Future Minds: Interview with Harvard Professor Howard Gardner

IN THIS ISSUE SPRING 2010

Spring 2010 Issue

Developing the Five Minds
Author: Heidi Smith

In educational circles, Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner is something of a rock star. His theory of multiple intelligences challenged the conventional wisdom regarding IQ and fundamentally transformed the way intelligence is understood. By dividing intelligence into the categories of linguistic, mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetics, interpersonal skill, intrapersonal skill, an understanding of the natural world, and spatial reasoning, he revolutionized the field, providing a bold new method for measuring many types of brilliance rather than relying on a single number (i.e. the Intelligence Quotient). In recent years, Gardner has turned his attention to the kinds of skills that are necessary to achieve personal and professional success in the 21st century, and how these “minds,” as he calls them, differ from those that came before.

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Future Minds

In Five Minds for the Future, Gardner outlines what he sees as essential ways of thinking and behaving in the modern era. He devotes a chapter each to discipline (the ability to master a discipline, whether it be carpentry or deep understanding of history), synthesis (the ability to bring together ideas from many different sources into a coherent whole, creativity, respect (the ability to understand and deal with those who are different from you) and ethics (a personal code of behavior that determines moral action, whether personally or professionally). He spoke with SuperConsciousness about ways to develop the five minds and help young people be better prepared to meet the challenges of the future.



SC: You point out that many students are emerging from University without the basic ability to think. Do you think that implementing a more apprentice style education would help students learn to think better?

HG: I would say, yes. Of course, apprenticeship depends enormously on the mentor. If you have a teacher who has what I call a “subject matter” view of things, no matter how much stuff you know, that is little or no help. But for example, working in a science lab is a much better way to learn how scientists think. If the same thing can be applied in any other discipline, then it’s a sensible way to go.

SC: How important are models and modeling in the development of the Five Minds?

HG: Crucial. It takes the extraordinarily rare person that comes around once in a decade or a century who can envision and realize knowledge and skills in the absence of having role models. Gandhi was the most important person in the last thousand years, because he actually didn’t have role models unless we go back to Christ and Buddha and people like that, but his example had an effect on Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela and the people in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, probably on people in Iran at the present time. His example is what makes it possible for lesser mortals to behave in that way.

A lot of my other recent research laments the fact that now, so many young people can think of no public figure whom they admire. There are reasons why certain people rise to prominence and if young people can’t find anything to admire in the people who are in the newspaper or in media, then that’s a very disappointing situation because what are they going to aspire to?

Gandhi was the most important person in the last thousand years, because he actually didn’t have role models unless we go back to Christ and Buddha and people like that, but his example had an effect on Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela and the people in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, probably on people in Iran at the present time.

SC: You’ve described synthesis as perhaps the most important of the Five Minds, at least for the immediate future. Why is that so important right now?

HG: Because all of us are just inundated with information. Unlike even twenty years ago there is no real sense among the users of which information has been carefully vetted and which has not. In fact, if anything there is kind of a reaction against, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica or the New York Times as opposed to something with no vetting at all or as in the case of Wikipedia, a radically different kind of vetting. There are millions of blogs. Which ones do you pay attention to? And then how do you put it together in a way that makes sense to you because if it doesn’t, the material won’t last. If you’re not a hermit, how do you communicate that to other people? So people who know how to synthesize well will have an enormous advantage.

Future Minds

Now I’m aware that there are computer programs being developed which purport to do synthesis and I think that’s very interesting. We’ll certainly look at those programs but it’s no different than what I said about apprentices and mentors. There are good mentors and bad mentors, and similarly they are going to be good syntheses and bad syntheses. I’m not particularly interested in Fox News’ synthesis.

SC: How does presenting problems with multiple or alternative solutions help students become more creative?

HG: One of the things that kills creativity is the notion that there is only one correct answer and you get rewarded if you come up with it and punished if you don’t. There are some questions where there is only one correct answer but many of them – and most of the most important ones – have more than one. More importantly, as an educator I think it’s much more important to know the reasoning whereby somebody comes up with their answer than simply to know what answer they come up with. You can come up with the right answer for all kinds of silly or extraneous reasons, or your thinking might be very powerful and yet for some reason the last step did not yield the generally accepted answer. As an educator, I want to know about your thinking.

SC: How does studying groups and group conflict help to foster respect?

HG: In the book I consider examples of groups that are at odds with each other, places where there are actually wars going on and the steps that are taken subsequently to reconstitute the community or communities. These are the peace and reconciliation commissions which exist in many countries. Sometimes you can design a sporting event or an artistic event which gets people from groups who were at odds with one another to work in some bigger project together like performing a symphony or something. That can destigmatize a group which you only knew from propaganda . . . so-called ping-pong diplomacy. In the recently released movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela uses the game of rugby as a way of bringing together once warring factions in post-apartheid South Africa.

