Life stories from Drew Faust, Annette Gordon-Reed, Martin Karplus, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and many more, in the Experience series.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, after he had worked with brain-damaged hospital patients and healthy schoolchildren, Howard Gardner developed a theory that changed the way people study intelligence and transformed the fields of psychology and education.
With his “theory of multiple intelligences,” Gardner challenged the notion of a singular entity of mind, mostly genetic, and instead put forward the idea that all of us possess different types of intelligences, including linguistic, spatial, and musical.
Gardner, a 1981 MacArthur “genius” fellow, would branch out to write books and formulate ideas in a range of other fields, including ethics. He is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an adjunct professor of psychology and senior director of Project Zero.
Q: Can you tell me about your childhood?
A: I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was once a booming anthracite coal town, but by the time I was born, in the early 1940s, it was already becoming a depressed area. I had an uneventful childhood; probably the biggest impact came from events that my parents had gone through.
Hilde and Ralph were German Jews who grew up early in the 20th century and expected to spend the rest of their lives in Germany. They lived like middle-class bourgeoisie until Hitler came to power in 1933. In 1934, they moved to Italy to escape Hitler, and in 1935 they had a child named Erich.
They were making a life for themselves in Italy, but when Hitler made a pact with Mussolini, they decided they’d better move back to Germany and try to flee the continent. From 1936 through 1938, my father made several trips back and forth to the United States from Germany, trying to get people to sign an affidavit so that the family could move to America and not be considered a financial burden on the state. Finally, in 1938, my father secured the needed affidavit. My mother and Erich, then age 3, who were effectively being held hostage by the Germans, were allowed to travel with my father to the United States.
The family arrived in New York City with literally $5 in their pockets on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when many of their relatives were injured or killed. They had made it here in the nick of time. And then, in 1943, when my mother was pregnant with me, their 8-year-old son Erich died in a tragic sleigh-riding accident. My parents told me, when I was much older, that if my mother hadn’t been pregnant with me, they would have killed themselves because they had effectively lost everything.
Q: I read that you grew up not knowing you had a brother.
A: In those days, most parents didn’t tell kids things that upset them and that might upset their children. My parents never talked about the Holocaust, and although there were photographs of my brother around the house, they’d say that he was a kid from the neighborhood. At that time it wasn’t understood that children almost always figure things out, one way or the other, and children suspect when something is being withheld from them. I had always wondered why my parents displayed a photograph of a child from the neighborhood.
When I was 10 or 11, I found some clippings about his death. My major reaction was annoyance at the fact that my parents hadn’t told me about something so important in their lives. Now, of course, I understand they probably couldn’t talk about it. Just as with the Holocaust, it was so complicated. There were so many relatives and friends who didn’t escape in time and were killed. But somehow not being apprised of something so important within the nuclear family was a source of disappointment or irritation. But I don’t recall an explosion.
Q: Can you tell me about your parents? Did they put a lot of pressure on you?
A: My parents didn’t have higher education, but they were very successful. My father was the co-owner of a company that sold stoves and ovens. His father had died when he was 16, and that meant he had to take over his father’s company. That’s why he couldn’t go to college. My mother was training to be a kindergarten teacher, but when they left Germany for the first time, everything stopped.
Hilde was a remarkable woman. She never had a paid job as far as I know, but she was a very dedicated public servant in Scranton. She was a leader in many organizations and she was chosen as the woman of the year in the city. She was what author Malcolm Gladwell calls a “connector,” someone who is oriented to the world and connects people with others whom they would like to or ought to meet. And even though I’m much less social and much more of an introvert than my mother, I also am a connector.
And my father, Ralph, during wartime and thereafter, he was like the general of an army without weapons. There were surviving relatives and friends and associates all over the world, in a kind of a diaspora, and it was my father’s job, because he was the youngest and most capable person, to keep track of where everybody was and to help out in whatever way was possible. Whenever people came to the United States, they’d stay at our home.
He was a very shrewd businessman, to the extent that when he was 58, he was able to retire, with his three partners, who were his cousins. I got some business sense from my father and also from my maternal grandfather, who was a hops merchant and who miraculously was able to relaunch his business after World War II.
Q: What kind of child were you?
A: I think that even without the event of a sibling who died tragically, which in essence I was a replacement for, it was very clear to me that, being the oldest of 15 or 20 cousins, there was a lot riding on me to become successful. I was lucky to be the proverbial bright Jewish kid. I was very accomplished in school. I was an early reader and writer, and when I was in second grade, I produced a newspaper. I don’t think anybody cared about it — just like now I blog and I don’t think anybody cares about it. I did not concern myself with whether I had readers. The fun was writing a newspaper, setting the type, and watching the pages emerge from the simple printer.
My family was oriented toward achievement, putting a lot of eggs in the firstborn’s basket. But because my parents themselves didn’t have higher education, they didn’t try to maneuver me to do A rather than B. They trusted my judgment on many matters.