Up close and personal with Howard Gardner
By THEAN LEE CHENG
Harvard University professor of education Howard Gardner has been going around trying to help people to change their mind about how they see things, to look at issues from a different perspective.
"I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place. Knowledge is not the same as morality, but we need to understand if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions." Prof of Education Howard Gardner, Harvard University.
With that famous quote, he has gone around trying to help people to change their mind about how they see things. To look at issues from a different perspective. Much of his interest in the workings of the mind and our human intelligences has to do with how he was brought up and his growing up years.
In 1938, Gardner's parents fled the holocaust with their first son, Eric who died in an accident shortly before he, Howard, was born,
As he grew up, neither of these events were discussed, but they were linked to his parents' refusal to allow their second son to play sports during school.
"They came with no money. My mother was pregnant with me when Eric died. If not for me, they would have killed themselves. So they invested a lot of hope on me. I was the first in the family to go into university. Expectations were great and that is fine because they did not pressure me.
"There were photographs of Eric but they said he was a boy in the neighbourhood. You may say, why would this matter to a 10 or 11-year-old. These two events affected me because they were kept secret. When one is traumatised, one of the ways is not to talk about it. But it is good to talk about it," says Gardner, a professor of education.
By the age of 13, young Gardner became an outstanding pianist and he even considered a career in music. He was also a Boy Scout and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout.
Gardner entered Harvard in 1961 with the intention of majoring in history. However, under psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, he changed his major to social relations, (a combination of psychology, sociology and anthropology) with interest in clinical psychology.
Gardner likes people. He likes working with people and what makes them the way they are and how he could change their mind. Which, essentially, was the purpose of his trip here.
Gardner was here to give a seminar on Changing Our Own and Other People's Mind, a seminar organised by Charles River Centre.
During that trip, Gardner was invited by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and his family for lunch.
"It was a very interesting meeting. He wanted to know how to make Malaysians more forward and innovative in the way they think and do things. It was obvious he wanted to take the country forward. But how does one make the rest of the population have the same vision?
"He also asked about the use of IQ tests. I don't believe in IQ tests. They tend to favour those with linguistic skills and quite limiting. So that was the end of it," recalls Gardner.
And that is what leadership is all about, to get people to change their minds about how things should be done, or about any other matter. And nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the changing face of American politics.
Gardner says the election of Barack Obama illustrates how he has successfully changed the minds of the American public.
"I don't know him personally, but I know a lot about him," he says.
Gardner is involved with leaders of every calibre; artist Picasso, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Franklin Roosevelt, dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, the list is endless.
"I am a teacher and part of my work is to present new ideas. And the kind of people I am dealing with are leaders who wants to know if I have something useful to contribute.
"Before my audience were educators but over the years, they have become more general. My last two books were printed by Harvard Business Press. Twenty years ago, I would never have through of that. But then, 30 years ago, I would not have thought about education."
Gardner says he does not go into a field because he thinks he can get an audience. I follow my interest and the audience come. Lately, my interest is good works and ethics. And then Lehman Brothers fell, and ethics became a subject every corporate person became interested in.
Gardner spoke about the different political leaders of the world. While they come from different lands and era, he is most enchanted with US President Barack Obama.
"He successfully created a personal bond between himself and the audience. The majority of that population resonate through his personality and were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. And when he asked them to do something, they listened sympathetically.
"He made them feel comfortable with him, the result is they resonate with him, and he with them. The amazing thing is, who is this man prior to his running for presidency?
"Nobody knew him, he is black, he has a name which nobody has heard of. He never really knew his father and he comes from a fragmented background in which his mother is white, twice married, and his father, black. As he constantly says, 'I don't look like you and I have an Islamic name.' He took that same idea and presented it in different ways.
"Any kind of mind-changing requires a story repeated time and time again. But if you use the same story, people get bored. That means you have to use different ways writing, joking, talking, dramatising. The important thing is to embody and live it in different ways and that Obama did.
"He has big ears, he is not afraid to say he made mistakes, unlike George Bush, his predecessor who said he never made mistakes. So Obama made himself very human and that endeared him to the populace."
Gardner says Obama also used the events around him to change people's mind. "Things happen around us which we have no control, A(H1N1), natural disasters, the 9/11 incident. He used world events to bring about change. This applies not only to politics but the economic world as well. As a result of the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, people began to be interested in ethics.
"It is natural to reward our friends and punish the enemy. But he did not do that. He worked with Hillary Clinton. He tried to understand the resistance and come to a compromise. So if you are trying to change somebody's mind, try to listen and understand the other person. That is an important way to change their mind. But your life must exemplify your story."
But there are instances when it is difficult to move the other person. This may be because they have been holding a certain point of view for a long time, they have an emotional connection about it and they have spoken publicly about it. So if you are a leader, you try to convince those who are sitting on the fence, rather than the extreme, he says.
The author of more than 20 books translated into 27 languages, Gardner went into psychology because of his interest in people. He is best known for his study on intelligences.
"A person may be intelligent in various aspects, but have poor people skills. Today, this is known as emotional intelligence. There are other forms of intelligences; linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily kinesthetic and so on. This means there is more than one way to teach, just as there are many ways to learn."
Because of his involvement with intelligence and the mind, he went into the field of education. Today, he has been with Harvard some 50 years.
"When I realised my colleagues have moved on to new places and doing new things, I did some surgery on my mind. I have stayed in the same place, with the same people and maybe that is a mistake. But then I told myself, I have moved on to new problems and new issues. My audience were at one time, educationists, then general, followed by business and corporate people. All of them are leaders in one way or another. And from here I move on to the my GoodWork Project which involves studying outstanding leaders in different professions."
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