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The power
of an open mind

The list of academic awards on developmental psychologist Professor Howard Gardner’s CV is long, very long. From the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1981, through 31 honorary degrees to more recent awards highlighting his role as an influential thinker in a number of fields, including business and ethics.

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The John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Research Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he has written 30 books and several hundred articles and is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences (MI). After spending time working with both brain-damaged adults and gifted children in the late 1970s/early 1980s, he challenged the notion that there is a single human intelligence that can be measured by a standard IQ test. Instead he proposed that we all have a number of intelligences and we can be strong in some and weaker in others. These intelligences include linguistic, visual, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal – the ability to know yourself.

The multiple intelligences theory transformed the fields of psychology and education and has gone on to be applied in many countries and in many different ways – some right and some wrong, according to Gardner, 76, who recently set up the Multiple Intelligences Oasis website to provide clarity on the theory. Meanwhile he has branched out in other directions and since the mid-1990s been director of The Good Project, which prepares students to become good workers and citizens, contributing to the overall wellbeing of society.

Here he shares his wisdom on how to survive – and thrive – in the 21st century:

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In a recent Harvard Gazette interview you say: “The greatest gift you can have is an education, one that isn’t strictly professional.” Could you explain? 

I have at least three reasons for this:

l. The job landscape is changing rapidly and preparation for any specific job may turn out to be out of touch with reality a few years from now.

2. Skills of writing, thinking, critiquing, synthesizing, communicating, collaborating are going to be important for the foreseeable future and these are best acquired via a wide-ranging education across topics and disciplines. That’s why people around the world want their children to go to Princeton or Amherst or Pomona or Dartmouth, rather than to engineering school or journalism school or veterinary school as undergraduates.

3. As an old person, I can say that a broad higher education is the greatest gift that you can give yourselves for the rest of your life. Because even after you can no longer run a mile or get on airplanes, you can still enjoy music, art, theatre and especially fiction and non-fiction reading and discussion groups. And if you had a narrow education, that’s difficult to do. If you have a broad education, you are accumulating intellectual and cultural capital on which you can draw for the rest of your life.

When you think of work in the future, how do you see students being best prepared? Can we educate for a world that has not yet emerged?

I suppose that this statement was more true historically than most of us would realise. I knew my parents (born around 1910) and my grandparents (born about 1880) well enough to know that they could never have anticipated the events of the past 140 years.

So, yes, we can’t anticipate particular jobs and particular expertises that my grandchildren, born in this century, will need. But there are certain ‘basics’ or ‘constants’ or ‘essentials’. Among them are a sense of morality, integrity, ethics – that my colleagues and I focus on in thegoodproject.org – what it means to be a good worker and a good citizen.

Also, while it is certainly advantageous to know about computing, data analysis, and STEM topics and skills, I still believe that a broad multi-disciplinary education is essential for any age. And so I certainly want my own offspring to have an education that includes history, philosophy and the arts.

How do we – and should we – keep “building bridges rather than walls” across countries, societies, in universities and workplaces?

Of course we should build bridges rather than walls – even the most extreme left-winger or right-winger cannot provide a rational justification for wall-building rather than bridge-building.

But we have learnt that in the second decade of the 21st century, that has become increasingly difficult – and a surprising proportion of the US population seems to think that problems will be solved, rather than exacerbated, by building physical or psychological walls. And, alas, that’s not just true of the US, as I hardly need to remind those who live in Britain, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, Venezuela or China.

There are no shortcuts. My own ‘formula’ is the development early in life of ‘neighbourly morality – roughly, the stances captured in the Golden Rule [the principle of treating others as you would wish them to treat you] and the Ten Commandments.

As one grows up in a complex interconnected world, one needs to add ‘the ethics of roles’ – what it means to be a good worker and a good citizen. Good workers and good citizens are informed; they do not assume that they have all the answers; they listen carefully to other points of view; and they are prepared to change their minds. Formulaically, it’s the Five Ds: they recognise Dilemmas and are prepared to Discuss, Debate, Decide and then Debrief, and reflect on what they ultimately decided and how they might do better next time.

This may not ensure bridges, but it certainly guards against defending walls at all costs. You avoid becoming a fundamentalist – a person with a commitment not to change his or her mind.

Are there circumstances when boundaries are important for discipline and achievement or is it better to keep ‘no limits’ as a mantra?

Life is short and there is no point in pretending that one can know everything or master everything. So even if one pursues ‘no limits’, one will not succeed. Still it’s good not to set up firm boundaries, because you risk closing your mind to something important. I am a fundamentalist on a few things – the importance of pursuing truth, use of the scientific method where appropriate, the centrality in life of artistic experiences – but otherwise, I try to keep my mind open and hope that those with whom I associate will do the same.

Will the ability to collaborate be increasingly important for the future?

The ability to collaborate has always been important and there’s no reason to think that will change. However, in the future, we will need to collaborate with machines, robots, AI programs, and that’s a new challenge – for future generations!

Do you feel that enough attention has been paid to your idea of multiple intelligences? Or do schools and colleges use the idea only when there is a perceived problem – in the case of illness, such as brain damage, say, or a developmental disorder, such as dyslexia?

When I first wrote about multiple intelligences 40 years ago, I could never have anticipated in my wildest dreams that it would still dominate my mail and my invitations.

That said, like many other writers and theorists, I’m more likely to notice misuses or inadequate understandings than appropriate uses and interpretations.

The best source for “good uses” is the 2009 book Multiple Intelligences Around the World in which 42 authors from 15 countries on five continents indicate prudent and imaginative educational programmes based on MI theory. I also host a website – multipleintelligencesoasis.org – where I regularly post ideas, blogs and practices that I like, as well as those about which I’m dubious.

Do you think that the average child is still judged on very narrow parameters?

Probably true. But, along with [psychologist and writer] Daniel Goleman and a few others, I think I have broadened and tempered the discussion all around the world – even for people and institutions who have never heard of me or of MI theory.

What is your best life lesson?

“Choose your parents well.” Of course, that’s a quip. But I do think that parents are the biggest influence on the ethical character of their children. I am lucky that my parents both had a strong moral compass, and I have tried to have a moral compass myself and to share it with my children, colleagues and students over the years.

Do you think morality matters more than success?

For me that’s an easy one. But one of the tragedies of our age – and probably of other eras as well – is that so many people see success – which is often viewed as fame and fortune – as more important than doing the right thing. I wish I lived at a time, and in a country, where people were judged not by the amount of money, possessions and headlines they have garnered before they are buried, but rather by the evidence that, when difficult issues arose, they tried to do the right thing.

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