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October 13, 2008

Polonius Redux

New England History Teachers Association
Newsletter Fall 1999

In Hamlet, Polonius offers his introduction to the players by describing them as: "The best players in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral or poem unlimited."

Modern American education has been visited with an echo of this brief 1602 disquisition on what a cool combinatorial plaything the permu-tations of presentation can be in the right hands. Our version is called Multiple Intelligences, and an article in the Magazine of History lays out a simplified version of a lesson plan for teaching the Spanish-American War. It offers the basics of this new orthodoxy--methods which can cater to: Intrapersonal Intelligence, Verbal/ Linguistic Intelligence, Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence, Visual/Spatial Intelligence, Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence, Interpersonal Intelli-gence, and Mathematical Intelligence.

This is clearly the introductory form of this approach, and does not try to get into the more arcane techniques of Mathematico-Spatial-Verbal or Linguistic-Rhythmic-Kinesthetic or Interpersonal-Intrapersonal-Visual-Bodily methods of curriculum design.

The founder of this new way to develop individual learning plans for each student and all combinations of students in a class is Howard Gardner, MacArthur Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was interviewed, not too long ago, on public radio in Boston, and when he was asked why he chose the term Multiple Intelligences, he quite candidly replied, "If I had called them Talents, no one would have paid any attention."

To be fair to this academic psychologist looking for a new field to make a name in, it is quite likely that he has very little conception of the damage he has done in American education. Polonius was in part a figure of fun, although he does have some of Shakespeare's most famous lines ("To thine own self be true"), but Professor Gardner cannot get off quite so easily, because his work is not recognized as comical by enough of our educators.

He has made it possible for teachers everywhere to say that whatever they feel like doing in class, from gossiping about scandal to reminiscing about Vietnam to showing travel slides, to you name it, is designed to appeal to one of the many talents (Intelligences) that students bring to school with them.

When students who cannot read a comic book come to get their high school diplomas, their teachers can say that they have been dealing with the rich complexity of their Cranial Multiplicity, and so had no time to teach them to read and write.

In fact, it could be much worse. Professor Gardner recently revealed that he has discovered something which he might call spiritual intelligence. Someone must have pointed out to him the existence of religious activity among human beings over the millenia, and he has now decided that there must be some new form of Intelligence involved in the search for the will of God.

But he could have made things even more silly. Any pro football scout will tell you that there is wide receiver intelligence, interior offensive lineman intelligence, fullback intelligence, and strong safety intelligence, and a similar list could be provided for every other sport. These Intelligences, along with joke-telling intelligence, dating intelligence, job-search intelligence, and hundreds of others, are brought into the high school classroom each day, in varying strengths, by at least some of the members of each group of students, but, mercifully, Professor Gardner has put off his investigations and recommendations for dealing with these varieties of Multiple Intelligence for a later time.

While the classroom teachers who have enlisted themselves in this venture to redecorate instruction beyond all hope of imparting necessary information, and of training students to read and write, may feel they can employ a superior taxonomy of human existence, and they can describe what they do in a classroom in terms which could make Polonius blush for them, it seems unlikely that their students are getting an education. What a waste of a Harvard Professor and the time of countless students...

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

Posted by Will Fitzhugh at October 13, 2008 1:07 PM
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