Howard Gardner


On his book A Synthesizing Mind: A Memoir from the Creator of Multiple Intelligences Theory

Cover Interview of February 03, 2021

In a nutshell

A Synthesizing Mind is my intellectual memoir. It’s a ‘memoir’ in the sense that I reflect on my life; it’s ‘intellectual’ in that it focuses chiefly on my life as a student, researcher, writer, mentor, and teacher. But there’s plenty on my own personal development as well. Starting with the intellectual: Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the human mind. Indeed, over half of my many books contain the word ‘mind’ in the title. But until recently, I have focused on ‘minds’ in general or on the minds of other persons—young children, students, political leaders, creative geniuses in the arts and sciences, etc. In this book, in contrast, I focus on my own mind—which I conclude is a synthesizing mind. More on that later.

Back to my life. I begin with an account of growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania at the same time as Joe Biden—in fact we are the same age. I describe the many influences on my early life—my Jewish parents escaping from Nazi Germany in the nick of time, arriving in New York City with only $5 in their pockets; the death of my (highly gifted) only sibling, when my mother was pregnant with me, and the resultant feeling that I was a ‘replacement child’—indeed, for a while, according to them, the only entity that kept my parents alive.

In those early days, I acquired my love of music, my fascination with the written word, and various compensations for a potpourri of visual problems. I speculate about the sources of my most enduring intellectual interests, as well as my critical attitude toward psychological tests. I describe valued mentors, as well as tormentors and anti-mentors. Most important, I detail how I became fascinated by the human mind—to whose study I’ve devoted my scholarly life.

Why, nearing my 9th decade, did I feel the need to understand my own mind? Because I realized that my theory of ‘multiple intelligences’—for which I am best known—does not explain well my own ways of thinking and performing. I am, and since early childhood have been, a synthesizer. I read (and observe and converse) widely; I reflect on this information and try to ‘connect’ the dots; I discover new questions and ideas, and try to integrate them with one another and with what I had earlier thought. I arrive at a major question or project and bring all of that accumulated information to bear on it. I organize and re-organize that information multiple times. I try out the tentative syntheses on friends and friendly critics. And at last, I go public, typically in a book form—though I have also written hundreds of blogs and well over 1000 scholarly and more popular articles.

So that’s my synthesizing mind. But I agree with the Nobel Laureate in Physics Murray Gell-Mann, who once said: “In the 21st century, the most important kind of mind will be the synthesizing mind.” In the memoir, I describe how that mind works. But I also claim that psychology has largely dropped the ball on how synthesizing operates; and that’s because it’s too unwieldly a capacity to simulate in a laboratory experiment or to probe via a short answer test. Accordingly, in the concluding chapters, I offer my own primer on how to develop and educate a synthesizing mind.