How Smart Are Writers—and Presidents?

By Jack Limpert

I recently wrote about ways an editor can look at a writer and decide what kind of stories the writer might be best at. In that post, I focused a lot on Howard Gardner and his groundbreaking book, Frames of Mind. In that 1983 book, Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, suggested that intelligence is much more complex than smart-dumb or left-brain-right brain. He came up with seven intelligences, with logical-mathematical only one of them, and he said many of the nation’s educational shortcomings related to the fact that schools rewarded only logical-mathematical intelligence, leaving kids strong in the other intelligences out in the cold.

Gardner now is writing a new book, The App Generation, about “the complex influence of technology on personal identity, intimate relationships, and creative and imaginative powers among digital natives.” Written with Katie Davis, a University of Washington information school professor, it’ll be published next year by the Yale University Press.

When I mentioned the new Gardner book to another editor, he e-mailed me and said, “You really liked Frames of Mind, didn’t you?” I answered: “The more I worked with writers, the more complicated I found their strengths and weaknesses and Gardner’s book helped me to try to sort that out.”

In Frames of Mind, Gardner had seven intelligences. Here are descriptions of those intelligences summarized from the website of The Education Coalition:

Logical-mathematical: Having to do with logic, abstractions, numbers, reasoning, and critical thinking.

Spatial: Dealing with spatial judgment and the ability to visualize with the mind’s eye.

Linguistic: A facility with words and languages. Typically good at reading, writing, telling stories.

Bodily-kinesthetic: Control of one’s bodily motions and the capacity to handle objects skillfully. Also includes a sense of timing.

Musical: Sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones, and music.

Interpersonal: Having to do with interaction with others. Sensitive to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments, and motivations.

Intrapersonal: Having to do with introspection and self-reflection and deeper understanding of  self—what your strengths and weaknesses are.

I talked with Gardner when he visited Washington after publication of the 1983 book and asked him how Jimmy Carter, the former president, and Ronald Reagan, then the president, fit into his seven intelligences. As I recall, we agreed that Carter was strong on the logical-mathematic side, but weak on the interpersonal and intrapersonal sides, with Reagan almost the complete reverse. Which one ended up the more successful president? Most surveys strongly favor Reagan.

Where would President Obama fit into Gardner’s palette of intelligences? Close to Carter on logical-mathematical? But better than Carter on the linguistic and personal intelligences? Obama vs. Reagan: Maybe Reagan was better on the personal intelligences. President Obama’s second term may decide just how good he is at working with others, at sensing their moods, feelings, temperaments, and motivations.

In his new book, Gardner is looking at the “creative and imaginative powers” of the digital generation. On that front, President Obama has been ahead of everyone else in politics. In journalism the winners thus far have included Michael Bloomberg, Nick Denton, David Bradley, Arianna Huffington, Ben Smith, and Robert Allbritton. But that race is far from over. Maybe Gardner and Davis will tell us who the winners of the next 10 years will be.

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