Gardner Discusses “The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger” and “The Kennan Diaries”

I recently read through two lengthy volumes: The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger  and The Kennan Diaries. These volumes were of particular interest and use to me:  I was interested in both personalities (I knew Schlesinger slightly), the books would keep me busy for a while, they covered the era before and during my own lifetime, and, most important, since specific entries were never more than a few pages, I could dig into them for as long or short a period as I wanted.

I read these volumes purely out of interest, without anticipating any particular connection to my own studies of intellect and cognition. Yet, just as the cobbler always looks at the shoes, perhaps it was inevitable that I would become interested in the ways in which the minds of these remarkable personages worked.

Introducing Kennan and Schlesinger

First, just a word of background about each. George Kennan, born in 1904, was a scholar and sometimes diplomat. His particular expertise was Russian and Soviet history and government; he also loved many things and personalities Russian. He is most famous for having written a ‘long telegram’ which helped to develop the Western approach of ‘containment’ vis-a-vis the Soviet Union that was sustained throughout the Cold War. He served for brief times in several key diplomatic posts. But he was also a distinguished historian, writing prize-winning books over the course of several decades at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton.  Kennan lived until 2005 and so was in a position to comment on, and sometimes to influence, many events that occurred in Western and Eastern Europe. Though the number and length of entries varies from one year to the next, he maintained a journal throughout his life.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the son of an American historian (named Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.), was himself a distinguished American historian. His original area of expertise was Jacksonian democracy, but he eventually became a major biographer of both Franklin Roosevelt and John F.  Kennedy. He even served as an aide both to John Kennedy and, less formally, to his brother Robert. For many years Schlesinger taught history, first at Harvard University (where his father had also taught) and then at the City University of New York. More so than Kennan, Schlesinger was directly involved in politics, being a constant critic of communism in the post war era, but also a founder of the Americans for Democratic Action, and often-times, a writer and advocate for the Democratic party. He also lived a long life, dying at the age of 89.


Profiles of Intelligences

 Let me start with the traditional view of intelligence. On any measure of intelligence, as developed by the psychometric (e.g. IQ) community, both men were enormously intelligent. They were certainly logical/rational and they were superb communicators, both orally and in writing. They were at or near the top of their classes in school. While neither of them was a law professor, they had that combination of intelligences that characterize practitioners of that trade: strength in language and strength in logic.

I have not studied these men in detail and so I do not have strong impressions about the strength (or weakness) of their remaining intelligences. But one cannot immerse oneself in letters and/or diaries without getting a sense of personal intelligences. As a diplomat, it was important for Kennan to be able to understand government personnel from a variety of other countries, including nations where he did not speak the language. I am persuaded that Kennan had a good understanding of others, though I suspect it came more from his reading about the culture, and about the specific individuals, than from direct observation. On the other hand, he was a keen observer of his physical environments and could write about them quite poetically, perhaps suggesting a strong naturalist intelligence.

Of interest is Kennan’s intrapersonal intelligence. It is clear that Kennan was obsessed with himself as a person and as a personality and wrote about this persistently for seven or more decades. It is also clear that he had insights about himself, particularly how he was seen and understood about others. And yet, as I will suggest later, his own strange personality may well have interfered with his intrapersonal intelligence.

Admittedly, as a source of information about an individual’s intellectual profile, one cannot directly compare letters to a diary. Yet, Schlesinger’s diaries, which I have also perused, make it clear that Schlesinger was much more other-directed. Whether he is probing a historical figure (like Andrew Jackson) or engaged in trying to understand a current political situation, there is little sign that he is much engaged in, or much worried about, his own persona.

This difference may well reflect their contrasting backgrounds. Schlesinger grew up in a privileged background and was always a member of the elite. Kennan’s background was much more modest, and so he always felt like an outsider. This difference may well determine the relative direction of one’s personal intelligences: to what extent they are directed outward, as compared to inward.

In what follows I want to comment briefly on two strands of thought, stimulated by the back-to-back reading of these memoirs but possibly of wider significance. Both emerge from work that I’ve done in the decades after developing the theory of multiple intelligences.


Five Minds and the Powers of Synthesis

In our era, I have singled out, as having special importance, five kinds of minds. Two of them deal with our relations to other persons—the respectful mind and the ethical mind. The other three are cognitive in the more traditional sense.

