Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard E. Gardner

This is a long review of a big, fat, dense book, not particularly a fun read. But I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the theory of multiple intelligences for years – I think my mother introduced this to me when I was a little kid. I’d read about this theory, but I’d never read Gardner’s own work; I finally decided it was time.

He has written many books, and he’s published books since this one on the MI theory (Multiple Intelligences; Intelligence Reframed), but I chose to go to the original, in its updated form. Frames of Mind was originally published in 1983. My edition has a tenth-anniversary introduction as well as a first-thirty-years introduction; it was published in 2011. (Although published in ’83, Gardner notes he did the writing in ’81, then moved into revisions.) These supplements were helpful to put Gardner’s work in some perspective and keep in my mind the time period he was originally writing in.

I’m going to try to keep it as brief as I can. In a nutshell: I still find Gardner’s theory fascinating and instructive; his thinking about intelligence types informs the way I view people in our world to a large degree. It captures my imagination. Reading this book was definitely stimulating for me. But! it was also pretty frustrating to read, mostly because of his mishandling of gender. Gardner almost entirely excludes women from a discussion of intelligences (except, of course, where we may be of use as mothers to male children). It assumes strict gender roles to an extent that seems almost laughable in 2021. I have some concerns about his treatment of cultural differences, although he’s clearly making some good efforts, but I’m less confident in my criticisms in that area, so I’ll discuss those as concerns I’m not sure about, where the gender business was downright upsetting. As I said about Buried in the Bitter Waters, there is enough good thinking here that it needs and deserves a thorough editing (and in this case, a thorough rethinking), and a rewrite for modern times. In general, a little humility and openness to being wrong is probably healthy for all of us (myself obviously included).

On that note, Gardner is quite good at humility and openness to criticism when it comes to his psychological theory of multiple intelligence, his acknowledgement that the number and identity of intelligence types may need revision, and his easy confession that in some realms he’s not qualified to carry the theory any further. (For example, what this book is not is a prescription for educational theory or practice. This is funny because one criticism of Gardner that I’ve encountered is that his educational recommendations are faulty. Again, he makes none in this book. Although maybe he does so in later works.)

Let me back up and offer you at least a little bit of summary. (This will be minimal, and I’m in a bit over my head with the harder-science side, but there are excellent summaries elsewhere online if you want to go further.) Gardner posits that human beings do not have a single intelligence, in which individuals are more or less gifted, but rather we have a number of different intelligences, or competencies, which are independent of each other; an individual can be gifted in one or more, average in others, and below average in some. In this, his original work on the theory, he introduces and details seven intelligences, defending them in neurobiological terms and with some examples. They are: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal (grouped together as the personal intelligences), and spatial. He is careful to separate intelligence from sensory abilities, so verbal-linguistic is not tied to hearing (and hearing-impaired and deaf people can be highly intelligent in this area), and spatial is not tied to vision (same story for blind people). In testing whether an aptitude qualifies as an intelligence under his theory, he requires that it involve a skill set that leads to the ability to resolve “genuine” problems or create useful products; that it also entail the potential to find or create problems; and that it have a biological basis, meaning for example that it be potentially isolated by brain damage. A short list of further criteria: the existence of prodigies; a recognizable developmental history and “end-state performances”; an evolutionary history; support from experimental psychology and psychometry; and “susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system.” Whew. Bookending chapters on each intelligence type are chapters on earlier views of intelligence (background of other theories and schools of thought); biological foundations (hard science, and hard for me); a critique of his theory; comments on the socialization of intelligences through symbolic systems; observations about how we educate to intelligences (observations, not prescription!); and thoughts about “the application of intelligences.”

As you may be concluding, Gardner here writes for an academic audience, in that classic, dry, academic style. Against his advice, I did wade through the “biological foundations” chapter (not that I got much out of it, but I’m a completist). It was a good reminder that psychology is brain science. I would love to see this book rewritten for a more general readership. I think I was hoping for more examples of intelligences in practice – hoping to recognize myself and my friends, family, acquaintances. My interest in this theory is absolutely about armchair-analyzing the world around me, so I was hoping for a slightly different type of book than this, but that’s my mistake; Gardner is clear that this is psych theory, not a which-kind-of-fruit-would-you-be quiz. I would have loved more case studies… and I wonder, is this about my desire for narrative, owing to my individual profile of intelligent types? I especially wanted more from the bodily-kinesthetic chapter, which included only two pages about athletes.

