Multiple Intelligences

Rev. Jennie Barrington

(Mothers Day, 2016)

Mother’s Day brings to mind for me the nurturing of children– children who are, by definition, of a different generation than we who are trying to nurture and encourage them. Younger generations have their own interests, passions, perspectives, life experiences, and special talents and gifts. Conversations across generational lines can be very difficult; even at best, they are complicated, and need to be undertaken delicately.

I’m recalling a conversation I had in a waiting room of a Jiffy Lube, as I was waiting to get the oil changed in my car. I’d been to that Jiffy Lube before, and they hadn’t ever tried to charge me for a bunch of fabricated repairs that weren’t necessary. Yet, even so, I was still anxious. My experience owning several problematic old cars still makes me wonder what terrible news mechanics might give me after what was supposed to be a routine check-up. In the waiting room, I sat on the edge of one of the hard plastic chairs, beside a young woman and her son. She was thin, with refined features, her dark blonde hair pulled off her face in a vertical clip. Her son looked to be about nine years old. I was impressed that he didn’t have his face buried in one of those DS games that are attached to most boys his age these days. His mother and I started chatting. I said, “I just worry so much that they’re going to say some big expensive thing needs to be repaired or replaced.” “I know,” she said. “My boyfriend is a mechanic. He always tells me not to have them do anything to the car unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’ll take care of it at home, instead.” But then she said, “But once they showed me the filter for the air we’re breathing when we’re in the car– And it had, like, pieces of pinecones in it! So I told them, okay, you can go ahead and replace that.” I laughed out loud. “This woman is genuinely funny,” I thought. And laughing helped me relax about the mechanics diagnosing my car. To pass the time, I asked the boy if he knew what he’d like to be when he grew up. Maybe he’d like to be a mechanic, I suggested. He shook his head, no, and whispered something to his mother. It sounded to me like he had said, “army.” His mother’s whole body tensed up when he said that, her shoulders and neck held high. With some encouragement, the boy told me he wanted to be a soldier, so he could shoot guns and missiles. I didn’t know how to respond. I was raised in a very pacifist way. His dreams were so different than mine were when I was his age. Yet I didn’t want to step on his dreams. His mother said, “He says that all the time. And every time he says it, it scares me to death.” “I know,” I said. “I know. But one thing I think about that is, that if we raise children like, ‘No way are you going to go anywhere near that thing or that idea,’ then they can end up strongly attracted, compelled even, to going in exactly that direction.” “Oh, I know,” she said. “I agree with you. I never tell him he can’t do certain jobs or hobbies or sports. I’ve always told him he can do well at anything he puts his mind to, if he’s willing to work hard at it.” “I want to go into the army so I can shoot guns,” the boy said again. And his mother said quietly to me, “Maybe by the time he’s old enough to do that, all these wars will be over.” I imagined how many people –men and women– she must have seen in recent years doing tour of duty after tour of duty– waiting for them to come back– wondering if they were going to come back okay– wondering if they were going to come back at all. I wondered how many friends, neighbors, and relatives she was waiting for, or waiting with. It felt to me like some of the people she needed for support were far from home, and that she wanted her son to be able to stay close to home. So I tried to see things through her eyes and the boy’s eyes. And I tried to come up with something helpful to say. Suddenly I looked up and smiled and said, “I think that instead of going into the army, I might like to be a police officer– Then I’d still be able to carry a gun– But I could protect people, and even whole neighborhoods.” The boy took a minute to think that over. Then he whispered to his mother again, at length. And I saw her neck and shoulders relax, finally. He stopped whispering, and –suddenly remember that I was not this family’s minister; that they didn’t even know I was a minister– I said to her, apologetically, “Not that any of this is any of my business at all– It absolutely isn’t.” “No, don’t apologize,” she said. “What you said helped. He just told me that we know three cop– I mean, police officers– And he likes them. We’ll talk to them,” she said.

