President Trump once famously said, “I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world.” He also said, “I love the poorly educated.”
How Trump views the nature of intelligence through these statements is not clear — but in this post, Harvard University’s Howard Gardner attempts to unpack the issue, bringing his unique understanding as a researcher who revolutionized the fields of psychology and education with his “theory of multiple intelligences.”
Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. His seminal work is his 1983 book, “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” It details a new model of human intelligence that went beyond the traditional view that there was a single kind that could be measured by standardized tests. The theory initially listed seven intelligences that work together: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal; he later added an eighth, naturalist intelligence, and says there may be a few more.
Gardner holds positions as adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior director of Harvard Project Zero, an educational research group composed of multiple, independently sponsored research projects with the aim of understanding and enhancing high-level thinking and learning across disciplines. Gardner has received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship (1981), the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award in Education (1990), the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences (2011) and the Brock International Prize in Education (2015).
He has twice been selected by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world.
Here’s Gardner’s take on Trump and intelligence.
By Howard Gardner
Google “Donald Trump Smart” — and you get a whole set of quotations over the last year:
“I’m like a really smart person.”
“I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world.”
Trump likes to surround himself with people whom he considers intelligent. Recently, in a highly quoted brag, the president declared, “We have by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.” And he seems to favor a genetic theory of intelligence. “My uncle was a great professor and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT, good genes, very good genes.” Clearly Trump considers himself and members of his family to be smart and values people whom he or others consider intelligent.
Yet, Trump has often expressed his loathing of elites, especially those connected to selective colleges and universities. In an equally widely quoted remark, Trump declared “I love the poorly educated.” And while Trump had support (and opposition) across the political and educational spectrum, he had particular appeal to white males who, for whatever reason, have not been successful in today’s technological-information society.
It’s possible, of course, that none of these statements and sentiments has much validity. Trump contradicts himself regularly and without embarrassment. But it’s worth trying to unpack the underlying narrative and to draw lessons from it.
Trump endorses the view of intelligence that is widely accepted among psychologists and that has been absorbed by the public — especially in the West. Put succinctly, intelligence is a single entity; it is largely genetic (if we know how smart your grandparents are, we can infer how smart you will be); it’s highly desirable; and one can somehow judge a person’s intelligence, even in the absence of formal testing. And that includes judgments about oneself — not difficult in the case of a person whom I described to Vanity Fair, in the fall of 2015, as “remarkably narcissistic.”
Though I favor an alternative view — the theory of multiple intelligences — I’ll not defend that position at this time. Rather, I want to point out the wrinkles and fallacies in Trump’s position.
First of all, if you are going to make statements about what it means to be intelligent, you need either to define intellect clearly, give the results of formal testing, or both. To my knowledge, Trump has done neither.
Second, however you define intellect, you need to distinguish between that cognitive capacity, and others arguably of equal or greater importance — for example, relevant knowledge, judgment, wisdom. And if you are addressing an individual’s potential to lead and to inspire, you need to take into account personal and temperamental capacities that are not, strictly speaking, cognitive or intellectual: for instance, patience, perseverance, empathy, forgiveness.
Third, as was pointed out brilliantly (and memorably) by David Halberstam, chronicler of the Vietnam War, having advice and decisions from “the best and the brightest” is not necessarily enough and may not even be appropriate.
While President John F. Kennedy would never have described his Cabinet and senior advisers as having “the highest IQs,” he did surround himself with scholars from leading academic institutions, pre-eminent among them Harvard, from which he himself (as well as many members of his family) had graduated. The excessive self-confidence of foreign policy advisers such as McGeorge Bundy and Walter Rostow, coupled with their ignorance of both history and the facts on the ground in southeast Asia, contributed to perhaps the greatest military quagmire in United States history. High IQ may be helpful — but it is by no means sufficient.
Which brings me to “the poorly educated.” William F. Buckley, arguably the principal architect of the modern conservative movement, famously quipped, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Manhattan phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard.” To the extent that this statement valorizes ordinary or randomly selected people, it is at least defensible in a democracy.
But as I understand it, being “poorly educated” is seen by Trump as an asset. And I assume he is singling out for his love those individuals who know very little; or have had little opportunity for education; or had the opportunity but did not take advantage of it.
All such options are problematic. It is hard to defend the position that knowing less is better than knowing more — though one wants the knowledge to be relevant (rather than scattered); grounded (not post-truth); and used in a constructive way. It is lamentable when an individual has had little opportunity for education — or, as one might put it, for an effective education. And if the individual has had the opportunity but did not take advantage of it, that’s unfortunate.
But since we live at a time that free education — from public libraries to the Khan Academy — is readily available, the opportunity for education remains … throughout life.
In any formulation that I can think of, to be educated is better than not to be educated. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, is fond of saying, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
But Buckley and Halberstam do have a point — education is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Indeed, on most definitions (including his own!), as an Ivy League graduate, Trump is highly educated. It is the uses to which one puts one’s education that is crucial.
Similarly, with regard to intelligence, it’s hard to think of any reason one should prefer to be stupid, rather than intelligent. Yet at the end of the day, it’s the uses to which one puts one’s intelligence — or one’s intelligences — that are important.
And that’s why my colleagues and I have devoted our energies to understanding — and to the extent possible nurturing — good people, good workers, and good citizens. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. memorably put it, “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”