Gardner’s language is often dated. He uses ‘Eskimo,’ ‘victim of autism’ (and clearly sees autism as a tragic disability, when I think we’re pretty far from that mindset now), and ‘idiot savant.’ The use of ‘normal’ for individuals who are neither prodigies nor ‘subnormal’ feels a little wrong to me. And, “for ease of exposition the pronoun ‘he’ will be used in its generic sense throughout this book.” Guess how that struck me. I am aware of the argument that ‘he or she’ is just too much work, and/or too awkward, for regular use, but there are other, more elegant solutions to this problem than just assuming that EVERYBODY IS MALE. You can alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’ from case to case. You can use ‘he or she’ sparingly (really, I’ve done it, you can). You can also slip into the singular pronoun ‘they,’ which is not a new usage at all, but dates back centuries. To read more than 400 pages of thoughtful and serious social science thinking in which ‘he’ does everything and everything happens to ‘him’ is belittling, offensive, and makes me feel not just left out, but as if I don’t even exist, or these theories don’t apply to me (more on that in a minute). Words matter.

While Gardner is able to cite women as scholars and researchers in his own and related fields (education, psychology, anthropology), he is almost entirely unable to name a woman as an example of one of his proposed intelligences. I noted just four, in these 412 pages plus notes: poet Sue Lenier, ballet choreographer Martha Graham, ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, and Eleanor Roosevelt (for the personal intelligences, held up alongside Socrates, Jesus Christ, and Mahatma Gandhi). By comparison, his male examples number in the hundreds. His chapter on verbal-linguistic intelligence names 35 men who impress him, and just the one woman: Sue Lenier, who he calls the “possessed poet” for her methods which have been criticized (so that the one woman in that chapter, and one of just four in his whole book, has her intelligence qualified, as if her poems aren’t really her own work after all). Representation matters. I am left with the clear impression that Gardner doesn’t think I could possibly be intelligent in any of seven ways. Yes, it was 1981 when he wrote this book. But some men had already figured out how to see women as people in 1981, so Gardner does not get a pass.

Gardner’s belief in clear gender roles, then, will not surprise you. The development of infants falls squarely on their mothers, and mothers are the only ones capable of playing certain roles in the lives of their infants. (Finally, something women can do.) The chapter on the personal intelligences is far too bound up in a gender binary. I am not extremely well read in gender theory, but I am not sure I buy the strict gendered division of labor and personality going back to prehumans that he sets up. I know that nonbinary gender expressions are not the brand-new item that some would have us believe now, but appear in early and traditional societies as well. I know same-sex couples raising children in exemplary fashion. I think, as a psych theorist, that Gardner is missing some significant pieces of the puzzle here.

When it comes to other cultures, I’m on even shakier ground. And I do want to acknowledge that Gardner’s made an effort to find and examine a variety of cultures, societies, educational systems, and ways of recognizing, valuing, and ‘using’ intelligences in different cultural settings; that is important work and involves his awareness that Western culture is not the only or necessarily the best culture. Sometimes his conclusions feel a little unsure to me, but my expertise on cultures other than my own (let alone in terms of sociology, anthropology, pedagogy, psychology, etc.) isn’t sufficient for me to pick Gardner’s work apart. I did find myself wondering if he wasn’t being a little reductive sometimes, though, as in the stereotypes about Japan and China, for example.

I know I’ve devoted a lot of this review to my criticisms, but these oversights in Gardner’s writing and his perspective on humanity 1) were distracting to me as I tried to take in the theory and 2) make a substantive difference in his theory, because how can one understand human intelligences if one (for example) overlooks half the population??

As a theory, Gardner’s work continues to fascinate me and to inform a lot of my thinking. I am very glad I put in the effort (and it was an effort) to read this book. As a book, it was fairly obnoxious. But as a theory, it is intriguing and evocative. I hope somebody takes on the rewrite someday, and finds some non-men to think about. Who knows–we might learn something.


Rating: 7 puzzles.

One Response

  1. […] stark contrast to the academic tome I recently undertook, this one was an absolute joy. (It was also much shorter.) I’ve been looking for something to […]

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