"My students have often asked me whether there is a cooking
intelligence, a humor intelligence or a sexual intelligence," Howard
Gardner dryly relates. "They have concluded that I can recognize only
the intelligences that I myself possess." Whatever faculties he may be
lacking, the many intelligences Gardner can claim are on full display in
his newest book, "Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences For the
21st Century" (Basic Books, $27.50).
It's been almost 17 years since the Harvard psychologist published the
groundbreaking "Frames of Mind," which argued that intelligence doesn't
come in a single flavor, but in several -- seven, in fact. He contended
that our test-obsessed, hierarchy-happy culture has elevated logical and
linguistic intelligence above the musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic,
intra- and inter-personal intelligences. In other words, we value the
capacity to turn a phrase or solve a problem more than the ability to
execute a pirouette, exhibit perfect pitch or make a new friend,
although the latter activities are just as cognitively challenging.
Gardner's theory was a huge hit in education circles, and its precepts
have been applied in hundreds of classrooms and school districts around
the world. The idea has also entered the public discourse, influencing
our debates on school curriculums and standardized tests. Now Gardner
has returned to stake a claim for multiple intelligences in the coming
century -- a time, he says, when we'll need all the brainpower we can
muster. "Intelligence Reframed" is a progress report on how we've
assimilated the concept of multiple intelligences.
Sitting in his publisher's Manhattan office, the cordial, slightly
rumpled professor spoke with Salon about why IQ tests are inadequate,
why he doubts there's a spiritual or a moral intelligence and why we may radically change our thinking about the
kind of people we consider intelligent.
Much of your latest book is devoted to explaining and defending the
theory of multiple intelligences. Has it become a kind of Frankenstein,
a monster that you have to spend all your time managing and controlling?
I don't spend all my time managing and controlling it, and I give
myself some points for that. No academic ever expects to be taken
seriously by more than three other people, because really, we write for
three other people in our field. So when you suddenly find the world
catching on to something you did, it's tempting to devote yourself to it
and be afraid to change your mind about it because you'll lose your
I've tried very hard not to commodify multiple intelligences. There are
hundreds of products such as CD-ROMs and summer camps based on the idea
out there, but I don't endorse any of them. And I avoid singling out
people whose work I don't like -- with one exception. In Australia, they
had an educational program in which they linked each of the
intelligences to a particular ethnic group. I thought that was heinous,
and I went on television and said so.
Most academics are naive in thinking that their ideas won't be noticed,
and if they are noticed, they'll be understood correctly. Boy, have I
been disabused of that notion. One of the purposes of the book is to
address some myths that have proliferated around multiple intelligences,
such as a single "approved" educational approach based on multiple
intelligences theory. In some cases, the myths are ones that I
propagated. In the naive view, a theory is something that's created at
one time in one space, and remains static. In fact, the theory has
changed enormously in terms of my own understanding of it.
The big news in this book is that you've added an intelligence to the
list, one that you call the "naturalist intelligence," the ability to
recognize and classify features of the environment. What led to that
I was giving a speech to specialists in the history of science at
Harvard, and one of them said, "You'll never explain Darwin with your
theory." And he was right. So I spent the next several years reading
about how people recognize patterns in nature, how they discriminate
among living things and things that are inorganic but natural, like
rocks or clouds. All of the intelligences have to be traced back to life
on the savanna a couple hundred thousand years ago, because we evolved
for a very different kind of world than the one we live in now. We had
to decide what to eat and what to avoid because it was poisonous, what
to chase and what to run from. If we couldn't make fine distinctions in
the natural world, we'd be done for.
One speculation I make in the book is that our current consumer culture
may be based upon the naturalist intelligence. A consumer culture
assumes that we can tell one sneaker from another, the taste of one kind
of coffee from another -- and if we didn't have a naturalist
intelligence, we couldn't do that.
You considered adding a spiritual intelligence, but ultimately
decided against it. Why?
The more I investigated spirituality as it's used in our society, the
more I became convinced that even if it's terribly important, it's not
an intelligence. Spirituality is just a mess intellectually. If you go
into a bookstore and look at all the titles labeled "spiritual," they
range from total nonsense to very serious literature about religion and
The study of spirituality does bring up an interesting phenomenological
issue: What does it mean to be in a spiritual state? Many people would
say that what's important about spirituality is the feeling that comes
with it. The problem is that we don't know how to measure people's
feelings because they're not quantifiable.
In mathematical intelligence, for example, we're interested in how well
people can compute. How they're feeling at the time is irrelevant. They
could be feeling lousy or wonderful -- it's how well they compute that
matters. When you start making a subjective feeling part of the
definition, it gets very slippery. Can people be spiritual only if they
feel a certain way? If David Koresh feels that way, does that make him
spiritual? If the pope doesn't, does that make him unspiritual? So it's
very hard to find dry land, and scientists are looking for dry land.
But you think that one aspect of spirituality -- the contemplation of
existential matters -- may qualify as an intelligence?