The best way to overcome one’s own stereotyping is to become involved with a project with people who are from the stigmatized group. There’s a lot of social psychology evidence dating back fifty years which supports that. The problem is that it’s easier to say than to actually do, because you have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable. And I think doing it is much more important thanstudying it but studying is better than not even being aware of it.

You can come up with the right answer for all kinds of silly or extraneous reasons, or your thinking might be very powerful and yet for some reason the last step did not yield the generally accepted answer. As an educator, I want to know about your thinking.

SC: What is the role of self-perception in the distinction between the ethical mind and the respectful mind?

HG: Respect is something that’s in the air from birth and kids pick it up and kids see how other people treat one another and so on. And the truth is you don’t have to have a Ph.D. You have to understand the deep reasons for respect if you live in a respectful environment. There is a huge amount of evidence that in certain places, respect’s already in the air and then it’s a no-brainer, so to speak. I work in a northern Italian small city, Reggio Emilia, which in my experience is a model of a respectful environment.

Ethics involves being able to think of yourself as occupying a role of some sort and of course younger people do occupy roles but they don’t do so in a very self-conscious way. Then what happens as you become an adolescent is you can see yourself as a worker or as a prototypical worker, you know “I’m going to be a journalist” or “I’m going to be an actor” or “I’m going to be a lawyer”

The best way to overcome one’s own stereotyping is to become involved with a project with people who are from the stigmatized group. The problem is that it’s easier to say than to actually do, because you have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable.

and you can think about what your rights and responsibilities are in terms of that profession. This is why we don’t let ten year-olds vote – you need to be able to see yourself as a citizen in various polities and you should be asking yourself – I have a feeling that too few Americans do – not just what’s good for me but what’s right for the broader community.Future MindsAnd then unless you are very unusual ten year old, those aren’t ways of thinking that come natural to you but by age fifteen or sixteen, most young people can think of themselves more abstractly and that’s when I think ethical dilemmas can be tackled and ethical decisions reached.

The other point is that respect is deeply built into the human genome. So it’s kind of a natural thing to do and it’s natural to know how to treat other people so that they don’t dis you. But ethics is not something that evolution helps us to deal with. Ethical dilemmas grow out of professions and there is no reason why human beings had to develop professions, we just did. And so it’s only in communities where professions develop – and professions have codes of one sort or another – that we have some guidance about what to do as a doctor, what to do as a lawyer, what to do as an engineer. There are certain areas like business and the arts which don’t particularly have codes connected to them and it’s much more difficult to know what to do in those areas. In business, really the only obligation is to obey the law and to make enough money to survive. It’s great if you’re ethical but there is no requirement. You can’t lose your license, so to speak.

You need to be able to see yourself as a citizen in various polities and you should be asking yourself – I have a feeling that too few Americans do – not just what’s good for me but what’s right for the broader community.

SC: It seems like what you’re calling for, particularly in terms of ethics, would require an overhaul of not just the educational system but of the entire culture on some level. Where do we start?

HG: Education I think is necessary but it’s not sufficient. Among developed countries, the United States does very poorly on these issues. I think there are much more ethics and respect in many other countries than there are in the United States. It’s a great pity. The bottom line is after the Second World War we had some good impulses but those rapidly got lost. My elevator speech for Obama is that this country is currently about Money, Markets and Me, and we have to flip those three M’s 90 degrees to the three E’s: Excellence, Engagement and Ethics: the “good work” three Es. And then flip it again to W for “we” because it isn’t just about numero uno. It’s about what we do as society.

SC: You’ve been contemplating this idea of existential intelligence. Do you see any relationship between the ethical mind and that intelligence?

HG: Existential intelligence is the intelligence of big questions. I don’t think you can operate ethically unless you are willing to take on very big questions.

Ethics is simple when it comports with your own self interest. The issues arise when you want something, but the right thing is to do is something else. Unless you can think in terms of not just myself but what’s better for constituencies beyond your own skin . . . let me say it simply this way: in the 1950’s John Kennedy wrote a book called Profiles in Courage and he talked about people in Congress who’d risked losing their positions – and many of them did – by taking what he would call the moral positions, I would call the ethical positions. I can’t think of anybody in the Congress now who is showing any “profiles in courage.” I think it’s because it’s so expensive and people are so much out for themselves and their “base” constituencies that they never bother to ask what’s really good for the country.

My elevator speech for Obama is that this country is currently about Money, Markets and Me, and we have to flip those three M’s 90 degrees to the three E’s: Excellence, Engagement and Ethics: the “good work” three Es.

SC: Would you define existential intelligence as having that ability to think beyond yourself?

HG: I would say existential intelligence is the capacity to ponder big questions without coming up with definitive answers, doing your best to come up with the best answer that you can. I wouldn’t hold myself up as a model but I think when I am faced with ethic issues I try to take my time and think a lot about them because they’re important and it’s important to get them as right as you can.

For more information about Five Minds for the Future, visit www.howardgardner.com

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