By Mahdi Malekmohammad

Professor Howard Gardner says there is no trusted ‘arbiter of truth’

September 14, 2021 - 18:54

TEHRAN - Howard Gardner, an American developmental psychologist known for his theory of multiple intelligences, says there is no trusted “arbiter of truth”.

To back his view, the professor of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) says “if I were to read only American newspapers, the world would look totally different than if I were to read only Chinese newspapers.”

In an interview with Sepideh Danaei, creator of the theory of multiple intelligences notes “as for the ethical mind, there is so much misinformation and ‘fake news’ available, that it is much more difficult to know what is true and should be taken seriously, and what is propaganda.”

This is the text of the interview: 

Q. In 1956, you were taken by your parents to New Jersey for a talent test. Now, in 2021, many parents still seek such tests despite increasing public knowledge about multiple intelligences. Why, after more than sixty years, the attitude of the people in this regard has not changed significantly?

Parents want what they think is best for their children.  We can’t expect most parents to know about the debates about intelligence and testing. It is really up to educational leaders to guide parents and the general public about the best way to help children… and, equally important, how NOT to harm the.
“MI” is taken seriously in a few countries (e.g. Finland) and in many specific schools, both public and private.  And in such educational settings, parents are less likely simply to ask for a battery of tests.

Q. In your last book you mentioned Robert Sternberg as a companion and collaborator and mentioned your joint project. As you wrote in the book, your views to Sternberg are different. Please tell our audience where the difference between your theory and Sternberg's originates. 

I believe that the mind consists of a number of quite separate ‘computers”—and the fact that a person is strong in one computer does not predict that he/she will be strong or weak in other computers. That is the essence of “MI” theory.
Sternberg does not pay attention to the contents of information—but rather to how it is used (for problem-solving, for practical settings, for bringing about positive change, etc). I don’t disagree with this, but I think that each of the intelligences can be invoked for various purposes—one can use ‘personal intelligences” to solve arguments, to manipulate people, or lead a crusade—for good or evil.
It’s always good if you can collaborate with individuals even when you have disagreements, so long as you can agree on goals and methods. I have enjoyed my interactions with Robert Sternberg for many years—I learn from them.

Q. Unlike Sternberg, you had no problem doing multiple-choice tests, and you were a smart kid from a traditional perspective. Why prompted you to design a different theory through traditional views?

That is correct, though I suspect that Sternberg did better on tests than he admits—otherwise he would not have been admitted to Yale College! Or Stanford graduate school!
In truth, I did not begin my research with a desire to ‘topple’ intelligence or intelligence tests. But as an individual interested in the arts, I realized that our conceptions of intelligence were quite constricted and misleading. And as I began to explore how we learn about very different kinds of contents (ranging from music to other people’s personalities), and how learning occurs across time and cultures, I realized that psychological conceptions of intelligence—which grow out of work in France around 1900—were far too restrictive.  And after years of research I identified the different ‘computers of the mind’ and made the fateful decision to call them ‘intelligences’ rather than ‘talents.’

Q: Are you a fox scientist or a hedgehog?

A By personality and temperament, I am a ‘fox’—I am interested in many different things and have written many kinds of books. But especially as I get older, I am trying to put these strands together—that is an exercise of ‘the synthesizing mind’ and I am trying to explain much of my world, and our world, through explicating what it means to synthesize.
If I succeed, I will have become more of a hedgehog!

Q. One of the most influential teachers in your life has been Professor Erik Erikson. According to his theory of mental development, you are at a stage called the Ego Integrity vs. Despair. If you look back now, which is heavier, and if you were to take a critical look at yourself with your wisdom today, what would you increase or decrease?

I am fortunate indeed, I have been able to do pretty much I wanted to with my life, and while I have certainly made mistakes, I have tried to atone for them. In that sense, I am fortunate to feel more ‘integrity’ rather than ‘despair’. If I were to get mortally ill today, I would be saddened but not desperate. 
Nonetheless, if I am granted several more years, I would be very pleased—I still have lots that I want to accomplish, for myself, but also for my family and for my students.

Q. One of the criticisms of your theory is that multiple intelligences do not have strong empirical support. Do you accept this criticism?

A I do not accept that critique for a second, indeed, not for a millisecond.  “MI” theory is based entirely on empirical evidence from a range of disciplines—from brain science and genetics to anthropology and cultural history. See the hundreds of footnotes in my major work Frames of Mind.

“MI theory” is not a theory that can be tested by experiments.  Rather it is a SYNTHESIS of all kinds of empirical and experimental research.    

