Gardner Speaks at Arts Summit

On May 16, 2015, Howard Gardner delivered an address on the topic of arts education at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as a part of the Aspen Institute’s Arts Summit “The Road Forward.” Summarizing the history of education in the arts over the past decades, Gardner surveys the current state of the field and concludes that the arts continue to be crucial and may even provide the key to bridging the humanities and sciences. 

Watch the video of the talk, available via YouTube. The text of the remarks has also been reproduced below.

Remarks by Howard Gardner
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Senior Director, Harvard Project Zero

“Arts Education: Then, Now, In the Future”

As you can see for yourself, I have been around for a long time, and I’ve been working in arts education for decades. As a youngster, I sat at home and watched a conductor named Leonard (Lenny) Bernstein introduce me, and millions of other youngsters, to orchestral classical music. That was arts education, circa 1955.

Then as a graduate student, 48 years ago, I was a founding member of Harvard Project Zero, a group that has long had a focus on education in the arts. Shortly thereafter, I was a witness in front of a panel assembled by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that issued a report called “Coming to our Senses.” The report focused sharply on what can and should be done in the schools. That was arts education, circa 1975.

It’s forty years later. What would happen if the proverbial visitor from another planet—who had not been here for 40 years—were to come to the United States to look at education in the arts? Let’s say that he was a journalist, from the planet Mars… or, if you prefer, she was a journalist from Venus. Alas, no longer can that journalist descend from a planet named Pluto! The journalist would come equipped with the classic journalistic questions, and here are the answers I’d give… in approximately 9 minutes.

WHY  education in the Arts? For those of you gathered at the Kennedy Center in 2015, that question would be easy to answer. You know, as audience members, as creators, and as facilitators, the qualitative transformational differences that a life in the arts can make; how art enriches your experiences and the experiences of those with whom you come in contact; how it captures the greatest and most powerful meanings of human existence. That has not changed. The Romans knew: Vita breva, ars longa.

As for the journalist, I’d say that there may be ancillary benefits of the arts as well—perhaps more motivation to work hard in school, perhaps economic benefits for your community. But I’d add this: no individuals that I know in the arts engage in artistic practice primarily to raise their IQ or primarily to increase the tax base of their community.

WHO? They used to primarily be an elite pursuit—but now, the arts are really and readily accessible to everyone (through work by Damian Woetzel, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacques D’Amboise, and many others, we have witnessed the differences that arts can make for young persons). The Rockefeller Brothers Fund knew that. Today, older persons are a large and growing audience. They are much more likely to visit a museum or attend a performance in their later years if they were involved in the arts when they were young, through creating works of art or through courses in school or college—an important reason that our artistic endeavors should cover the demographic waterfront and entail lifelong learning.  

WHERE? Arts education used to be primarily in schools. Alas, despite the valiant efforts of those gathered here, the role of arts in schools in America has steadily diminished since the Bernstein 1950s, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund 1970s. The Common Core dominates the education radar screen, and STEM is ubiquitous, not, alas, STEAM.

On the positive side, the arts used to be housed primarily in certain institutions and at certain hours. Now you can find the arts everywhere: in community centers, in public places, in the traditional media, on the web, and in social media. We have access to the greatest works of all time in multiple media, at the touch of a tablet, and we can edit, mix, match, and mash 24/7.

Which leaves: HOW?

As a scholar in psychology and education, answering this question is my day job. Howard Gardner circa 1975 would have talked about the arts as engaging and developing the full range of human intelligences–not just language and logic, but musical, bodily, spatial, and personal/emotional intelligences. As Nelson Goodman, founder of Harvard Project Zero liked to quip, “We don’t want education to be half-brained.”

Not only do we want to use the full range of capacities, but we want to be able to connect the intelligences in new and unexpected ways, tangibly and virtually, in school and in the park, on the ground and in cyberspace. No need for the arts to hug traditional boundaries.

The Howard Gardner of 2015 is engaged in a national study of education in the liberal arts and sciences. For Thomas Jefferson and for those, like David Rubenstein, imbued with his spirit, this is a form of residential education, where the mind, body, and spirit can wander freely, for up to four years—opening up possibilities and transformations at the most flexible, freest period of life. Oh, to be 18 again!

Yet, as you all know, traditional education in liberal arts and sciences is in jeopardy, because of its expense, hypervocationalism, and various challenges on campuses themselves. 

When our journalist was here forty years ago, the academy epitomized C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. Students either focused on the humanities (typically English or History) or on the sciences. Now the seesaw has tilted sharply toward the sciences, and because of various factors, the humanities are seen as feeble and on the defense.

But there is a silver lining, perhaps even a golden one. I am convinced that today the arts can provide a unique and powerful bridge between the humanities and the sciences. And that is because the tools available to makers—digital and tangible—can emanate from anywhere and can be applied anywhere. These tools and media do not respect disciplinary boundaries. They are invariably interdisciplinary. Steve Jobs moved seamlessly across art, design, technology. So do Damian Woetzel and Yo-Yo Ma and many contemporary citizen-artists as they work with students and teachers in turnaround schools, parks, centers, labs, even apps. These heroic educators don’t necessarily use the word “art”—they can invoke “design”, “making”, “creating”; but in essence, they are simply human beings, using all of their faculties, to capture what we know, feel, value in powerful, unforgettable form. That is the heartland of the Arts. Perhaps, just perhaps, a renewed focus on the arts in our colleges and universities can powerfully bridge the humanities and the sciences and help to reinvigorate the liberal arts education that so many of us cherish. An education that has been distinctly American, dating back to our founding fathers and still admired the world over. And note well: if colleges and universities value the arts, so will our K-12 system.

For the interplanetary journalist, I even have a headline, a tweet: Arts Education: From Lenny, The Music Genius; To Leonardo, The Universal Genius.

And so, my closing remark to the interplanetary visitor: “You can take back answers. Compared to decades ago, the arts in the US are everywhere, they are for everyone, they make use of the range of human faculties, and they offer a powerful way to synthesize different perspectives on human existence and possibilities. They can, they should, be central to education, spanning humanistic and scientific studies. We’d like to export our knowledge and media to anyone on your planet who is interested in limitless possibilities, improving, in the process, our balance of trade. And if you have products and processes that would fascinate and energize us, sign me up for a visit to your celestial sphere.”

Thank you.


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