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Volume 15, Number 6
November/December 1999

The Happy Meeting of Multiple Intelligences and the Arts


Contrary to what you may have heard, there is no part of the mind/brain that is dedicated specifically to the arts. Indeed, I don't believe that our species evolved over thousands of years to be able to be able to participate in the arts, except for the obvious fact that most of us are able to carry a tune or draw a house or dance in time, more or less. However, we are the kind of species that can learn to carry on those activities that are valued by our culture. And so, when we find ourselves in an environment where certain activities are held in high regards, and where we are given the opportunity to engage in those activities, most of us will turn out to be pretty good.

Effective arts education presupposes two conditions: a mind/brain that is capable of mastering the arts, and a supportive environment. My theory of multiple intelligences provides a basis for education in the arts. According to this theory, all of us as human beings possess a number of intellectual potentials. Schools have generally addressed the linguistic and logical intelligences, but other institutions and situations can encourage the nurturance of at least six other intelligences: spatial, musical, naturalistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and bodily-kinesthetic.

Note that none of these is an artistic intelligence: as I said before, we did not evolve specifically to make or appreciate the arts. Art is a human invention, and the disciplines required to carry out the arts were also devised over the centuries by gifted individuals, groups, and communities. As I see it, every intelligence has the potential to be mobilized for the arts. In writing this essay, I am using linguistic intelligence in a mundane way. If I were to pay particular attention to words, rhymes, assonances, metaphors, and the like, I would be using linguistic intelligence in an artistic way. Similarly, spatial intelligence can be used for navigation, surgery, or anatomy; or it can be used, more artistically, for painting, sculpture, or architecture. One may think, casually, that musical intelligence must be used artistically. However, a moment's thought reminds us that we can use the sounds of music to call troops to order, to announce the time, or to deaden pain in the dentist's office. None of these uses is particularly artistic.

Most cultures, and certainly those that consider themselves to be highly civilized, do not need special arguments for including the arts int heir schools. It is assumed that Chinese students will learn ink and brush painting, and that European students will be informed about the art and music of their country. In the United States, however, such automatic allegiance to the arts does not exist. And so, inclusion of the arts in the regular curriculum of school has always been a struggle. Nowadays, many hard-pressed proponents put forth instrumental arguments: teach classical music to raise IQ, have painting classes to produce creative business persons. I find this a very dangerous and slippery slope. If arts live by instrumental arguments, they may also die should those arguments be proved faulty—or should someone find a less expensive way to raise IQ or spawn imaginative business people.

The coming together of multiple intelligences theory and artistic education ismostly an accident, but I consider it to be a happy accident. Once I had put forth the notion that there exist several human intelligences, many educators embraced the idea that we should be sure to nurture each of these intelligences in school. And this line of reasoning soon led to the conclusion that the arts deserve a featured place in schools. As an inveterate proponent for high-quality arts education for over thirty years, I am delighted by this strong advocacy. Moreover, I am comfortable with it, because participation in the arts is a wonderful way to develop a range of intelligences in children.

I would add, howeever, that there are other compelling reasons for arts education. Among them are the likelihood that skill and craft gained in the arts help students to understand that they can improve in other consequential activities and that their heightened skill can give pleasure to themselves and to others. (This could be construed as an instrumental argument, but it is instrumental only in the broadest sense.) Huma beings have done many terrible things, but they have also done some wonderful things; among these are the artistic genres and works that have accumulated over the centuries and that remain oone of the best markers of a civilization. The arts also provide uniquely individualistic insights into remote persons and cultures, even as they also allow one to be in closer touch with the thoughts and emotions of those around one, and indeed, with one's own mental life.

Finally--and here we come back to the idea behind multiple intelligences—the arts allow us to express what is important but cannot be captured in words—at least not in poetic words. As the dancer Isador a Duncan once remarked, "If I could say it, I wouldn't have to dance it."

Howard Gardner is the John and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor in Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent books are
The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand and Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century.