MI theory” is not a theory that can be tested by experiments.  Rather it is a SYNTHESIS of all kinds of empirical and experimental research.  And that is why I am devoting my time now to explaining ‘synthesis’—in my memoir “A Synthesizing Mind” and in the ‘synthesizing’ node of

Q. Another criticism is that you have ignored gender, ethnic, racial, and cultural differences in the design of this theory, and the problem with this type of intelligence, like cognitive intelligence tests, has been based on the norms of a particular culture. Please explain.

I deliberately have not looked at such ‘individual differences’ because of the huge potential to make unwarranted claims about group differences. If there are indeed group or individual differences in profiles of intelligences, we have no way of knowing what causes them—and yet people will immediately assume that these are innate, cannot be changed, and policy decisions should be based on them.

I have seen this awful ‘step’ taken to explain racial differences, ethnic differences, gender differences—and I do all that I can to PREVENT this abuse.

As for cultural bias in MI theory: I am sure there is some cultural bias (I am an educated Western male raised in the 20th century) but much less so than in other theories—and that’s because my theory is based on study of cognition across time and across space. As noted:  Anyone who doubt that claim should read the text and examine the footnotes of my 400page book FRAMES OF MIND.

Q. In your recent book, you have addressed the issue that you have not moved towards creating MI schools, and of course, you have mentioned elsewhere that there have been many misunderstandings about your theory. Do you think that not doing such things is the reason for this process? If, like Dr. Glasser, you built your own schools as a model, others might not have implemented it differently. Of course, I know you believe there is no single MI educational approach. But it seems that this view can create confusion in the implementation of theory around the world.

This is a fair point. But life is short, and one has to decide how to use one’s talents and address one’s interests and responsibilities.  When I was approached in the middle 1980s to help design the first “MI school” I said “You are the educators. I can help and advise but it is YOUR school.”  And I am glad that I said that.

Meanwhile, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, perhaps even thousands of schools in the world which are based, at least in part, on MI theory.  These are an experiment in the real world and are far better than if I had insisted on ONE application, and prohibited the others.

For those interested in the variety of implications and applications, I refer you to the 2007 book “Multiple Intelligences around the World” edited by Chen, Moran, and me.
In fact, even this morning, before answering these questions, I received a letter from a principal in the U.S., offering to fly to Boston to talk with me about his MI school.  So the interest continues, and perhaps one day, someone will update the Chen et al book!

Q. In Iran, your theory is widely taught, of course with a taste of theory and according to the facilities in special schools. The first point is, can these eight intelligences really be taught? Another point is that most schools use multiple-choice tests for these eight intelligences that you hate. Can these eight intelligences be identified through such tests?

I am pleasantly surprised to learn that my theory is known in Iran and there have been efforts to use it in schools. Bravo!   Iran/Persia is an important part of world history and of the world today and I am glad that, despite the differences in the politics of the countries, we can be in touch and I have the chance to respond to your good questions.

I am pleasantly surprised to learn that my theory is known in Iran and there have been efforts to use it in schools. Bravo!

You raise two questions:

A. Can the intelligences be taught?  Probably not didactically, but they can certainly be nurtured, encouraged, aided…. Or, less happily, minimized or thwarted.

B. Such testing does not do harm, unless it is used perniciously.  But it is so much more sensible to set up environments and experiences where children can gravitate toward what interests them and show how they approach these experiences and learn from them.  This is what we did many years ago in Project Spectrum, and what was done in the Explorama in Denmark—both of these are described in the Chen et al book.

Also, all over the world, there are now children’s museums, which turn out to be an excellent ‘laboratory’ for assessing interests and talents- much better than a battery of timed psychological tests with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers.

Q. In your last book, you wrote about synthesis. How can syntheses be taught in schools and will the ultimate goal of your theory be achieved by teaching syntheses? And who exactly are synthesizers?

As mentioned before, I am currently OBSESSED with synthesizing. I read about it and write about it almost every day.  I think it is one of the most important human capacities—and one that we know little about because it cannot be easily simulated or tested in a laboratory setting.

Synthesizing entails absorbing as much information as possible, holding on to that information, organizing it if possible, and then drawing on it, as appropriate, to solve problem or to make things that matter. Savants can have lots of information but may not draw on that information productively.  Passionate, purposeful people may have strong goals but lack the information and integrating skills needed to pursue them successfully.  When copious information and strong missions interconnect and interact, one has the promise of successful synthesizing.

In my memoir, and on my website, I give various proposals about how to synthesize.  Here is one such blog called synthesizing 1.0

There are synthesizers all over and in many fields.  Most of the synthesizers I know are Western: Darwin in biology, Picasso in painting, John Maynard Keynes in economics. But I am sure that there are many great synthesizers in Iran/Persia.

Q. In a study about MI Which has been done in Turkey and has many similarities with Iran, there are problems: crowded classes, shortage of materials, problems with evaluation and time, course books and guide books that don’t comply with MI, and inadequate support from universities and inspectors. What are your suggestions for solving such problems?