As historians of the first rank, both Schlesinger (hereafter AMS) and Kennan (hereafter GK) clearly exhibited disciplined minds. They mastered the materials of history, the methods of evaluating sources, and the authoring of accounts that withstand the scrutiny of other professionals.

I will also stipulate that they both exhibited creating minds. They did not simply write as experts:  they broke new ground in the topics that they considered and the ways that they treated them. That several books by each person won major prizes, both from historian colleagues (Bancroft prize) and from national institutions (Pulitzer and National Book Award), is evidence of their creativity.

Of particular interest to me is that both of the historians exhibited powerful capacities to synthesize—what I’ve termed the synthesizing mind. In our era, we are all inundated with vast amounts of information, far more than we can hope to master, remember, or use. The challenge is to sift through these “mountains of data,” determine what is important and why, and then express ones’ conclusions in ways that make sense to oneself and that can be effectively communicated to others.

Schlesinger’s area of synthesis was U.S. history; Kennans’ was Russian and Soviet history. As a sidebar, it’s worth noting that these areas of expertise were scarcely chosen at random. AMS’ father was also an American historian of distinction and George Kennan had a distant relative, of the same name and birthday, who had focused in the 19th century on Russian history. It may well be easier and more natural to become an expert in synthesis in an area that you have absorbed, so to speak, with your mother’s milk or your father’s foci.

Individuals can exhibit synthesizing powers across the range of professions; for example, Bill Clinton is an expert synthesizer in politics, Warren Buffer equally so in the area of investment.  But within the academy, I believe that synthesizing is particularly notable, and indeed invaluable, in two disciplines:   classical (as opposed to molecular) biology (the naturalist skills of Charles Darwin or E. O. Wilson or Stephen Jay Gould) and history (as exemplified in the 20th century by Schlesinger and Kennan).

In attempting to understand the synthesizing mind, I have found a helpful analogy. Imagine listening to many streams of sound and picking out that sequence of tones that yields a powerful, memorable melody. I see our two master synthesizers as capable of reviewing massive amounts of data, some of which they have discovered or uncovered themselves. They can then discern the leitmotifs that seem to undergird those data and help to explain their emergence and their inter-relations. Thus, Schlesinger sees the American political system as undergoing cycles of approximately thirty years in duration. On this account, the accent falls, alternatively, on more idealistic, progressive or liberal policies, in one phase of the cycle, or on more pragmatic, conservative, business-embracing political polities, in the succeeding phase. These cycles prompt him to stress the importance of “a vital center.”

For his part, over time, Kennan discerns the importance of ensuring secure territorial borders in the foreign (international) policies of the Russian nation—explaining both Russian aggressiveness and Russian defensiveness.  And this oscillation transcends the convulsions of the tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras. His analysis yielded the powerful concept of ‘containment’ which undergirded Western policies throughout the fifty years of the Cold War. And on the very day that I write (April 20th, 2014), President Obama is said to be drawing on Kennan’s analyses as he contemplates the stance of the U.S. vis-à-vis Russian political and military adventures in the Ukraine.

Of course, anyone can gallop through the history of a country and suggest a few powerful motifs. And those motifs may well be accurate. What distinguishes the expert synthesizer is the depth of his knowledge of the field and the data, the way that knowledge is organized to yield a powerful theme, the ability to counter alternative explanations, and, most precious if not most elusive, the power of the organizing scheme to make sense of “events-to-come.”


 The Importance and the Limits of Disinterestedness

For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, my work focused on the theory of multiple intelligences and its educational implications, particularly with respect to pre-collegiate education.  Beginning in the 1990s, with close colleagues Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, I began to study good work; and that work, in turn, has spawned a range of descendants of ‘good work,’ carried out in collaboration with Lynn Barendsen, Wendy Fischman, and Carrie James. (For details please see

Key to this area of study is the notion of what it means to be a good professional. We define the ‘good worker’ as an individual who is at once Expert (in terms of the previous entry, has a disciplined mind); Engaged (cares about her work and finds meaning in it); and practices her work in an Ethical manner.

I’ve recently become reminded of the importance, in professional work, of a disinterested stance. We want the professionals with whom we work to give us an honest, straightforward, unprejudiced account of the state of affairs in their realm of expertise and what might be done under these circumstances. More concretely, we want—or, I could say, we should want—an accountant who gives an accurate picture of our financial situation, a physician who diagnoses our illness accurately and lays out the alternative courses of treatment and prognoses, and the journalist who describes the situation on the ground as accurately as possible. And we are, or we should be, critical of the accountant who cooks the books, the physician who promotes a drug where he stands to make a profit, and the journalist who withholds details that may embarrass a friend or a favored cause.

