In new memoir, the father of ‘multiple intelligences’ explains how he conceived his famous theory

Growing up in Germany, my parents were typical comfortable young people of the 1920s. They danced, partied, skied, and were quite social. But having lost a child in a sledding accident, they were very protective of me. They did not want me to be involved in any activity that might result in serious injury. I was essentially barred from any sports, never skied, never played tackle football. I did not ride a bicycle until I was in my twenties, long out of the family home, and have never felt fully comfortable on two wheels. I was not antisocial but … my major activities were solitary — reading widely, writing regularly, and playing the piano assiduously. Even today, I prefer swimming to any team sports. I always had a few close friends and was reasonably social with those I knew well. But I was hardly gregarious, let alone the life of the party.

Instead, and I have realized this for decades, I lived largely in my mind. I played the piano nearly every day, thanks to a neighbor who noticed my musicality and gently pressured my parents to buy a piano—for $30. I also fooled around with an accordion and the organ at our temple, and eventually took up the flute in high school. I listened constantly to music of several genres on the radio, accumulated and listened to many records (mostly 33s rather than 45s or 78s), and no doubt heard music in my mind almost all of my waking hours, as I do to this minute. I read inveterately, whatever was available at home or in the Scranton public library, where I spent countless hours. I did not read simply to escape; I was curious about everything, from sports to the weather. I read a one-volume encyclopedia and kept the multivolume World Book next to my bed for easy reference. (Had I been born sixty years later, I would have kept search engines very busy.) I read many books in the highly popular “Landmark” series, but I was particularly fascinated by history and biography, two topics that revolved around human beings and the often-fateful choices that they make — or that are made for them. History and biography, chiefly of the period of the world wars, were also the subject of the few English language books at home, clearly reflecting my father’s obsessions. And while I read stories, novels, and the magazine Boys’ Life, I estimate that 80 percent of my reading was nonfiction.

In retrospect, I can say that I was reading widely and not particularly organizing what I had read in any conscious manner. But like many young people, I had a very keen memory, be it for historical or scientific or sports information. I drew on the information easily and made connections across areas —for example, comparing sports figures to historical figures, or media personalities to figures in contemporary politics, noting what was happening in two disparate societies or sectors during the same year. I suspect that I was also trying to understand the mysterious silences in my home, with respect to the death of my brother and the murder of millions of Jews. Using language that I developed much later, I was seeing parallels, drawing connections, noting contrasts, making comparisons in a relatively discipline-free or predisciplinary way. My mind was like a vast collection of information floating around without any strong lines between the lanes. And since I had not yet studied formal disciplines like history, economics, or political science, I was making my own distinctions, comparisons, and connections.

And I loved to write. At age seven, with no prompts from anyone, I started a newspaper for my class. I had a small printing press at home, on whose platen I patiently placed every letter of every word, and then cranked the lever, painstakingly producing a four-page publication. I would be surprised if anyone, including my doting parents, ever read or retained a page of the newspaper. That did not matter! The pleasure was in writing things down. And all these years later that pleasure remains. As I type these words standing at my desk, I hope to send them out into the world. But I would continue to write, bearing witness to myself, even if the words were to disappear forever into the air or cyberspace.

And so, stepping back (or forth), if I were now to build a model of the development of a synthesizing mind — or at least a model that comes out of my own life — I would pick out these elements: exhibiting wide curiosity; assimilating and remembering mounds of facts and figures; raising questions but also attending carefully to answers, whether obtained from books, nature, mechanical experimentation, other persons, or one’s own imagination; putting together these preliminary answers (in a nondisciplinary though not undisciplined manner) and seeing how they work — or don’t work; and importantly, setting the answers down in some kind of symbolic system.

My mind was active day and night, often exhausting family and friends. In school, I was a good and easy student, finding myself invariably at the top of my class, and, though I don’t relish writing these words, an expert test-taker. It was important for me to achieve in whichever activities I chose to focus on. We will never know whether I was as good a student or as easy a learner as my late, much cherished brother — but I suspect that at some level I was competing with him.

Did I have heroes? One clue comes from three photographs that hung in my bedroom during childhood. They were portraits by famed photographer Yousuf Karsh of physicist Albert Einstein and of novelist and short-story writer Ernest Hemingway, along with a Karsh-like photograph of my maternal grandfather, Martin Weilheimer, that still hang in my study today. While I would not have so formulated it seventy years ago, they represented men who had achieved much in their respective domains of science, art, and business — and who set an expectation for me to do the same someday.

Scranton, Pennsylvania, is hardly a major media outlet. After having been a lively and expanding metropolitan area at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as a “go to” site for both vaudeville and prostitution, it had the dubious distinction of being one of the first declared “depressed areas” in the United States. When I attended movies on Saturday afternoon at the Strand Theater, I noted that Scranton was often the butt of jokes. In my naïveté, I assumed that the editors of the soundtrack had dubbed in the name of the town where the film was showing. But no! When I went to movies in college, I discovered that Scranton was still the punchline of many routines!

But however depressed and wisecrack-worthy in those days, Scranton had a few radio and television stations. When about ten years old, I joined a show called Junior Judges in which young people would rate various recordings, of both popular and more serious music. I did this relatively easily and well, and other Scrantonians learned to recognize my voice and my attitudes — an early taste of distinctly minor celebrityhood.

At an even younger age, I appeared on another show, this time a TV show called Shadow Stumpers where contestants had to recognize objects from their silhouettes. It turned out that I, the good young student in primary school, was terrible at doing this — so bad that, if memory serves, the host ultimately had to give me hints. I don’t mind competitions and played many board games competitively with family and friends, but I resolved at that time never to participate in any competition that featured the recognition of visual patterns.

To the extent that young children think at all about the minds of others, we assume that everyone thinks and feels the way that we do. A dividend, but possible painful concomitant, of the decline of so-called childhood egocentrism, is the realization that most others have minds quite unlike our own and that our minds might even be unique in certain respects. My performance on Shadow Stumpers helped me to realize that I am at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to visual performances.

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