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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Costly missteps

Though not a leader in the traditional sense, I've had to confront this issue in my own work on intelligence. Many years ago, I put forth a theory of "multiple intelligences." Nearly everywhere I go, I am asked about group differences -- gender differences first, then ethnic or racial differences. Because of the potentially explosive results that could emerge from studies of these group differences, I've decided not to investigate them or to speculate about them. I would not go so far as to prohibit studies of group differences -- and, as a scholar, rather than a leader, I am curious about what might be found.

In reflecting on these issues over the years, I've come to three conclusions:

l. Approach such inquiries with a great deal of caution;

2. Avoid explanatory accounts ("women are better than men at ....") unless you have a very strong evidence in favor of your claims;

3. When you discuss your findings, take a great deal of care in how you formulate your position and be on the lookout for mischaracterizations and misquotations.

Alas, as former Harvard President Larry Summers discovered, failure to take such steps can be very costly.

Turning to the political realm, I agree with those who state that the remarks attributed to Lott and to Reid are not comparable. Lott was expressing nostalgia for a segregationist past, while Reid was reflecting on the electability of a black candidate. But, drawing on the lessons I have arrived at in my own work, I think that Reid would have been better off saying nothing, or, if he decided to speak, to choose his wording more carefully.

That said, we all say foolish things, and nowadays, many of us also email them unreflectively. What counts is how we behave when our words come back to haunt us. Reid has responded as he should have responded and, as is usually the case when this happens, it is time to move on.

By Howard Gardner

 |  January 11, 2010; 2:23 PM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Magellan 1: I suggest you check your memory again. Lott was surely being "nostalgic" for a time way past. In fact his exact words were: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."

This sounds like nostalgia to me.

Posted by: pdt278 | January 12, 2010 10:46 AM
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As George Will commented on ABC yesterday, there was not a bit of racism in what Reid said, and who would disagree with the actual content of the statement? The only dissenting voice on the panel was Dick Cheney's daughter, a rabid partisan.

When will adult behavior break out in this country so we can stop this foolishness and start solving some problems?

And by the way, I have used every dirty word I know of at some time in my life. That doesn't make be a bad person. I'm just average. OK, above average. ;)

Posted by: moverbat | January 11, 2010 10:48 PM
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I agree that people should not be condemned or drummed out of their positions based on one remark that offends certain people but not others.

I think this should apply to everyone and not just to those who are judged to adhere to the orthodox position on all issues pertaining to race.

If Mitch McConnell said the same thing, the very same people defending Harry Reid would be calling for McConnell's head. Unfortunately, many of the people attacking Reid would defend McConnell.

Complimenting Strom Thurmond's presidential candidacy is offensive and so is commenting on Obama's lack of Negro dialect.

Hopefully, someday race will move beyond politics.

Posted by: Avar | January 11, 2010 10:09 PM
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"Lott was expressing nostalgia for a segregationist past, while Reid was reflecting on the electability of a black candidate."

Well, aren't we the judgmental one! I remember Lott's words. They might have been characterized as expressing nostalgia for a segregationist past, as his political enemies quickly advanced for their own purposes or, NOT.

The writer should take his own sage advice when it comes to mischaracterizations.

Posted by: magellan1 | January 11, 2010 8:02 PM
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Politicians choose to be politically correct because they fear the voters will choose a different candidate if they said what they really want to say.

They should stop saying what they think we want to hear and say what they really want to say. I would like to see private businesses have the right to openly discriminate. Political correctnes have allowed too many hypocrites to get elected and sell services or products to people they really don't care to have as customers.

If you are a bigot, you deserve the right to be a bigot. Hypocrites are the worst.

Posted by: OneFreeMan | January 11, 2010 5:38 PM
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I thought the First amendment protected people who exercise their right to say anything foolish, but this, as much of the rest of the Constitution after several imperial presidencies, no longer seems to be in effect. The implication of this "issue" is nobody, at least no white people, should say anything about race or racial subjects.

Actually, Reid made these comments in a private conversation, so this means people have to be on guard whether saying anything privately or publicly. There is a double standard for some people though, Obama was still nominated and elected, despite making some foolish, offensive comments during the primaries. Sumners was not disgraced after his silly remarks at Harvard, he has a far more important position in the Obama administration.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | January 11, 2010 3:25 PM
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