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.

Educated by Tara Westover

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories.

Last Friday, I briefly reviewed Tara Westover’s talk at West Virginia University. Now here’s her book.

It’s a hell of a book. I’ve written about this before: every book has the two layers, the content itself – the story it tells – and the telling of it. Sometimes one or the other clearly dominates. I read a lot of books in which the telling, the lovely lyric or literary or weirdly styled telling of it, trumps the story itself (man comes of age, meets woman, ho hum). And I read some that are very much about the story, where the telling is just serviceable. I sometimes remark when they both align to a remarkable level. This one is noteworthy because the story is so outrageous: truly, it would stand alone as a sensational tale (which is not altogether a good or a bad thing, although rather maligned in memoir). But it doesn’t rely on the shock value of its story to carry it; the telling is also elegant, and Westover makes some wise observations along the way.

As I wrote the other day, Westover was raised by some pretty extreme isolationist Mormons. She was not allowed to go to school or to a doctor. Her father seems a little nuts; he is a religious zealot, insists upon total control in the household, is prone to wild mood swings, and late in the story, becomes something of a cult leader. He makes his living by scrapping metal from his junkyard(s) and doing odd building jobs. His seven children are expected to work as part of the family business – with him, or with their mother, a midwife and homeopathic healer. This latter was not her idea, but his, so that the family would not need doctors, and as a way to serve God. She is a reluctant student but eventually finds her stride and gets serious about faith healing (which involves something she calls muscle testing, clicking her fingers and whatnot). It’s all pretty far out for me. Because Dad is crazed about the junkyard/scrapping work, and because he lives in a bit of a fantasy where nothing bad happens to the righteous, he is opposed to safety measures, actively forbidding gloves and protective eyewear (etc.) and using ludicrously dangerous equipment. So the family suffers quite a few serious injuries. They do enter the hospital a time or two, but also treat third degree burns over a large percentage of the body, and head wounds involving exposed brains, at home. So, the first sensationalist point of this story is the extreme isolation, zealotry, and risk-taking the Westover family lives.

The second is abuse. Young Tara is absolutely placed in mortal danger by her family, repeatedly and constantly, and this is a form of abuse. But the greater issue is with one of her older brothers, who beats and tortures her as a matter of daily life when she is a teenager. He inflicts sprains and I think one broken bone. “I found myself cleaning the toilet every morning, knowing my head might be inside it before lunch.” He laughs at her, taunts her, calls her whore until she knows deep within herself that it is so, and he gaslights her into feeling that she’s imagined all of the above. I can’t do the trauma justice here. Talk about shock value.

The abuse extends from here. She and a sister try to confront the family about the brother’s abuse (which apparently extends to several of his siblings), but this results in a range of lies and false fronts, and no change. Eventually, it results in each whistleblower being invited to recant and be received back into the fold, or be disowned, which is Tara’s fate. At the time of the book’s writing, she is not in touch with her parents or most of her siblings.

But again, her book does not rely on these events for its impact – or at least, not entirely. It’s hard to think about her life without concentrating on these stories (as I have here in this review). But meanwhile, Tara gets an undergraduate degree from Salt Lake City’s Brigham Young University; travels to Cambridge on a Gates scholarship; receives an MPhil from Trinity at Cambridge; studies at Harvard; and gets her PhD back at Cambridge. This would be a remarkable academic journey for the most privileged among us, but especially so for someone who never set foot in a classroom until Brigham Young, who had no support at home for her education, and who battled mental illness and extraordinary obstacles and gaslighting from her family at every step along the way. For dog’s sake, she takes school breaks at home where she is gaslit and physical abused, then returns to the school grind. It’s quite bizarre and almost unbelievable.

So, let’s mention the whiff of controversy. The Westover family is divided: some of Tara’s siblings back up her story, while others (and of course her parents) deny what she has written. I’m not especially concerned. If they are the people we’ve read about in these pages, we expect them to react in these ways. It’s hard to confirm such a story, but she does seem careful to consult the memories of others (those siblings she’s in touch with), and why would they support her if indeed this were fiction? I tend to believe her at this point.

I don’t think Tara’s done growing and learning – she’s just in her early 30s now, and I appreciated her comments at WVU last month, that she doesn’t know what’s next for her. (Nothing more arrogant than thinking we know what’s coming next! Or maybe that’s just the van-dweller in me.) I don’t think she’s done integrating the lessons of her spectacularly weird upbringing; we probably all still have a lot to learn, from her and from ourselves. But I think her telling of this story is careful, thoughtful, and compelling. She throws no one under the bus; even the abusive brother, even her enabling, turncoat mother, even her possibly mad father, get compassion, second-guessing, the ambivalence of a narrator who knows she doesn’t know everything. I found her someone I’d be glad to be friends with. She has a curious mind, and is still investigating what’s happened to her (although she’s come a long way in protecting herself).

There are other elements here to appreciate as well. For example, Tara’s attachment to her family is also inextricable from her attachment to place, the mountain where she’s grown up exerting a hold on her (and you know I like a sense of place). She meditates on the value of education, and its different definitions – the value of open-mindedness, and of knowing there is a larger world out there than your own particular mountain.

I am left quite impressed – by what Tara has lived through and overcome, by her journey and her accomplishments, and by her thoughtful, precise, contemplative, considered, literary telling of it. And I am curious about what she’ll take on next. I’m very glad I read this book. (And very sorry to miss the second book club meeting on it, but that’s another story.)

Rating: 7 tinctures.
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