Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Inconstant Gardner

Quite a while ago, I remember reading a book by John Le Carré called The Constant Gardener. At that time, it struck me that something was wrong about the title. It wasn't until a while had passed that I realised what had been bugging me.

The thing that was bugging me was the beatification of 'St Howard Gardner', a phenomenon which is truly catholic in its application over a wide range of school systems and abortive attempts at educational enhancement. In Gardner's book, Intelligence Reframed, he confesses his alarm at seeing the implementation of a mishmash of his own ideas. This, to my mind, was one of the pieces of evidence that Gardner never intended to be this far down the road to canonization.

That book, published in 2000, was yet another of his many revised standard versions of his one big idea — that of multiple intelligences. He began by deciding there were roughly three areas of intelligence, more or less corresponding to the ancient criteria of truth, beauty and goodness. Then he extended this to five, then seven, then eight and a half, and so on. The only thing that remained constant about his idea was the concept that there were several (an indeterminate number of) kinds of intelligences.

The empirical fact, as anyone can tell you, is that humanity is so varied and complex that there are an infinite number of expressions of intelligence, all of which fit one criterion: the thing done is considered by other humans to be an intelligent deed. It is so circularly defined that there is actually no meaningful standard for intelligence; Arthur Clarke, inventor of the geosynchronous satellite, was moved to say, "It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value."

The only reason we continue to attempt to canonize the blessed Howard is that it is so much more convenient to categorize subjects and intelligences. The two things are related. We tend to say things like, "He's a genius at organic chemistry," and, "She's brilliant at thermal physics."

Such statements imply that the intelligence involved is highly specialised, and that perhaps the person referred to could be differently competent in some other area. But these areas themselves are artificial subdivisions of artificial divisions of knowledge. It is always amusing to get teachers, for example, to define their areas of knowledge — and then without pause, to goad them into explaining what is defined by these areas, and what they contain that is qualitatively different in terms of values and ideas related to humanity.

(For example, ask a teacher to define 'Chemistry' and then ask what Chemistry defines, and what it is about Chemistry that makes it different from any other subject in terms of values and the useful general skills. Most of them wouldn't be able to give you a definitive answer — that is, one which did not require further elaboration.)

When writing student references, the most useless thing is actually the students' grades in different subjects. These tell you nothing at all about the person as a human being. On the face of it, they should be able to tell you how industrious or intelligent the student is; actually, some reflection will tell you that they tell you nothing of the sort. Consider a person who gets a top grade for History: what does it tell you about this person, apart from the naked fact that this person was able to give answers on a specific day of a specific year that met a certain arbitrary standard?

This is why anyone who tries to sell you a multiple intelligences model should be slapped around a few times. All you need to do is ask him, "Would you consent to be evaluated in terms of this model?" Then you make him do a bunch of random meaningless things and ask him to evaluate himself by questionnaire. The result will have more in common with his self-image than with his actual level of performance when measured against the population at large.

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