There’s a powerful new essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education about my least favorite of the many warm fuzzy trends that currently inform (and infect) American education: multiple intelligences. I’ve ranted about this plenty of times: in every college class and inservice day, teachers are beaten with this idea and made to repeat it in order to get or keep their jobs; I just finished a series of classes this year where the curriculum was designed just to make teachers regurgitate praise for this bit of inspirational indoctrination. I can’t overstate how pervasive this is.
The idea: there is a wide variety of “intelligences” out there that influence our learning strengths and weaknesses, and teachers must approach students and classes at several levels to reach all of them. That means creating lessons not just with verbal and mechanical components, but also physical, social-conversational, and even–I kid you not–nature appreciation.
And as every good teacher has known from experience for years, it’s a complete pile of garbage.
As the Chronicle essay points out, this philosophy serves our desire to cherish egalitarian equality–to assert that everyone has talent and value and has hidden but important things to offer the world. Over my years of teaching, I’ve learned the opposite. Skills are not evenly divided among people. Rude as it might be to point this out, people who are smart also tend to be the same people who are attractive and athletic. In school, no matter how many movies told us about jocks and nerds, the varsity athletes are also likely to be honors students as well as decent people. And in a cruel twist of fate, the reverse is also true: unintelligent children tend to be meaner and goofier looking.
Please don’t protest with a slew of individual exceptions. Of course there are plenty of people who fit traditional stereotypes, kids who are strong but not very bright, or brilliant but lacking in social skills. I still find that overall, those are not significant. The general trend is that talents and skills have a tendency to cluster together.
Besides not being accurate, multiple intelligences theory treats all of these “modalities” as equal, which they are not. Our world revolves around words, numbers, and machines. Telling kids that their interest in empathy or in animals is just as good as any other interest is a grave disservice, and sets them up for trouble in life.
Here’s an excerpt:
The theory of multiple intelligences fundamentally conflates intelligence and motivation. It’s a fatal flaw. Motivation is certainly important, and it works alongside intelligence to produce results. However, having the raw biological machinery of intelligence is simply irreplaceable.
Perhaps in a naïve effort to deny that inconvenient truth, the debate about intelligence has become largely political, at times even facetious. Intelligence certainly is not the only predictor of success in work or in school, college, or scholarship, but it’s as strong as any. Unfortunately, it’s also largely genetic. Social justice, treating people the same, bringing out their best abilities are all worthy ideals. Yet we must be cautious when ideals conflict with reality. The world in which we live has no obligation to be politically correct. And it is not politically correct to say that one person is, well, simply more talented than another.
….Many people like to think that any child, with the proper nurturance, can blossom into some kind of academic oak tree, tall and proud. It’s just not so.
Multiple intelligences provides a kind of cover to preserve that fable. “OK, little Jimmie may not be a rocket scientist, but he can dance real well. Shouldn’t that count equally in school and life?” No. The great dancers of the Pleistocene foxtrotted their way into the stomach of a saber-tooth tiger.
That is the root of the matter. Too many people have chosen to believe in what they wish to be true rather than in what is true. In the main, the motive is a pure one: to see every child as having equal potential, or at the very least some potential. Intelligence is a fundamentally meritocratic construct. There are winners and there are losers. A relative doofus may live a comfortable life so long as his or her parents are wealthy. However, clawing one’s own way out of abject poverty is best achieved with a healthy dose of both motivation and “g.”
Naturally, we must be careful to avoid the fallacy that some people deserve to live in poverty, or that entire groups of people are inherently inferior in regard to intelligence. In the past, those arguments have been used to support oppression, racism, and slavery, and we must not repeat those mistakes.
Yet the belief that intelligence does not exist as a single, reliable, important, genetically determined construct is an equal fallacy. Unfortunately, some children and adults are just unintelligent. It’s not fair, it’s not politically correct, but reality is under no obligation to be either of those.
Like yourself, I am suspicious of the gospel of MI. There is something to it but not to bank your life on it. However, they can be a good diagnostic tool and indeed they are in my class, come and check any time. But they are diagnostic only, not be-all-end-all.
