Thus, if Gardner’s concept of leadership could be summed up in the phrase “the mind of the leader” — leadership talent depends on cognitive creativity, he argues — then the core concept of the GoodWork Project could be called “the heart of the follower.” People can’t be expected to transcend self-interest by themselves. In addition to their own values system, they need a high level of ethical awareness that is reinforced by the schools that train them, the organizations that hire them, and society at large. After all, even a highly effective geneticist will have difficulty maintaining his or her integrity when situated in a culture where people don’t take ethical standards seriously (as in a nation with low rates of law enforcement) or when working for a company that doesn’t reward high-quality laboratory practice. Institutions, too, cannot survive outside a general culture of integrity, believes Gardner, because doing so affects the mind-set of employees. Even the most high-minded news organization cannot prevent ethical failures among individuals predisposed to cheat, as plagiarism scandals at the New York Times and the Washington Post have demonstrated over the years.
To Gardner, instilling a values system at all four levels — personal, scholastic, organizational, and societal — is precisely what a profession does. It trains individuals to exercise restraint; it guides and shapes university curricula; it leads the way in condemning or applauding institutional results; and it contributes to the culture (as the countless ethical dilemmas in television shows about doctors and lawyers demonstrate). Business professionals could also play that role, says Gardner; and the argument has brought him into a variety of business-related settings in recent years, where he is not always comfortable. Sometimes his attitude about businesspeople betrays a suspicion of them as a group. (“The one set of interviews I didn’t find credible were the businesspeople,” he told his class about the research conducted for the GoodWork Project. “I felt like we were talking to the public relations department.”) It’s almost as if the nature of business itself, at least as Gardner perceives it, has triggered a war among his own multiple intelligences. Part of him recognizes that to influence businesspeople, he must engage and understand them. And the other part is convinced that they will never get the message.
The disparate fields of cognition, leadership, and education all contribute to Howard Gardner’s view of human ethics. This view grew initially out of two events that happened before he was born. His parents, both German Jews, escaped to the United States in 1938; though they never discussed the Holocaust with their son, the family played host to a steady stream of refugees at their modest home in Scranton, Pa. Gardner’s parents also never spoke of an older brother, Eric, who died in a freak sledding accident at age 7; yet because of this trauma, they discouraged the young Howard from participating in athletic activities. Both of these unspoken stories gave him a feeling of otherness, of being an outsider, though Gardner says he was never unusually shy or friendless. In addition to being cross-eyed, however, he was myopic, colorblind, unable to recognize faces, and incapable of binocular vision. Yet he was a voracious reader, a skillful pianist, and a dedicated Boy Scout, attaining Eagle Scout rank at age 13. His feeling of otherness, mixed with an insatiable curiosity, would later lead him to study psychology, “trying to understand what makes people think the way they do.”
In September 1961, Gardner entered Harvard University as a college freshman. It has been his home ever since. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me; the elysian fields for the mind,” he says. He took more classes than anyone he knew, from Chinese painting to the history of economic thought. He began as a history major, then shifted to social relations, a hybrid of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. He was deeply influenced by the charismatic psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who became his tutor, as well as by Harvard cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, and by the writings of Jean Piaget, the Swiss philosopher and psychologist known for his theory of cognitive development. During Gardner’s undergraduate years, he began what would become a 20-year-long stint as a researcher in an aphasia clinic, working with severely brain-damaged patients. (This experience would become the basis of his first major book, The Shattered Mind: The Person after Brain Damage, published by Knopf in 1974.)