Howard Gardner will forever be associated with his theory of multiple intelligences. Charles Dietz discovers that the Hobbs professor in cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has a lot more to say on the nature of giftedness.

Howard Gardner has mixed news for the would-be genius: we can’t all be exceptional – but we can still learn a lot from those who are. Indeed, he believes it is the duty of educators to draw their students’ attention to the lives of exceptional individuals. In his book Extraordinary Minds he examines the lives of four such individuals, seeking to understand the nature of genius and draw lessons for the rest of us.

A science of extraordinariness

Over the last 30 years Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences or MI has gained great influence in the education community.

Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences

  • Bodily kinesthetic: used for touch and reflex.
  • Interpersonal: used for communicating with others.
  • Intrapersonal: used for self-discovery and analysis.
  • Linguistic: used for reading, writing and speech.
  • Logical mathematical: used for maths, logic and systems.
  • Musical: used for rhythm, music and lyrics.
  • Visual spatial: used for visualization and art.>
  • Naturalistic: for classifying and making sense of the natural world.

Some believe that this championing of non-academic forms of intelligence has helped create the delusion that everyone is a genius.

But this is to misrepresent his approach. With MI theory he is egalitarian, seeking to broaden our concept of talent, so that all students are given an opportunity to excel. At the same time he has devoted much time to case studies of exceptional individuals. He has been motivated partly by a fascination with the small percentage of individuals who stand out from their peers and have a profound affect on the world. But he also has the aim of establishing rules from which everyone can learn – a science of extraordinariness. In doing so he attempts to steer a middle course between two opposing points of view: that geniuses are a species apart or that they are completely indistinguishable from the rest of us.

The development of genius

Gardner argues that we must see genius as a dynamic relationship between three factors:

  • the individual, with his or her talents
  • the domain – a discipline, with its particular rules, within which individuals express their talents
  • the field, or the persons who judge the individual’s work

He recognizes that nature, environment and luck all contribute to genius. Mozart was clearly neurologically well equipped to learn music, but he would not have become so exceptional without the support of his music-loving parents and a receptive cultural environment. Einstein had the luck to be around at the right time – if he had been born 50 years before, the state of scientific knowledge would not have allowed him to make his revolutionary breakthroughs.

Gardner finds that most geniuses come from backgrounds where parents encourage work and discipline. Genius normally requires hard work over a long period, with at least 10 years spent mastering a domain and another ten spent working on the problems that will establish a person’s exceptionality.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. Prodigies usually appear in domains such as music, maths or chess, which contain definite rules and where the development of subtle personality skills is unnecessary. The opportunities provided by the emergence of new domains, such as software or the internet, are another exception. However, Gardner rejects the idea that genius is merely the product of hard work, arguing that ‘only those with talent are likely to practice for thousands of hours’.

Gardner stresses the importance of role models, the company of equally talented individuals and contact with the domain in which an individual’s talent lies: ‘Extraordinariness is most likely to emerge if aspiring individuals are exposed to extraordinary models; ponder the lessons embodied in those models; and have the opportunity to enact critical practices in a relatively protected setting.’

Lessons for the non-genius

Gardner is suspicious of courses that claim to teach genius, especially in the space of a weekend. He is also critical of the attempt to emulate the surface characteristics of exceptional persons, such as the ability to do with little sleep. However, he does have advice to offer us. We can’t all have the creative genius of Mozart or the insight of Virginia Woolf but we can make changes that positively affect our own and other people’s lives – and if we want to do this we can learn from three habits of mind common to the extraordinary individuals he has studied:

  • Reflecting: taking time for ‘regular, conscious consideration of the events of daily life, in the light of longer-term ambitions’
  • Leveraging: extraordinary people are characterized by an ability to recognize their strengths and make use of them. All of us can make breakthroughs based on making use of our unique strengths.
  • Framing: ‘the capacity to construe experiences in a way that is positive in a way that allows one to draw out lessons’. Here the idea is not to look on the bright side of a setback but to learn how to proceed differently in future. Gardner invites us to reflect on the effect that making one such discovery a week could have over the course of a few years.

Humane extraordinariness

Gardner admits that extraordinariness may not be completely desirable. The focus that geniuses bring to bear on their work may have negative consequences for those who are close to them. Furthermore, genius may not necessarily be used for the good, as the examples of Hitler, Stalin and Mao should remind us. In light of this, another of Gardner’s principle aims in studying exceptional individuals is to learn how we can unite talent and a sense of responsibility to create ‘humane extraordinariness’.

The extraordinary minds that Gardner focuses on in his book epitomize four basic areas of human activity:

  • Mozart – the master: a creator who produced brilliant work in his chosen domain
  • Freud – the maker: an innovator who created a completely new domain
  • Virginia Woolf – the introspector: a writer who brilliantly explored the inner life
  • Gandhi – the influencer: a man whose words and deeds continue to inspire many other individuals long after his death.

These individuals, despite their flaws (eg Freud’s tyrannizing of his followers and Gandhi’s cold treatment of his wife), all stand as examples of ‘human extraordinariness’. Gardner calls upon educators to bring such examples to the attention of students, and ends with the wish that, despite his aim to ‘describe rather than prescribe’, the stories of these lives can also inspire.

Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of Our Extraordinariness, Phoenix, 1998, ISBN 0465021255