I am hardly in a position to correct the educational inequities in Turkey, Iran or the United States. But the advent of personal computers, the world wide web, ZOOM, and other technologies (with other affordances) make it far easier to reach a range of students, with educational materials that are appropriate, and which allow learning that is more personalized and that can proceed at a comfortable pace.

Synthesizing entails absorbing as much information as possible.

Technology can address the different intelligences as well—we are no longer restricted to words, reading, and writing.   And perhaps technology can also aid with synthesizing—though I see ‘synthesizing’ as the most difficult challenge for artificial intelligence—it’s not just having lots of information, it’s knowing how to use and organize it in ways that are useful to human beings and to avoid ways that are destructive.

Q. Some believe that you have done a review of the theory of multiple intelligences by Five Minds for the future. Is this right, or are these two theories complementary?

Good question.  In “MI” work, I am functioning as a psychologist/cognitive scientist, trying to explain how the mind words.   In “Five Minds” I am wearing the hat of a ‘policy-maker’ describing the five minds most important for the 21st century: Disciplined, Synthesizing, Creating, Respectful, and Ethical.  No doubt the intelligences contribute to the effective deployment of the five minds—but you don’t have to believe in “MI” theory in order to produce creating or ethical minds. You have to model them, nurture them, and give them places to express themselves.

Q. Your last book says: I allow others to speak of pedagogical and existential intelligence, those candidate intelligences have not become part of my intellectual synthesizing enterprise. However, they have not received the Gardner seal of approval. Why?

A Simply a question of time and interest. It takes years to investigate a particular intelligence—and in my earlier research, I had an entire research team mobilized to identify the seven original intelligences. I would be delighted if other scholars or researchers were to conduct the kind of survey that I did, and let me know what they find.

I do blog about potential or possible other intelligences, citing evidence from other person’s research—see

Q. Is the training of multiple intelligences for today's adolescent generation who are students and, unlike previous generations, dependent on mobile and internet, similar to the past? And are these tools an intervention or a barrier to teaching five intelligences for the future?

As stated above, the new technologies are very compatible with an education for multiple intelligences.  As for the five minds, that is a more complex question.

Just as two examples:  learning specific disciplines may be MORE difficult, because the internet does not respect disciplinary differences, all approaches to knowledge are intermingled… and one needs to be very sophisticated to figure out the bases (or lack of bases) of information displayed as knowledge on the internet.

As for the ethical mind, there is so much misinformation and ‘fake news’ available, that it is much more difficult to know what is true and should be taken seriously, and what is propaganda.   If I were to read only American newspapers, the world would look totally different than if I were to read only Chinese newspapers—and there is no trusted ‘arbiter of truth’—both google and Facebook are reluctant to take on the roles—and I am just as fearful of governments that purport to take on that role.

I am sure that there are many great synthesizers in Iran/Persia.
We need strong professions with strong ethical cores and independent institutions that are not subjected to interference—and there are very few places in the world that these still exist, if they ever did.

Sorry to be so pessimistic, but I am seeking to be truthful and ethical!

Q. Several of your books are about the mind. What is your definition of mind?

This question often rises when my works or my words are being translated.  In the West (Europe, post 15th century)’ “mind” refers to those human activities that involve thinking, reflection, problem-solving, problem-finding, etc.   It is often equated with brain, but I think that is a mistake. The brain is organic tissue, while the mind is a philosophical or psychological construct (like fear, or like beauty).

Also, with the advent of powerful computers, and of artificial intelligence, it is clear that machines can have minds of a sort.  Whether they are similar to brains or quite different remains to be determined. Also, within years, efforts will be made to combine human brains/minds with computational minds, and then the distinction will effectively disappear.

Q. As one of the world's best-known psychologists and a Harvard professor, what advice do you have for students in this field?

 For students:

A. Read widely, study widely, interact with all kinds of persons, preferably those who don’t all agree with one another

B. Learn how to conduct research, by working with acknowledged researchers, and/or studying how admired researchers do their work

C. Find a topic that you are interested in, indeed passionate about, and try to pursue it so that you can add to knowledge and understanding

D. Make sure that you carry out your work in an ethical and responsible way—and don’t rely just on your own judgments of right/wrong.  Talk about your work with individuals whom you know and respect, and listen to what they say—though in the end, you are responsible for your own decisions.

You asked about advice for people who want to work in psychology/cognition/education and that’s what I have done. But I think that this kind of advice applies to anyone who has ambitions to accomplish things:

1. Keep your eyes, ears, mind, open, and not just to those who agree with you

2. Learn how to work well in the field that you are interested in (law, medicine, finance, public welfare, religion)

3. Have a purpose, a mission that you care about

4. Try with all your efforts to do the right thing—listen to wise others—and when you make a mistake (as we all do), try to do better the next time.