in reminding us that the brain’s functions include more than what we consider traditional intelligence, the academy requires, trains, and rewards that traditional intelligence. Such would be a reasonable response to Gardner. Yet that is exactly not how Gardner is used in the academy.

Howard Gardner, as codirector of Harvard University’s Project Zero, has attempted to emphasize alternative methods of teaching in an attempt to transform education. His theories reek of the very theoretical and convenient strategies of education professors, of which Gardner is one. How Project Zero’s theory filters down into America’s various universities might more accurately be described as Expectation Zero: redefining intelligence in such a fuzzy manner has justified the erasure of admission standards and grade inflation. It has led not only to attempts to integrate audio-visuals into teaching, thus usefully reinforcing lessons for those who learn differently, but through absurd attempts to get students physically moving so as to reinforce, say, the teaching of Plato or Shakespeare for supposedly kinesthetic learners. Removing any standard definition of intelligence, democratizing it so as to apply to everyone, obviously can be used to justify the American universities’ vain attempt to educate everyone, flooding the classroom with students whose justification for being there is to accumulate credits and earn a diploma with the vague notion that this will lead to higher pay -- rather than, say, students who want to learn.

All of this has a racial component as well. American blacks’ standardized test scores are notoriously low in comparison to whites’, and whites’ are notoriously low in comparison to Asians’. This fact persists despite years of affirmative action and billions poured into minority schools. Theories now abound about how American blacks are gifted at kinesthetic intelligence. One prominent educational theorist has stated that asking blacks to sit still in class is setting them up for failure. Gardner’s theory thus provides a comfortable explanation that implicates the academic establishment -- and its hopelessly outdated insistence on facts and mathematical skill -- and avoids any implication that American blacks are less intelligent. Rather than contemplate why American blacks do poorer, then addressing the problem, politicians and academics have opted for the more politically correct and more comfortable solution of attacking the standards of education by labeling instruction itself, with students sitting in desks, as racist. This is Gardner’s legacy.

Gardner’s theory, largely lacking in evidence and easily deconstructed, has become a staple of educational theory and even our thinking about the nature of the mind and what constitutes “intelligence.” This has little to do with the substance of his work, which at best provides a working but limited taxonomy and a reminder that the brain and the various talents of humanity are separate from any narrow definition of intelligence. Rather, the success of the theory of multiple intelligences has everything to do with its cultural context: a democracy infatuated with the rhetoric of egalitarianism that abhors the hierarchy implicit in the elitism of intelligence, a culture concerned for minorities who continuously perform poorer in evaluations of intelligence, and a culture of increasingly entrenched anti-intellectualism, fanaticism for sports, and relativism of the worst, dumbest sort. The popularity of the theory of multiple intelligences says far more about contemporary American culture than it does about intelligence, of which it says almost nothing.

Harvard’s Project Zero and current educational theory has opposed rote learning, which is all but dead today. Increasingly, we recognize the importance of creativity in analyzing facts and deriving new solutions or explanations. Some combination of the two is perhaps best, and I have often enough myself butted my head against the wall of traditional academics who regurgitate facts and conventional interpretations better than I do. My own strategy is to take what I can from every interpretation, critically evaluating and studying so as to create new interpretations that do a better job -- or at least expand our understanding -- rather than recapitulate the past. But I have an abiding respect for those who do such recapitulations, as the expectation that everyone play the role of deriving new ideas has led to the sorry state of our journals with their endless rephrasing of old understandings in new terms and theories attests -- the cult of originality has fairly successfully been debunked. I further suspect that such recapitulators, who have as their goal the best summary of past thinking, are better teachers, at least of undergraduates and lower students, than I am capable or desirous of being. But such a visible division of intelligence between creative and rote thinking, with all thought being some combination of both, does not require seven distinct intelligences, nor the destruction of a traditional definition of intelligence: ironically, in Gardner’s schema, such a reasonable dichotomy within traditional intelligence goes almost unaddressed in favor of praising interpersonal skills as intelligence in its own right.

This, then, is Gardner’s real agenda. And he has made a prosperous career out of it. Ironically, he has done so through conventional intelligence -- through the old definitions of intelligence that got him his degrees and his job at the (often ridiculously) overly traditional Harvard. Gardner has promulgated his theories through the same old linguistic intelligence that his own theory relegates to the equivalent of throwing balls through hoops. Yet in selling out the academic standards and the definition of intelligence that got him where he is and that labeled him intelligent in the first place, Gardner has purchased in exchange not only his fame but his placement in undergraduate anthologies -- which might compensate him, if not his colleagues, when that lonely compensation of his special status as intelligent in an anti-intellectual society is stripped from him.

Howard Gardner’s popular theory has made him, in his effects if not his intentions, a traitor not only to the academy but some two and a half millennia of learning. Such is the power of a single word, calamitous in its misuse.

Originally published online on 18 February 2003.

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Other Essays by Julian Darius:
Yellow Sign Series in the Vatican Museum
Feminism was a Response to Dishwashers
Life on Gor (Page 1 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 2 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 3 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 4 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 5 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 6 of 6)
The Danger of Personality Tests
The Party’s Raging but the Messiah Stands Us Up
How to Have Fun with Scrabble
Love the Good Women, Boys, Love the Good Women
Against Gardner
I Need a Secretary
Cast Away Review