Books: Thinking ahead to a global monoculture

A Harvard psychologist argues that tomorrow's world will require specially trained mindsets. Adrian Furnham tunes in.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Howard Gardner is a master taxonomist. He seems to love nothing more than categorising psychological phenomena into five or seven or eight types. He is, after all, the father of 'multiple intelligences', now a booming industry.

He argued nearly 25 years ago that we were wrong to assume that intelligence was a unitary phenomenon. Rather, he thought it possible to differentiate seven distinct 'intelligences' that were unrelated. These included not only the familiar categories of verbal, mathematical and spatial intelligence but also the more improbable 'body-kinesthetic' and 'intra-personal' intelligence. The idea was that you could be bright in different ways.

In a later book in 1999 he identified a new one - 'naturalistic' intelligence. His hunt for more has caused an army of client-seeking consultants to stumble on everything from networking to negotiating intelligence and even sexual and spiritual intelligence.

The force of Gardner's ideas certainly does not lie in his data - odd, really, for a Harvard academic psychologist. But he is an original thinker and a good writer. Most of his work is semi-popular in style but he does do his research. He is an innovative thinker, he reads widely beyond his discipline and is an eloquent advocate of his position. His books, in short, are a good read, and this latest is no exception.

Its aim is to describe 'the kinds of minds that people will need to thrive in the future'. At its core are five chapters that explore the five minds of the title of the book. At the beginning, he does that schmaltzy American thing of describing the minds from his own experience. Then in the chapter called 'A Personal Introduction', he does a spot of futurology with the usual emphasis on speed of change, globalisation and trends such as the movement of capital, people, information and popular culture round the world. To prepare for and thrive in this new world, he writes, we must educate people differently.

The first mind-set or ability is the disciplined mind. The concept has two branches - first, the discipline of a university or school subject and, second, to have a disciplined approach. So what do you do to achieve this? Work hard, try different techniques to master knowledge, and practise your newly acquired knowledge.

Next is the synthesising mind, the ability to see connections and put things together. So you have not only to think systematically but also put different perspectives together - ie, be interdisciplinary. Again, he is interested in the 'educational challenge': how to bring about the synthesising mind.

Next, the creative mind. It's an odd chapter, with all sorts of twists and turns - and precious little reference to the serious literature on creativity. And I did not get the bottom line. He says being creative is important, but how do you achieve it? Of all the topics in business and education it's the most nebulous - full of flim-flam but supporting an army of experts and consultants happy to tell you how to unleash, unblock and set fire to your creativity.

The last two chapters get moralistic and a bit too 'diversity-training-perspective' for me. We need, we are told, a respectful mind. It's about learning to accept, respect, and value those different from us in terms of colour, creed etc. 'Honouring group difference': good idea - again not sure how you do it.

Finally, the ethical mind: another 'all over the place' chapter, but a good read and curiously specific to the world of work. It was not clear to me how the respectful and ethical were different. And I don't like the ethical: there are different ethical systems, often quite contradictory, to define ethical behaviour.

The final chapter, subtitled 'Toward the Cultivation of the Five Minds', purports to review major claims and clear up lingering questions. What prevents people achieving the Nirvana quintet? Four things, we're told, eight pages from the end: conservatism, faddism, hidden risks and impotence.

The book is written in the style of a well-educated science journalist: a humane, reflective educational psychologist. It's an easy and interesting read. But what will the MT reader get from this book? I believe it's aimed at two markets - educationalists and managers - but falls between the cracks and ends up useful to neither. But if you are at an airport and want a good read for three to four hours to improve your mind and ponder afresh on how the hell we are going to cope in the future, it's a delightful book.

Five Minds for the Future; Howard Gardner; Harvard Business School £14.99

- Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime