Art Is Vital – James Hamblin – The Atlantic

The best education facilitates artistic voice and creative habits of mind.


ASPEN — It has been three years since the spectacular video of Lil Buck dancing to Yo-Yo Ma brought jookin—which draws from hip-hop, ballet, jazz, and modern dance—into mainstream consciousness. Ma would later call Buck a genius; and, he is. According to the theory of multiple intelligences, which posits nine distinct dimensions, Buck is clearly off the charts in intelligences like spatial, musical/rhythmic, and bodily/kinesthetic.

The theory was developed in 1983 by Howard Gardner, who is now the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard. It defines intelligence expansively, as the ability to create an effective product or offer a service that is valued in a culture; a set of skills that make it possible for a person to solve problems in life. It’s a broader definition than many curricula address, and some of the multiple intelligences regularly go unstimulated and underdeveloped in traditional schools.

“You cannot be an innovator in any category unless that creative instinct is exercised.”

Five years after moving to Los Angeles to work the Santa Monica pier, Buck is an artist-in-residence at the Aspen Institute, where he spoke this morning with Gardner at the Aspen Ideas Festival—alongside actress Alfre Woodard and dancer Damian Woetzel—about fostering this sort of intelligence through exposure to the arts.

Buck, born Charles Riley, was raised and educated in the Memphis public school system. He recalled the experience this morning without nostalgia. “It wasn’t all that good for me. I got made fun of a lot because I have big ears. Everybody called me Dumbo. This was before I was dancing. I’d be so focused on trying to handle that situation, I didn’t really listen to the teachers.”

Like Buck, jookin was born in Memphis. Buck picked up the style at skating rinks and on playgrounds, before he transferred to a fine arts high school to study hip-hop and ballet, and dancing became his life. Now 26, he performs at benefits and works with children to advocate the arts in education.

In the nineteenth century, Gardner explained, arts education—drawing, music, literature, drama—were seen as instrumental. But today, “There’s a heightened pressure for proof that it’s worth having something in the curriculum. With so many disciplines struggling for space, the arts can be an endangered species.”

If you ask Americans if liberal arts are important, Gardner continued, they say yes. But in terms of budgets, what gets cut first is not “core subjects” or even athletics.

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