Not Every Child Is Secretly a Genius

Not Every Child Is Secretly a Genius, an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Chris Ferguson, is an excellent bubble-bursting treatise on the “multiple intelligences” education theories of Howard Gardner that have been so much in vogue over the last 20 years as to have become accepted as truth within the educational establishment.

As much as I’m not sure that Ferguson is completely right, I’ve never been altogether sure Gardner’s theories represented more than a hope that our minds work differently than they do. And this is the crux of Ferguson’s argument about multiple intgelligences:

It’s “cool,” to start with: The list-like format has great attraction for introductory psychology and education classes. It also seems to jibe well with the common observation that individuals have particular talents. More important, especially for education, it implicitly (although perhaps unintentionally on Gardner’s part) promises that each child has strengths as well as weaknesses. With eight separate intelligences, the odds seem good that every child will be intelligent in one of those realms. After all, it’s not called the theory of multiple stupidities.

It would be wonderful to live in a world where we were all equally capable of achieving greatness in something. Indeed I’d say that’s the bedrock of my educational philosophy to date, and a good part of the underpinning of how I approach the world.  But it’s good to be reminded that it’s a relatively recent model for intelligence, and one that might be based on a Utopian dream more than a practical reality.  As Ferguson writes:

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.”

As much as it pains me, I’ve a feeling Ferguson might be right about all this, and I’m left with the question: what to do about the doofuses?

(Oh, and just to be clear: my child is secretly a genius)


L's picture
L on July 21, 2009 - 17:18 Permalink

Mind you, what is not mentioned is that there are certain obstacles for full human development potential including cognitive development if one is not supported in your early years with a healthy beginning including proper nutrition and other supports as illustrated by Fraser Mustard and other early childhood development advocates so the debate should be on how we can ensure all children to reach their full potential and remove socioeconomic and other barriers that stand in the way of that fullest development — that may also counter balance some of those extremists who may use Chris Ferguson’s stance to accept a more elitist view of intelligence (as exhibited in some policies involving funding tied to school performance on standardized tests)

Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on July 21, 2009 - 18:02 Permalink

Well, number one, stop calling us doofuses.
Number two, respect the worth of any contribution to society. There are lots of jobs you don’t need a PhD for, but they are equally valuable to those that do and should be valued.
The idea that the only valuable members of society are those who are smart is horrible.

Marian's picture
Marian on July 22, 2009 - 00:07 Permalink

We can’t all be wolves Peter. Some of us, quite a few of us, must be sheep. I think it’s important to create a society that is based on an awareness of our weaknesses and shows some empathy towards the relatively stupid as well as the relatively smart. That goes for other weaknesses too, in my view.

Marian's picture
Marian on July 22, 2009 - 01:36 Permalink

One other thought: I think we underestimate the role of luck in success and failure.

Marian's picture
Marian on July 22, 2009 - 14:59 Permalink

Also, we are historically quite bad at distinguishing inherent inferiority. So ‘Epsilons’ like Einstein (who was thought to be retarded) are always on the verge of being dumped into one ghetto or another.

oliver's picture
oliver on July 25, 2009 - 15:17 Permalink

I second Marion on luck. Relatedly, maybe you’d like Malcom Gladwell’s recent book, which is sort of about opportunity. There are a zillion more ways to be lucky than being born to rich parents, and a significant percentage of them are open to dufuses—especially the ones prepared to strive and succeed and not resigned to failure. I doubt you have to be a genius to be resilient or hopeful.

Marian's picture
Marian on July 25, 2009 - 16:27 Permalink

Agreed. Outliers is a good book. And thanks for elaborating on what I mean by luck.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on July 25, 2009 - 19:21 Permalink

I would be prepared to go once step further (Oliver and Marian) and suggest that much of what we see as “genius” is really just an inability to react to the social and cultural queues that the rest of us see quite clearly.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous on July 28, 2009 - 07:20 Permalink

Also, we are historically quite bad at distinguishing inherent inferiority. So ‘Epsilons’ like Einstein (who was thought to be retarded) are always on the verge of being dumped into one ghetto or another.

Florida Permit Test

Marian's picture
Marian on August 3, 2009 - 17:32 Permalink

It seems my comment has been repeated there at the end under the moniker ‘Anonymous.’

You may be right, Peter. In cutting off the bottom we are likely to cut off the top too. Deviance is deviance from the norm which has a tendency to be associated with the middle and not the top or the bottom of the pack. It’s sheer hubris to think we can predict how things will turn out for each individual in the future though.

Tina's picture
Tina on August 3, 2010 - 11:18 Permalink

I believe we all are born with the same brain, the capacity to learn and excel. But how we nurture that capacity truly depends on the environment and surrounding encompassing us. If we are able to maintain a healthy environment with a lot of development and learning, there is a possibility of variation in that capacity. Children that aren’t able to be bought up in a healthy place loss out on that capacity, and resort to other kinds of activities such as violence.
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