Gardner left Harvard for only one year, 1966, to study sociology and philosophy at the London School of Economics. Returning to Harvard for doctoral work in cognitive psychology, he met the philosopher Nelson Goodman, who in 1967 established a research group at the Graduate School of Education called Project Zero, which focused on systematic studies of artistic thought and creativity. Gardner was a founding member of Project Zero and has remained there ever since, serving for 20 years as its codirector. A so-called soft money institute, Project Zero receives no funding from the university, surviving instead on grants. “It’s been a wonderful petri dish for taking people with some interest in art and some interest in education, giving them a start, and then sending them off,” Gardner says. “We’re great believers in the apprenticeship model of thinking.”
In the 1970s, Gardner experienced his first taste of intellectual controversy with his theory of multiple intelligences. On the basis of psychometric testing results, neurological studies of people with brain damage, and other forms of cognitive research, he disputed the belief — then virtually unquestioned in education — that intelligence was uniformly measurable. IQ tests and SATs captured only verbal and quantitative skills, he argued. But the ability to learn and solve problems depended on a variety of forms of brainpower, including musical intelligence, body awareness, and the ability to understand other people and oneself. All of these were innate in human beings; different people exhibited different combinations of intelligences, he said. A high score on the Stanford-Binet IQ test might be predictive of performance in school, but in no way explained the kinds of intelligences exhibited by musical prodigies, sports stars, or effective salespeople.
The theory, first presented in The Shattered Mind and then expounded in several later books, was roundly criticized by psychologists and educators; but it also helped earn Gardner his endowed chair, his MacArthur grant in 1981, and his place on Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines’ recent lists of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world.
Until he was named professor in 1984, Gardner taught at Harvard without even a junior faculty appointment. He preferred to live from grant to grant rather than climb the traditional academic ladder from assistant to associate to tenured professor. This approach gave him the time and support to pick up one research topic after another. His published books included The Mind’s New Science (Basic Books, 1985), one of the first histories of cognitive research; The Unschooled Mind (Basic Books, 1991), a manifesto on school reform; and Creating Minds (Basic Books, 1993), an exploration of multiple forms of creativity. In Creating Minds, Gardner illustrated the seven forms of intelligence with biographical studies of “exemplary creators” in each domain: Albert Einstein (logical-mathematical intelligence), Pablo Picasso (spatial), Igor Stravinsky (musical), T.S. Eliot (linguistic), Martha Graham (bodily-kinesthetic), Sigmund Freud (intrapersonal, Gardner’s term for the intelligence involved with self-knowledge and psychological matters), and Mahatma Gandhi (interpersonal, Gardner’s term for social capability). By the late 1990s, as a researcher and lecturer, Howard Gardner occupied a unique place at the nexus of leadership, education, and cognition research.
Gardner’s ideas, meanwhile, continued to challenge conventional wisdom, particularly among educators. For example, Creating Minds disputed the notion that human beings are born with a capacity for creativity, at least the kind that leads to recognized high performance. Children do indeed know how to play, but achieving sustained creativity requires first mastering a particular domain, whether classical piano or particle physics, which in turn requires at least 10 years of intense study, generally amid a community of supportive individuals. As he writes, “the creator is an individual who manages a most formidable challenge: to wed the most advanced understandings achieved in a domain with the kinds of problems, questions, issues, and sensibilities that most characterized his or her life as a wonder-filled child.”