He's The Next Best Thing: A Student Of Genius

Mention Howard Gardner's name to a growing cadre of educators and the response verges on the reverence teenagers lavish on a rock star. "I think Howard is a genius," says Ann Lewin, founder of the Capitol Children's Museum in Washington, D.C. Whether or not he deserves Lewin's label, Gardner is certainly a careful student of geniuses. In his latest book, "Creating Minds," he profiles great minds of the 20th century. The book is sure to get attention not only for Gardner's typology of intelligence but also because of his guru-like status.

The cult of Gardner began 10 years ago, with his book "Frames of Mind," which posited his theory that there are seven intelligences (among them musical, spatial and social) as opposed to the limited skills gauged by IQ tests (which Gardner detests). Teachers say he has liberated them from one-size-fits-all pedagogy and given them a framework to help children develop individual strengths-as artists, scientists or just good citizens.

"Frames of Mind" transformed Gardner from a relatively obscure Harvard researcher into a mentor. Every day, piles of mail arrive at his cramped office. Tom Hoerr, director of the New City School, a St. Louis private school, began his correspondence with Gardner about five years ago, just after Hoerr read "Frames of Mind." Hoerr was stunned when Gardner wrote back two weeks later; now they're collaborating on a paper. Stephanie Marshall, executive director of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a highly selective public school for gifted students, wrote and asked Gardner to evaluate her school's curriculum. He did, and was impressed by what he saw. Now, whenever Marshall gets dicouraged, she remembers that Gardner told her she was on the right track.

A slender man with a gentle but compelling manner, Gardner seems slightly uncomfortable with the fame that "Frames of Mind" has brought him. He doesn't want to be thought of as a singer with just one song. In fact, he has written 14 books on subjects ranging from the significance of children's drawings to "Creating Minds." This summer, as he turns 50, he is setting off in still another direction, with a study of military and political leadership during World War II. For years Gardner's principal affiliation was with Harvard's Project Zero, a research group investigating human learning. He won a five-year MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981. After the grant ended, Gardner accepted an offer to become a professor of education at Harvard, the institution that granted him a B.A. in 1965 and a Ph.D. in 1971 and, he says, changed his life.

Born to German Jewish refugees in Scranton, Pa., Gardner grew up the oldest son (he has a sister, Marion) in a close extended family that invested its hopes in his generation, the first Americans. His birth followed tragedy. His parents had come to America in 1938 with their 3-year-old son, Eric. Five years later Eric was killed in a sleigh accident while his mother-then pregnant with Howard-watched helplessly. While Gardner was growing up, there were pictures of Eric all over the house. Gardner was nearly 10 before his parents explained that the boy was not a neighborhood friend, as they had told him, but his own dead brother. "My parents had great expectations of their first son," he writes in his autobiographical book, "To Open Minds." "Could I, in any way, replace or equal him? My parents in fact told me that if my mother had not been pregnant with me, they would have killed themselves after Eric's death."

Gardner did not disappoint them. As a child, he was a gifted pianist. In high school he turned to writing, working prodigiously on the school newspaper (deadlines rid him of writer's block). Harvard entered his mind at 10, when he read in Classic Comics that the university had elected four class marshals-one Protestant, one Roman Catholic, one Jewish, one black. Thrilled to find a place where it was OK to be different, he set out for Cambridge, Mass., in 1961 at the age of 18.

At Harvard he became interested in the mysteries of personality while studying with psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Psychology has indeed given him a wide-angle lens on the human experience; he has studied brain-damaged adults, gifted children, even preschool education in China. He says he has also learned a lot from watching his own children the three oldest from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, and a 7-year-old adopted from Taiwan by Gardner and his second wife.

Gardner's reputation is greater outside the halls of ivy than within. Some peers grumble that he's too popular to be a real scientist. Gardner isn't troubled by his critics; he's too busy. Like many of the geniuses he studied, he has an almost childlike enthusiasm for his work, especially for wonders created by extraordinary minds. A few weeks ago he encountered "Space That Sees" by the American sculptor James Turrell at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. "It was incredibly moving," says Gardner. "I sat there for a long period just stunned." The work consists of a shrine-like space lined in pink marble, with a painted sky. "You have no idea where you are, what time or what space," explains Gardner, still awe-struck. "It's uncanny." A succinct definition of genius from a man who knows it when he sees it.