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.