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Living Legends: An Interview With Howard Gardner, Part II

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In Part I of my interview with Howard Gardner, he discussed his famed theory of multiple intelligences, in addition to some of his other theories and concepts.

Without further ado, here is Part II of the interview:

ML: In 2011, you received the Prince of Asturias Award in Social Sciences for your creation of the theory of multiple intelligences. How does it feel to know that your accomplishments and hard work hard are appreciated?

HG: This was a wonderful honor. I was able to travel to Spain with my wife Ellen, and two of my children (Kerith and Benjamin), to visit various sites in Spain, and to meet other awardees, including conductor Ricardo Muti, Nobel Prize winning biologist Paul Nurse, singer-composer Leonard Cohen, the firefighters from Fukuyama, and to be reunited with Bill Drayton, the premier social entrepreneur in the world and, as it happens, a college classmate and friend for 50 years.

I am knowledgeable enough about the world of prizes to realize that there is a large degree of luck -- both for the recognitions that you receive and those that you did not. What meant the most to me was that I was being recognized as a social scientist. I am trained as a psychologist, and I think of all human issues in terms of psychology, neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary theory. And yet I don't think that social science is the same as physical or biological science.

Put simply, when we study plants or atoms, they are not affected by what we learn. But when we study human beings, our findings can affect the future behavior of humans. To use my own work as an example, if you believe that people are either smart or dumb, and you don't perform well on a certain kind of test, you may throw up your own hands and quit. But if you learn that there is evidence for a range of intelligences, and that weakness in one does not necessarily entail weakness in others, you may be motivated to work hard and become successful even on tasks that initially seemed formidable.

ML: Many people know you as the famed creator of the theory of multiple intelligences, but do not know much about your recent research endeavors. What new and exciting concepts and ideas are you and Harvard Project Zero exploring?

HG: As for myself personally, I've spent the last 15 years working on issues of 'good work' -- work that is technically excellent, personally engaging, and carried out in an ethical way. My major colleagues have been Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Bill Damon, two psychologists whom I have known and cherished for most of my professional life. You can learn more about that project at goodworkproject.org.

Out of the GoodWork Project, have come a number of offspring, including studies of good play (in the digital world), good collaboration (particularly in the area of education), and good participation (in political and civic endeavors). We have also created a set of materials called the GoodWork Toolkit, which is being used in schools and other educational environments all over the world. My valued colleagues in these areas are Kirsten Adam, Lynn Barendsen, Katie Davis, Wendy Fischman, and Carrie James. You can learn more about our activities at goodworkproject.org.

Project Zero was begun by the eminent philosopher Nelson Goodman in 1967. David Perkins and I were graduate students at that time and we succeeded Goodman as directors of the project in 1972-2000. Originally Project Zero looked primarily at skills and understandings in the arts but in the last 45 years it has examined a whole range of psychological, educational, and managerial topics. I like to say that "Project Zero develops ideas about learning and educating and gives them a push in the right direction." Hundreds, perhaps thousands of researchers and students have passed through the portals of Project Zero over the decades and many of them now use and teach some of the research and findings that have emerged during that period. At present, PZ (as it is usually called) has a dozen principal investigators, and they are investigating a wide range of activities from the understanding of causality to the nature of interdisciplinary research. Each summer we have two Institutes, which are sold out quickly, and which are attended by hundreds of individuals from all over the world. We are planning additional off-site Institutes, including one on Good Work in March 2013. For more information, see pzweb.harvard.edu.

While I've worked on many topics and written many books, I have not abandoned my interest in multiple intelligences. This year I am planning to launch a website called OASIS, which will be a repository for authoritative information about MI theory. Watch for an announcement on howardgardner.com.

ML: What is your reaction when you see international comparisons showing that American students lag behind their international counterpoints academically?

HG: Of course, I'd be happy to see the U.S. do well on any number of measures. But on balance, I'm not confident that these international comparisons are beneficent. I sometimes joke that "France would rather be #23 if Germany were #24, than #2 if Germany were #1." The problem with the United States is less our mediocre standing than it is the vast difference between our best educational opportunities and our least propitious ones. People from all over the world come to admire our best public and independent schools, and are appalled if they happen to visit an under resourced inner city or rural school. And in fact, what distinguishes Singapore and Finland (generally considered to be the best countries on measures like the PISA and the TIMSS) are the Professionalization of Teachers, and the Egalitarian nature of the system (that is, great efforts are made to insure education of equal quality across the whole student population).

Frankly, I'd rather see comparison made on the basis of respect and ethics, than on the basis of test scores. The United States has done well historically because it is a country that people admire, they want to come here from other countries, they admire the access, the opportunity, and the institutions like a free press, fair law courts, accurate auditing, equal opportunity, and accountable science. Any fair minded reader will recognize that all of these institutions are under threat in the U.S. at the present time, and if they continue to dissolve, then we will not be admired and we will not deserve to be admired.

It's important to underscore that it is not mediocre test scores that have caused the major problems in the U.S. It has been unnecessary wars, ranging from Vietnam to Iraq, and unfair financial practices on Wall Street. And these were brought about by 'the best and the brightest,' many of whom were educated at my own institution. I'd rather see the United States as a beacon of Good Work and Good Citizenship, rather than as #1 on some international educational measurement.

ML: If you had to rate the performance of America's K-12 public schools under the Obama Administration (on a scale of A-F), what grade would you give?

HG: I am basically a supporter of Barack Obama -- it is not easy to be a post-partisan president in a hyper-partisan era. That said, there has essentially been a single federal educational policy in the U.S. throughout the George W. Bush-Barack Obama regime, and indeed, that policy dates back to the Charlottesville Summit of 1989, hosted by the two preceding presidents, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. That policy is well motivated but I don't think it has worked and I don't think it will work. The problems in our educational system are indissociable from broader malignant trends in our society and they can't be solved by lots of testing and by punitive actions against schools that are not performing well.

A year or so ago, I--who was usually not speechless -- found myself unable to respond to a comment by the Minister of Education in Singapore. He said to me: "It takes 15-20 years to change an educational system. How can you hope to effect real change in a country where everything is determined by quarterly profits and biennial elections?"

By nature, I am not an optimist, though I try to act as if I am. In this context, and in light of your last two questions, I like to think back to the words of Winston Churchill: "The American people always do the right thing -- after they have tried every other alternative."

Well, that concludes Part II of my interview with Howard Gardner. I would like to thank Howard for consenting to this interview and for his contributions to humanity.