Now I’m not saying I got that exactly right. In fact, in telling you that story this morning, I’m saying how difficult it is to get that exactly right. Many parents do want some help from adults outside their family with guiding their child in the healthiest, happiest, most productive direction. But honoring parents’ values and anxieties, on the one hand, and the child’s passions, talents, and innocence, on the other hand, is a delicate balance to achieve. Yet we can provide just that sort of guidance to the young people in our congregation. We give our young people a grounding in Unitarian Universalism– That teaches them respect for other religions and philosophies of the world; it helps them explore life’s big questions such as good and evil, the purpose of our life on earth, and views of an afterlife. And it helps them discern what their unique gifts, graces, and talents are, as well as their growing edges. The adults in a Unitarian Universalist congregation all have some ability to provide mentoring or guidance to the youth in the congregation, through conversations about how to help the youth grow up to be their fullest best selves. We all want the youth we care about to find meaningful work and relationships that will nurture and sustain them. We want them to come to know themselves, their hearts and souls, their own minds, and to feel comfortable in their own skin. When I look at what an odyssey that will be for youth today, I have a pervasive concern. My concern is when children’s talents and intelligence are measured predominantly by standardized testing.

When I was a schoolchild, which was over forty years ago, most people believed that intelligence was only one thing– and that that one thing was measured accurately by those pencil and paper tests with the ovals you have to fill in (“Completely. But do not mark outside the oval!”). And I was never good at taking those tests. In fact, taking them always gave me a headache. I was not able to finish them quickly. I never knew why I was slow at them. And most of the time the grown-ups didn’t tell us schoolchildren the details of our test results. There are many things wrong with this picture, things people didn’t know then, but we do know now, things that can fill schoolchildren with a sense of pride, self-esteem, and accomplishment, instead of the sinking feeling that they’ll never be able to measure up. The truth of the matter is, the only thing standardized tests measure is how good a child is at taking that type of test. That’s it. A high score may also mean the child may be good at being a lawyer or law professor– but not necessarily. Whether or not a person can become a law professor would also depend on that person’s motivation, will, persistence, resilience, and their ability to work very hard at an area of study that is quite focused and does not allow for much creativity of expression. There are so many other ways to shine in the world other than being a law professor! There are so many other ways the world needs us each to shine. Those many ways to shine require many different types of intelligences, types of intelligences that old-fashioned intelligence tests do not measure. Nor do they measure things like motivation, will, persistence, resilience, nor creativity. We know now that children should be assessed for all these great character traits and inner gifts, so they can be encouraged to shine as their very best selves. The main reason we know that now is because of Howard Gardner’s book, called, Multiple Intelligences. As soon as he published his theory, which was over twenty years ago, it began to change the way people think about education, and about how children and adults viewed one another, and even themselves. Dr. Gardner believes it is wrong to view children as either smart or not smart. He believes that every child has the potential to be great in one or more ways of being intelligent. He believes, and I agree with him, that each child has eight or nine possible geniuses within her or him. The categories he describes are:

  • Musical Intelligence, like Yehudi Menuhin who, by the time he was ten years old, was playing violin concerts all over the world;

  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence, like Babe Ruth’s legendary status as a hitter. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence includes the ability to play basketball or tennis, to perform mime or dance, and to create a new product or invention.

  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence, which is problem-solving ability, often called scientific thinking, when a person’s mind is able to leap to a correct conclusion before even being able to write it down or say it out loud.

  • Linguistic Intelligence, or a gift for language, and languages;

  • Spatial Intelligence, i.e., the ability to navigate well, which I lack, which is why I finally gave in and bought a GPS. Spatial problem solving also includes being able to visualize an object from different angles, and playing chess;

  • Interpersonal Intelligence is the ability to notice distinctions in people’s moods, temperaments, motivations, and intentions;

  • Intrapersonal Intelligence is a person’s knowledge of who they really are inside. “access to one’s own feeling life, one’s range of emotions, the capacity to make discriminations among these emotions and eventually to label them and to draw on them as a means of understanding and guiding one’s own behavior.” The way other people can tell if you have a high level of intrapersonal intelligence is through the creative ways you express yourself, such as music, writing, or the visual arts. Inter-personal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence are two ways of problem-solving– “Interpersonal intelligence allows one to understand and work with others. Intra-personal intelligence allows one to understand and work with oneself.”

