Howard Gardner talks to John Davies about his theory of human intelligence and his plans to write a book about unusual achievers
If Howard Gardner is an authority on intelligence, he sometimes seems to be a reluctant one. One day after expounding his theory of multiple intelligences to a London audience of 100 or so educationists, psychologists and students he sits in the Oxford and Cambridge Club and expresses surprise at his status as "a guru in spite of myself".
Multiple intelligence theory, he says, "has become a minor industry in the United States. There are about 50 books on the topic and probably the same number of people who make a living partly from giving talks on the subject - and I have met only two or three of them."
The theory - outlined in Gardner's 1983 book Frames of Mind - is that human intelligence is not one measurable thing but a set of different potentialities which vary in importance from individual to individual and from culture to culture.
Originally he proposed seven "intelligences": linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, kinaesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Now he talks of one more - the naturalist intelligence - and "is flirting with" a ninth, possibly to be labelled spiritual/existential, so it is not a rigid classification.
"I'm sure my intelligences are the roughest kind of approximation. As we learn more about the brain the actual cartography will change."
Gardner, a neuropsychologist and professor of education at Harvard, was happy at first to let his theory "go wherever it wanted" - but then saw abuses. It was, he says, "wrongly assimilated to the notion of not being rigorous . . . to the notion that kids should do whatever they want. That could not be further from my educational philosophy". He even learned of an attempt, in Australia, to characterise different intelligences as peculiar to different racial groups. "So I realised I have a certain responsibility. I have created this set of ideas, and I must not allow it to become a monster." He changes metaphors to talk of "a virus that could be benevolent, but could turn malignant quite readily - I feel I have to produce a certain kind of anti-toxin to neutralise it".
Hence his London lecture earlier this month, at King's College, where as well as expounding the basic multiple-intelligence theory he ran through a list of "myths" about it. It was wrong, for instance, to think that he was proposing seven kinds of tests for seven kinds of capacity. "The theory is not of a piece with psychometrics," he declared.
Gardner's antipathy to traditional intelligence testing has led him, inevitably, to disagree publicly with Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, the authors of the notorious 1994 best-seller The Bell Curve, in which IQ test scores were the basis of an argument about race and inherited intelligence.
"Nothing [in The Bell Curve] reflects anything that we have learned about the brain in the last century . . . and [the authors] greatly underestimate the importance of culture and environment," he says.
"Psychometrics is like a game - a parascience. All the most committed psychometricians like Hans Eysenck, they love all the things you can do with those numbers. It is a little like baseball scores. They do not ask what the numbers refer to, or whether they are only paying attention to the things we happen to be able to count."
So psychologists for whom "the notion that if it's important it ought to be tested" are not, says Gardner, naturally sympathetic to his ideas. "But this antipathy is not reflected among hard scientists," he adds. "Biologists find it reasonable that the brain has evolved to do lots of different things; they do not have reason to believe that the brain is a general muscle that is either strong or weak. Classical psychology has got saddled with that belief."
Married to the psychologist Ellen Winner, with four children whose ages range from 26 to ten, Gardner will be spending much of this year working on proposals for school reform in the US as well as disseminating his multiple-intelligence ideas and looking at their applications. He will also be writing a book about "extraordinary minds . . . What I have learned about what it means to be extremely unusual in terms of your achievements".
He has more to say, though, about the work he plans on "the role of the disciplines in knowledge today". Some in the US, he says, "feel there is a faithfulness to disciplines - to history, to science, or whatever - and that students are lost sight of. And then there is the post-modern critique. But I take the conservative position, that the disciplines are really habits of thinking that separate us from barbarians. To learn to think scientifically, to think critically about the arts -that is one of the major justifications of school.
"I'm trying to figure out the best way of introducing disciplinarian thinking to youngsters nowadays . . . The position I am taking is that it does not matter in secondary school for instance whether you study physics or biology. The important thing is to go into some science with enough depth to understand what it means to make a claim and get evidence for it . . . The most interesting research that cognitive science has done in the educational field has shown that if you try to cover too much, kids may have a superficial grasp but they lose it almost immediately."
Gardner's Harvard team has been promoting, he says, "a performance view of understanding . . . as not something that occurs between your ears, but something that you do publicly. You perform your understanding by being introduced to a new situation or a new problem. And if you 'understand', you can use your knowledge, skills or whatever to illuminate that new thing.
"I think that on their own the understanding work and the multiple intelligences work have a certain interest. But if you bring them together, as I am trying to do now, to see how we can mobilise people's different intellectual potentials, to let them master things which are really important - to uncover rather than to cover - that is where my ideas will have the chance to be tested."