In the middle 1990s I was asked to give a plenary address at an education conference, and you can find its text here, or if the link doesn’t work, by going in the masthead to my Writings, then to Educational, then to ‘Who Counts?’ What follows here is based on that speech.
The beginning of my speech was based on a series of questions that had troubled me throughout my working life, as to just what ‘intelligence’ was, and why it was so important. I was usually near the top in my classes at school, but rarely at the very top. Some people were just better than me, no matter what the area was. Since I was a competent junior representative tennis player, it was true there, too. There were better young juniors than me, better pianists, better students. At the University of New England, it was often the case that the highest performers in our subjects were external students, primary school teachers, some of them. What were they doing winning the prizes?
I was led to Howard Gardner’s book and it was a revelation. I had assumed (indeed, I had been taught) that there was a thing called the IQ, and that explained everything. I had been tested on it, and had a high score. I was an undergraduate at uni, which was corroborative. I did well there, and so on. IQ must work, though it didn’t answer all the questions by any means. I was eventually to meet Howard Gardner, and attend one of his postgraduate seminars at Harvard, which I enjoyed. But it was his theory that grabbed me, and I have stuck to it ever since.
To summarise, Gardner said that there are seven ‘intelligences’, or intellectual domains or capacities, and we all have them. They are linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, intra-personal, inter-personal. In more recent years he has added a ‘natural’ intelligence (those who are at ease, in tune with, the natural world) and half another one, ‘spiritual’ which is what it looks like, and is only a half-intelligence because while you can possess it, you can’t be taught it to effect. It doesn’t matter how many times I read the Bible, I don’t believe — at least, so far that has been true. Yet I could, I think, teach it, and many much better-versed people than I do so every day.
Three aspects are supremely important in his view of intelligence. The first is that the IQ test is based on only two of these capacities, the linguistic and logico-mathematical. The second is that you can’t have them all in abundance, because each requires teaching, learning and time if we are to develop these capacities properly. We all specialise, and that means we tend to be good at two or three, but not at all seven or eight. The third is, nonetheless, that they are all present in all of us, unless we have been brain-damaged.
And that leads to what I think is Gardner’s strongest and most startling claim: whatever differences may initially appear, early intervention and consistent training can play a decisive role in determining the individual’s ultimate level of performance. And further: if a particular intellectual skill is important to a society, and if sufficient resources are devoted to it, and if the individual is motivated, and if proper learning is available, then nearly every normal individual can obtain impressive competence in an intellectual or symbolic domain.
It is important to recognise what he is not saying: that anyone can be a winner. If tennis is important to the society (and it is), and if you want to be a good tennis player, and if there are courts handy and an excellent teacher, and your parents and peer group keep encouraging you — then you will be an excellent tennis player. Will you win Wimbledon? No idea, and he isn’t saying you will. But if it were not so there would not be such an array of good tennis players, good writers, good scientists, good painters, good sculptors, good whatevers. As we educate more and more people for more and more years, all this is bound to happen.
I should have said a little more about the intelligences. Linguistic intelligence is competence in language, both written and oral/aural; musical intelligence is obvious, and Mozart and Bach are arguably its greatest exemplars. Logico-mathematical intelligence is what it sounds like, while spatial intelligence is the kind of competence possessed both by good engineers and by good sculptors. Bodily-kinesthetic competences are the kind demonstrated by ballet-dancers, painters, actors, acrobats and sports-people generally. The personal intelligences divide into two: an understanding of oneself, and a sensitivity to others. Gardner makes a strong case for the existence of these seven intelligences, and for their relative independence. I agree with his one and half additions, too. To be in the bush with someone who is equipped with an intellectual capacity focussed on the natural world is to see, hear and comprehend things you miss completely without that capacity.
Of course, Gardner has been attacked by those who just smile and say that maths and science are everything, and that the other things are just pastimes, interesting in their way, but not what Western civilisation is about. When I hear this sort of talk, and I have heard it over a working lifetime of sixty years, it is now my turn to shrug and smile. Maths and science are important, there is no doubt about it. But a civilisation that did not have the music of Bach, the art of the Renaissance and the French impressionists, ballet, theatre, cinema, architecture that produced the great buildings of the world, the sports that we play and enjoy, our interest in food and wine — these are the paving blocks of the civilised road on which we journey.
Yes, maths and science are involved to a degree in many of them. But they are not, I think, the most important of the intelligences, despite the fuss government and others make about them. All are important, and we should value them all. I suggested to a chief minister once that he should ensure that all the young inmates of the jail to be created in the ACT should be offered musical education, on the pattern of ‘el sistema’ in Venezuela. Why? Music is creative, we can all do it in some form, and it usually brings out the best in us. More, it can sustain us when things are bad. The Chief Minister didn’t get it. It seemed more important to him to give them skills that led to jobs. So we still have recidivism, and the jails are still basically schools for further criminal activity.
An essay as short as this one is not the best place to set out and discuss a powerful educational theory. Search the Internet for him, and read what you find there. I regard the theory of multiple intelligences as far and away the best explanation of human capacities there is, and the right basis for planning the educational journeys of young children. That we don’t do it is a pity, though more and more teachers are aware of Gardner. It is in fact thirty years since he put forward his theory. We are still obsessed with jobs and growth. I am not opposed to either, but they are only a useful beginning, not the end of education.
And IQ? I thought too much was made of it when we learned about it in Psychology 1. I’m still of that opinion.