Dr. Gardner mentions another type of intelligence he keeps wondering about called, “existential intelligence,” or the intelligence of big questions. “Why do we live? Why do we die? Where do we come from? What is going to happen to us? What is love? Why do we make war?” And Dr. Gardner would not agree with me about this, but I believe that humor is a type of intelligence. I admire people who are able to make us laugh with good humor, and I think comedy is an art. I would love to hear what other types of intelligence come to your mind.

It took me many years to figure out why I was so slow at standardized tests, and what way I am naturally intelligent. Dr. Gardner’s marvelous book affirms that what I figured out about myself is real and true. Interpersonal intelligence is my natural strength. I am very interested in honoring who people are and the unique lives they have lived, and I’m good at honoring that. It was a wondrous relief for me when I finally realized the thing that I am naturally good at. I want everyone to be able to figure that out about themselves, and I believe that, when we all support one another, everyone can. On the standardized tests when I was a kid, there’d be a question that would say, “There are fifty campers of various ages and ten camp counselors, and five cabins. Separate the campers and counselors into groups so the right number are in each cabin.” Well, my mind would start to wonder, “Some of the campers are more shy; some more bold. Some are more athletic; some will need extra coaching with sports. Some like to tell jokes and stories and sing songs; some are better listeners. It’s better to have different ages in a cabin than all campers of the same age; that way they can all teach one another new things and learn from each other. Some counselors will work better as a team with others, based on their personalities and strengths.” Meanwhile, the clock was ticking, and I hadn’t filled in enough of the ovals. I am highly analytical, and I care deeply about people’s gifts and graces and needs. Those tests did not measure those things. In Dr. Gardner’s book, he describes a real four-year-old girl who was an outstanding storyteller, and also talented at painting, drama, and puppetry. But when she was being assessed with a game for which different numbers of people got on and off a toy bus, “she became so involved in the motivations for the different [toy people] boarding and leaving the bus that she was distracted from recording the correct numerical information.” “That’s me!” I shouted out loud when I read that page. Even at only four years old it was clear, to teachers who were really paying attention to her real strengths and weaknesses, that while math was the girl’s weakness, people skills and dramatic stories were her strength. What’s wrong with standardized IQ tests is whenever they are used as the main way of determining whether or not a child is worth investing in– investing our time, money, heart, faith, and hope. That four-year-old girl is worth investing in. Every child is worth investing in. No child should be written off as not worth investing in.

In summarizing the benefits of applying his Multiple Intelligences theory, Dr. Gardner writes, passionately: “It is of the utmost importance that we recognize and nurture all of the varied human intelligences and all of the combinations of intelligences. We are all so different largely because we have different combinations of intelligences. If we recognize this, I think we will have at least a better chance of dealing appropriately with the many problems that we face in the world. If we can mobilize the spectrum of human abilities, not only will people feel better about themselves and more competent; it is even possible that they will also feel more engaged and better able to join the rest of the world community in working for the broader good. Perhaps if we can mobilize the full range of human intelligences and ally them to an ethical sense, we can help increase the likelihood of our survival on this planet, and perhaps even contribute to our thriving.”

And so my thoughts turn, again and still, to that young mother, and her little boy, and their conflicting wishes and wants. And I believe we can have conversations in many rooms, including this room, that will provide families with information to keep them physically safe, support when they feel isolated and alone, choices that will expand their view of what’s possible for their future, encouragement of their gifts and graces, and empathy for their aching hearts. I believe we can have those conversations well, even across differences between generations, and even across differences within the same generation. I think if we remain mindful of how precious children are, in their vulnerability and their dreams, we can have those conversations tenderly. And I think this room is the place to start.