I am however confused by your statements. I’ll use your words…
Naturally, we must be careful to avoid the fallacy that some people deserve to live in poverty [is it not true then these people ought to be treated the same as you, the intelligent one], or that entire groups of people are inherently inferior in regard to intelligence [“the belief that intelligence does not exist as a single, reliable, important, genetically determined construct is an equal fallacy” – what is genetic other than inherent?]. In the past, those arguments have been used to support oppression, racism, and slavery, and we must not repeat those mistakes.
I think I understand what you are saying (well, the way you want the reader to perhaps interpret it at least) but statements like this (genetic, can’t do much about it, no-good and therefore consigned to scrapheap) have been used by uncritical people to, as you rightly point out, to justify all sorts of abuse.
How do youwe reconcile? How do you make sure we avoid the fallacies you speak of?
Good post & food for thought. I may disagree with a few things you say but I respect and cherish our freedom to say it.
Tomaz, thnaks for the thoughtful feedback, but the words you quote aren’t mine; they come from the article I was citing. The phrases you then use as examples of “statements like this” aren’t anywhere in my post at all.
How do we avoid the truth about things being abused in unfair, inappropriate ways? First, we take things at face value, without assuming the worst motives in others. We give the benefit of the doubt. We set an example ourselves of mature discussion free from social or racial pettiness or the fear encouraged by political correctness. We do no favors to anybody when we let an atmosphere of bullying dictate what we can or can’t say. Yes, the establishment will look for opportunities to condemn those who point out that the “multiple intelligences” emperor is wearing no clothes, but don’t we owe it to our students to be role models of speaking the truth about things?
It’s unclear from your comment if you’re making that mistake yourself–assuming that someone who merely says that not everyone is equally intelligent and that all talents are not equal is someone who is doing so out of an ignorant prejudice. Some of your language is almost accusatory but, taking my own advice, I’ll choose to belive you have only the purest diplomatic intent towards understanding here. Rest assured that the sharing of research that criticizes worthless trends in education and shows that (gasp!) not every individual is gifted, is not a sweeping indictment of any economic class or racial minority or whoever else you might be offended for. The insinuation that it even could be is a gross insult to us all. Are we seriously worried that some remnant of the Klan or something is out there looking at cognitive research and staging a massive comeback based on a mininterpretation of it? This is the 21st century now. Let’s grow up.
More to the point, we do no service to our students’ generation when we hand out truckloads of gold stars to everyone and tell one student that his love of trees or conversation skills makes him just as smart as the kids who are actually good at math.
You are right about using words, I wrote the response close to midnight and italics did not seem to matter … :-)
I think we share a similarly critical and skeptical outlook more than we disagree.
The words ‘intelligence is a meritocratic construct’ ring so true to me. I’m a classroom teacher of 10 years working with loads and loads of ‘less-intelligent’ children on perhaps maths paper but far many more ’emotionally intelligent’ (yeah, another sucky title but you probably know what I mean), caring, cosniderate etc. than a nerdy kid with A in maths. For my 20c, the world needs both – the math nerd and the C kid who supports a family at home at 15 and does not REALLY care about that paper. Not giving a toss about the C kid would (to me at least) not be ethical.
What bothers me (and you I take it too) is the discrimination that is perpetuated in the name of intelligence. People suffer both from being told they are ‘doing well’ (and believe me, the kids have the best bullshit detectors when it comes to handing out fake praise!) and from being told they are ‘dumb’ (because they don’t do well in a particular set of knowledge that is valued). As a teacher, I am acutely aware of the connection between power and knowledge. Who says what is true or valid? Who speaks? And if so, who is actually listened to? Who loses out?
That my friend is the conundrum I hope we will never solve. I would hate to live in a society where everything is answered. If nothing else, freedom (seems our shared passion) would suffer. My only lofty goal is that kids, dumb, smart, dancers, drawers, mathematicians… don’t suffer more than they perhaps need to sometimes to chase some lofty ideological whim or (a)historical tradition (religion included).
But that’s where we may disagree again …
Love intelligent (oops, did I just say that? :-)) conversation!
Tomaz, you do a fine job of finding common ground here. I’d only add that the most prevalent of the “lofty ideological whims” that currently hold back public education–one that practically does count as a historical tradition or a religion these days–is political correctness itself.
Thanks for reading and good luck in all your future teaching!