One Way of Making a Social Scientist
By Howard Gardner
The fields of corporate law and social science research share one curious feature: Almost no
child dreams of joining their ranks someday. A career as an athlete, movie star, physician, or even
president is much easier to envision. If law is appealing, it is likely to be trial law; if research proves
seductive, it is likely to be cutting-edge biology or physics. Yet here I am, at age sixty, a research
psychologist for over thirty-five years who has investigated cognitive development in normal and
gifted children; cognitive breakdown after brain damage; the nature of intelligence, creativity, and
leadership; and the fate of professional ethics in a market-drenched society. If I had not at one point
taken an academic turn, I would probably have joined a large law firm and now be contemplating
retirement. What insights can I provide about my personal path?
Hitler’s mission of ridding Europe of Jews had effects he could not have anticipated. I am
part of the third wave of immigrants from Nazi Germany, the first two being those who fled as
adults and those who escaped as children. My parents, born in Nuremberg before the First World
War, came to the United States in 1938, arriving on November 9, the date of the infamous
Kristallnacht in their hometown. They soon moved to the small coal-mining city of Scranton,
Pennsylvania, where I was born in 1943 and my sister Marion three years later.
Two events cast large shadows on my childhood. The first was the Holocaust. Like many
victims of the Nazi regime, my parents did not talk about it much to my sister and me
acquaintances. But their perennial preoccupation was clear from the many stories I heard about
individuals lucky enough to escape beforehand, the few relatives who managed somehow to survive
the death camps, and the less fortunate who did not. Just recently, I came to realize that my father
had led a small brigade that traced the fate of every family member in Europe or elsewhere in
He provided whatever aid he could. Many relatives spent many nights at our small
apartment in Scranton and some even lived there for a while.
The second event was the death of my older brother, Eric. Born in 1935, he arrived in
America three years later without knowing any English, emerged as a precocious student, and then
died before my mother’s eyes in a tragic sledding accident. My mother was pregnant with me at the
time. My parents thought they had lost everything; indeed, many years later they told me they
would probably have committed suicide if my mother had not been carrying me.