Existential intelligence denotes our capacity to ask very big
questions about the meaning of life and death. We know that people all
over the world ask these questions, and art, religion, philosophy,
mythology are all efforts to deal with them. Even kids ask them,
sometimes directly, sometimes through storytelling and play. Most of the
intelligences are linked to tangibles like objects or other people, but
existential intelligence deals with intangibles.
When I reviewed existentiality in terms of my criteria for an
intelligence, the one point on which I was dissatisfied is that we
haven't found a part of the brain dedicated to dealing with these
questions. So I say that I think there are "eight and a half"
Can you think of an example of existential intelligence in action?
In my earlier writings about leaders, I emphasized the importance of
linguistic intelligence and personal intelligence, and the relative
insignificance of logical intelligence. That's why someone like Reagan
can be a very effective leader, although no one ever accused him of
being logical. To those, I would now add existential intelligence,
because people like leaders who can help them make sense of what's
happening in the world. The leaders we admire most are ones who give
answers to big questions. When you think about who's running for
president, it's a pretty sorry lot in that regard.
You also rejected the possibility of a moral intelligence. Why?
Morality involves value judgments, and I want my intelligences to be
value-neutral. Yet I'm very interested in how intelligences can be used
for moral ends. It's important that people keep a sense of calling at a
time when things are changing very quickly; the market is very powerful,
and technology is revamping our whole sense of space and time. Young
people entering a profession need to find or invent the institutions
that will allow them to do what they think is really important, and not
let the current practices dictate their actions. I think journalism is
more at risk than any other profession. It's caught between the tastes
of the public, which are capricious at best, and the pressures of
shareholders, who don't say, "Oh, what a wonderful editorial," but
rather, "Did we make more money than last quarter?" It's extremely
difficult for journalists to do what they claim they want to do, which
is to tell the truth, to be as objective as they can and to report on
the things that people should know about, rather than the things they
want to know about. A journalist recently said to me, "The media are an
early warning sign. What you see happening in the media is going to
happen in every other profession." And I think he's absolutely right.
Does the value placed on particular intelligences vary among
different cultures and eras?
Yes, absolutely. A hundred and fifty years ago, if you went to
Harvard, Yale or Princeton, you were going to a place where you would
study Greek, Latin and Hebrew. And I'm absolutely certain that people
who could learn Latin, Greek and Hebrew then are not the same as the
people who nowadays would do well on the SAT. In China, as part of the
extensive classical examination system, scholars wrote intricate essays
that had to conform to a schema that was described as "eight-legged."
Whereas in Western Europe, cultural literacy was very important, and you
had to know about the paintings of a particular culture and so on.
My work is very critical of what I call "the dipstick theory," which is the
notion that everybody is born with a certain amount of intelligence and
it doesn't matter where or when you live, how much stuff you have will
show. So if you were smart in the Paleolithic era, you'd be smart today,
and if you were smart in the Middle Ages, you'll be smart in the year
2050. I think that's nonsense. I think we're built with different kinds
of potentials, and whether they get realized depends on what's available
When something like a computer, or a printing press, or
telecommunications gets invented, there is always a shakeup of which
intelligences are valued and nurtured. As new technologies develop, it's
completely unpredictable which intelligences will come to the fore. For
example, the arts have had a very hard time in American education for
the last 30 or 40 years. But one can easily imagine a scenario in which
computers become smarter than us, and the only people left who can do
anything of worth to other people will be the artists.
How will our ideas about intelligence change in coming years?
The biggest change I foresee will be the extent to which we will want
to know about the intelligences of each person and how we will utilize
that information. As long as we rely on a universal yardstick such as
the SAT or the IQ, we dismiss individual differences. In the future,
computers will make it easier to ascertain individual intelligences and
implement different ways of learning.
Those companies and educational institutions that figure out how to
learn about an individual's intelligences profile and use it profitably
will have a tremendous advantage. The notion that there's only one way
to teach and one way to learn and one way to assess ability will look
increasingly silly. My work with multiple intelligences is not about
accepting what is, but envisioning a different view of human nature and
human potential. We're living in a time that is impatient with subtlety
and complexity, and we would like to say: This is the test that will
measure intelligence, this is the kind of intelligence we value and this
is the ultimate curriculum. But I'm convinced that in 50 or 100 years,
we will laugh at any teacher who thinks there's only one way to teach
How might measures like the SAT or the IQ test be changed to
reflect an appreciation for multiple intelligences?
The best way to find out what people can do is not to test for some
essence by asking a series of questions, but rather to put them into a
situation that mirrors the one they will encounter in real life, and see
how they handle it. I call these intelligence-fair assessments, and I
think it's no longer fantasy to think that we could do simulations like
We should go right for the retail, rather than thinking there's some
kind of wholesale quantity that will simplify the problem for us. If I
were an admissions officer, I'd want to know: Is this a student who's
going to be able to participate in class in a way that's critical, but
not nasty? Is this somebody who can not only find flaws in an argument,
but say how they would improve that argument? We should make our
theories of intelligence adequate to the complexity of human thought and
accomplishment, rather than try to take all that and squeeze it into one
very narrow slot.