The classic view of the historian’s job is to describe things ‘as they actually happened.’ Virtually no one believes anymore that this end can be literally achieved. We have learned about how difficult it is to step outside one’s own time frames. As I have myself written, each generation is destined, or condemned, to write its own history of earlier times. In addition to the blinders of one’s own generation, there are the inevitable intrusions of personality, values, and prejudices. We have also learned how difficult it is to be completely objective, to bracket one’s own predilections, and how easy it is to delude ourselves that we have overcome our parochialism.

These reservations noted, we still have every right and every reason to expect that historians, and particularly those who study the world of earlier times, to get things as right as they can. Here is where professional disinterestedness becomes relevant. And so we are appropriately leery of “Whig history:” history that purports to show that things get better over time, and that we are destined to live in a world that is ever more enlightened.

An insight from the Good Project is relevant. Difficult as it is to be disinterested in a single profession, it is more challenging still to be disinterested when one is involved in two professions or roles, as we put it, when one has to wear ‘two hats.’ Say that someone is both a lawyer and a journalist. Wearing her legal hat, the individual is expected to keep certain client information confidential. Yet, as a journalist, the individual should not withhold information relevant to a story. Because of such conflicts, we generally expect individuals to recuse themselves, and when they do not, and disinterestedness crumbles, we are properly critical of them.

After this lengthy preamble, here’s my point: neither AMS nor GK were ‘pure’ historians, living their entire adult lives in a cloistered academic setting. GK began life as a diplomat. Even after he was retired from the corps, he still hankered to have a role in American diplomacy, and probably had as much influence post-retirement as before. AMS had a strong interest in politics, and particularly the fate of the Democratic Party. In the late 1940s, he was instrumental in the founding of the Americans for Democratic Action.  In the 1950s, he worked tirelessly for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, with whom he was quite close. And as mentioned earlier, he was equally dedicated to John F. Kennedy and, after JFK’s assassination, to his brothers Robert and Edward.

I cannot claim to have any inside information on the extent to which these historians’ roles were influenced or compromised by the additional hats that they wore. Yet, it is certainly possible to state the risks, and in my view, they turn out to be distinctive and revealing.

In the case of AMS, I believe that his increasing involvement in activist politics inevitably colored what he wrote about and how he wrote about it. On the one hand, he still wanted to get the story right; for example, in his biographies of JFK and RFK. Yet his belief in their policies and his closeness to the family made it difficult to step back and render disinterested judgments. The desired disinterestedness would have been easier to achieve with reference to earlier times and thus it is regrettable that AMS never completed his study of the Roosevelt era.

While Schlesinger’s most notable historical writings occurred early in his career, Kennan did not become a serious historian until he had left the diplomatic core. In that sense, he had freer rein to ‘call them as he saw them.’ And while he clearly had strong views about what should be done with reference to the Soviet Union of his day, it was probably easier to curtail them when he wrote about tsarist Russia.

Yet reading through the diaries, I felt that I came to know Kennan as a person, and in my view he was deeply disturbed. I do not have the knowledge or skills to make a psychiatric diagnosis, but he emerges as a person who was deeply depressed much of the time, who tended either to romanticize a people and an era (say Western Europe in the 19th century) or to be excessively critical (as he was of the United States in his time), and who, at least in earlier life, was withdrawn, anti-social, and  had some difficulty in distinguishing between dreams, fantasy, and reality—in lay terms, a schizoid personality.

I cannot say that Kennan’s personality either undermined or enhanced his historical understanding or his policy recommendations. But I am quite convinced that his unusual personality affected his work, both diplomatic and historical. As for Schlesinger, his upbeat, convivial, and somewhat combative personality certainly aided in his political work but may have limited his capacity for the solitary work required in original historical research.


Concluding note:

In writing about AMS and GK, I am clearly going beyond my area of training and expertise. Yet, the coincidence of reading these two massive volumes during the same week did generate some thoughts which intersected, in unexpected ways, with issues that I’ve been pondering in my own work. I hope that this attempt at ‘cross-fertilization’ proves of interest.


-Howard Gardner