Posted in Miscellaneous

Genius Fish Trying to Climb Trees (and Howard Gardner)

“Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

This quote is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, arguably the most famous/celebrated/iconicized genius of the modern era.  It’s also one of my favorite sayings.  If the man who comes to mind first in a free association with the word “genius” can be so generous with the term, why don’t we use it more freely?  Why do we, as a culture, label geniusness as a rarity when a universally acknowledged genius claims it’s a trait common to humanity?

Well, I have my theories.  (Keep in mind, this isn’t a research paper; it’s a blog to share ideas about education, so these are the thoughts and observations of a 20-something-year-old who really just started consciously observing a few years ago.  That said, I have done a bit of homework on this topic because it fascinates me.)

During the Cold War, Russia beat the U.S. in the Space Race with Sputnik and we, in America, freaked out.  Following President Reagan’s A Nation At Risk report/reform for education, our educational system underwent a shift toward math-y/science-y/now stereotypically “academic” subjects, thus narrowing our focus toward a particular realm of education.  Over the years and through the budget cuts, that shift has become more pronounced.  Think about the SAT for a minute.  “Each standard edition of the SAT includes critical reading, mathematics, and writing questions divided into 10 test sections.”  That’s straight off the College Board SAT page, bold and all.  And the ACT? English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and Writing.  (And from personal experience, I think the science section is actually code for “graph-reading and cryptic question interpretation” skills.)  So all that matters for a person’s projected success in college and life beyond is his or her ability to answer questions based on three to five specific areas of knowledge?  Elements of art, music, cultural literacy, and interpersonal savvy are irrelevant?

Of course not.  But how else would we measure a person’s readiness for the rigors of college academics?  My question is: do we have to?  But that’s for another day.  I’ve already bitten off more than I can chew.

Enter Howard Gardner and his revolutionary theory of multiple intelligences.  In his book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner summarizes his theory.

“…all human beings possess not just a single intelligence (often called by psychologists “g” for general intelligence).  Rather, as a species, we human beings are better described as having a set a relatively autonomous intelligences.  Most lay and scholarly writings about intelligence focus on a combination of linguistic and logical intelligences—the particular intellectual strengths…and territory spanned by most intelligence tests. However, a fuller appreciation of human cognitive capacities emerges if we take into account spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences.  We all have these intelligences, that’s what makes us human beings, cognitively speaking.  Yet at any particular moment individuals differ…in their respective profiles of intellectual strengths and weaknesses.”   

My younger brother is a kinesthetic genius.  The boy moves himself through space in ways that baffle me.  Growing up, I was labeled a “smart kid” because I had a precocious vocabulary, and he was put in remedial math because he preferred the practical application of physics at the skatepark.  He intuitively understands motion, energy, and angles in ways I can only dream of comprehending if my coordination ever catches up with my vocabulary. (He’s actually quite adept at math now, too.)

One of my colleagues is a genius of a teacher (and a brilliant performer). She can command the attention and respect of a roomful of rowdy first-graders and help them enjoy learning.  Another friend of mine is an interpersonal genius.  She can read people like books, and she intuitively knows what they need and how to give it to them. Another of my friends is a musical genius.  She can make up an accompaniment to any song you can sing while you sing it and transcribe any tune she hears in one take.

You get the idea.  You and I could each come up with dozens of other accounts of unorthodox genius-hood.  It’s a not namby-pamby, make-everyone-feel-smart, lower-the-standard-of-excellence, “now that everyone is special, no one is” theory, either.  At least, Einstein didn’t seem to think geniusness was a zero-sum game.  And yet, we test and judge people with a very limited set of criteria.  We evaluate and quantify the essence of people’s “intelligence quotient” with only a marginal slice of the intelligence pie because our culture has trained us to equate intelligence with measurable logical or linguistic test scores.  Imagine the potential that may forever lie dormant in people society has labeled “not smart” or “unintelligent” because their intellectual profile differs from the commonly accepted mold of “intelligence.”  (And weep a little bit for a contribution society deprived itself.)

So really, everyone is a genius. But we won’t know because we operate under a system that judges fish by their ability to climb trees.



I love to write. I love to teach. I get to write about teaching. Lucky me.

2 thoughts on “Genius Fish Trying to Climb Trees (and Howard Gardner)

  1. And I have a student who writes clearly and articulately and whose powers of written expression are phenomenal. I wonder who that is? Dr. J.

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