The Two Facets of Joel Kupperman (1936-2020)

by Howard Gardner

We were having breakfast at the kitchen table and my wife Ellen said “This obituary in the New York Times will interest you.” Indeed, it did!

Ellen had not heard of Joel Kupperman (age 83, died on April 8, 2020, in an assisted living facility in Brooklyn, probably of COVID19).  But I immediately recognized his name and remembered some biographical facts.

When I was young, a much discussed show—first on radio, then on television—was “The Quiz Kids.” Every week, a panel of children heard a series of short answer questions and the kids competed to answer first and answer correctly.  Joel was one of the indisputable stars—his hands shot up quickly, his answers most often correct.  And so—at least for those of us who thought of ourselves as ‘brains’—-this was a mark of distinction: one that easily competed with the accolades for baseball players like Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, or with matinee idols like John Wayne or Doris Day.

As related in various books and articles (and in a famous movie Quiz Show), life after this form of youthful celebrity was not easy.  For response-whiz Joel Kupperman, it was particularly challenging and painful—so much so that if the “Quiz Kids” program was even mentioned in conversation, he would leave the room. And he forbade discussion of his own childhood with his children and even, apparently, blocked out many of its details.

Post his “minutes of fame,” Kupperman went to the University of Chicago at age 16, where he was apparently bullied.  He subsequently received  a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Cambridge and taught philosophy for fifty years at the University of Connecticut.  In 1964 he married an historian Karen Ordahl (Kupperman), who teaches at New York University.  His wife and two children (son Michael and daughter Charlie) survive him.

But what piqued Ellen and my interest were two portions of the obituary—both of which happen to connect to my own preoccupations and my own research over the decades.     One was Kupperman’s views of intellect:  “There’s this weird notion that intelligence is a single thing, but people can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.”  I have no idea whether Kupperman knew about work on different kinds of intelligence—including the “theory of multiple intelligences”—but he certainly grasped the concept.

The second strand was Kupperman’s area of philosophical inquiry—ethics.  Two individuals interviewed for the obituary convey Kupperman’s personal perspective:

Duke university philosopher David Wong:  “Joel’s work assists us in our individual and collective endeavors to live a good life by articulation of much good advice and well-taken cautions.”

Daughter Charlie: “He started out writing about pure ethics, but as his career went on, he was trying to understand character, and why it’s so hard for people to be good… he talked a lot about the meaning of life and how to be a good person and what happens after you die. I remember him telling me that when you die, it like unplugging a radio. There’s a glow that remains.”

Though we did not know each other, and our lives took quite different courses, it fascinates me that Joel’s life encompassed  two issues that have come to dominate my own thinking for decades:  the multiplicity of intelligences and the search for a good life.  Recently, I have sought to tie these lines of work together in this blog post.

© Howard Gardner 2020

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