A few weeks ago my son completed his Freshman year of University. He is a dance major at a well-regarded institution, and while his dance abilities are (as objectively as a parent can state) extraordinary, his academic grades continue to suffer as they did throughout his high school education. It has crushed him.
I believe in my son fiercely. I don't care that his grades suffer in math and reading, but of course this is the real world! Grades matter! And critically, his academic GPA hugely influences his scholarship money.
The worst part is, I can feel my son "closing up," identifying as "stupid" and "slow," neither of which he is. He is warm, engaging, a social dynamo, musical, thoughtful, and the understanding and command he has of his physical body is incredible.
As an artist yourself, do you have any thoughts about this? Most importantly, how can I help him respect his individual talents and "smarts?"
Mom in Pittsburgh
Dear Mom in Pittsburgh,
Whoa Nellie. Thank you so much for writing, because do I ever have something to get up on my soap-box and preach about this!
Society values and measures two types of intelligences: Linguistic (words) and Numeral (numbers). Those are the only two ways we determine “smart-ness” in our children today. In my humble opinion: That. Is. Crazy.
Psychologist Howard Gardner's has developed the pioneering theory of "multiple intelligences.” In the original edition of Thomas Armstrong’s (incredibly accessible ) book 7 Kinds of Smart, based on Gardner’s theory, Armstrong identifies seven distinct, measurable intelligences.
PEOPLE (interpersonal intelligence)
SELF (intra-personal intelligence)
In the revised edition, he adds two newly researched forms of human intelligence:
NATURAL (regarding one's natural environment)
EXISTENTIAL. (regarding one's place in known existence)
The theory holds that new intelligences are developing in the human psyche all the time. (Dear Everyone, Please read this book.)
Schools have to manage and assess the learning of children, so they create tests, establish incredibly limited benchmarks. Those SATs and ACTs? They exclusively measure only linguistic and numeralintelligences, and perpetuate the educational myth that anyone who doesn’t succeed in these two areas is not “smart…”
But the creative mind does not progress in a conventional manner, and our culture, as a whole, has bought-off on this concept of intelligence as an end-all gospel truth. Mastery of these "measuring tools" (ACT, SAC, GPA) grants access to scholarships, top schools, careers, and massively affects the future of our children. Also, the Arts are often treated as expendable "frills" in our public education budgets. Emphasis on SAT scores and 4.0 GPA's leave little time for other pursuits.
Dearest Mom in Pittsburgh, these measurements are of knowledge and not of intelligence. (Particularly intelligence as defined by Gardner and Armstrong, above.)
Knowledge is information that enters the mind as a result of learning. The dictionary says this:
knowl·edgeˈ(nälij)noun: knowledge; plural noun: knowledges1.facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.
It is not to be dismissed, but it is achieved through memorization and often, mimicry. Knowledge is easy to measure, thus easy to manage, and judge “smart” children from “not-smart” ones. I don’t think I even need to articulate how damaging the labels of “not-smart,” “struggling” or, sadly “stupid” can be. Those labels and identities are toxic! Poisonous to the confidence of a growing human being, and can castrate even the most resilient spirits.
And knowledge is not intelligence.
Think of it this way: a person may learn and know the steps of a great classic work of the ballet, but it does not mean they dance it skillfully or with expression. One may know the tune and lyrics of a song, but that doesn't mean they sing it with the furthest depth of human understanding.
When knowledge and intelligence marry with talent (innate) skill (learned) and hard work (required), together they comprehensively inform the present and future of an individual.
Knowledge alone did not create the result. It was how that individual child chose to utilize that knowledge. The development of the creative mind is not measurable. Especially creative intelligence. There are no tests for this, no tools, no software, so don’t even try. But as parents and teachers, we can encourage creative intelligence to develop naturally and brilliantly in our children; and as individuals, within ourselves.
I had a remarkable student last year in my acting class at Pace University. Let's call him James. James was a student accepted to the University through a program that provided acceptance slots for students with specific talents that weren't conventionally "good" students academically. But grades schmades--James was a great company member, a natural leader, outgoing, charismatic, and so deeply feeling (in fact, one of the most deeply feeling in his entire year group). He just didn't have the language skills to fully express that depth of feeling. He needed another way. It took me a little while to discover James' gifts, but when we entered second semester and the class became more physical -- I saw James in all his glory. I knew immediately that James' intelligence was in the movement of his form. There wasn't a single thing in the universe that escaped him if he experienced and expressed it through his body. Once I discovered that, I knew how to reach him. But critically, I named it for James, in front of all classmates. And I could see him stand taller, and get braver, because (I wish and hope) he felt truly seen and respected, so it gave him permission to more deeply respect himself.
Mom in Pittsburgh, I cannot change the system.
I wish I could.
But your instinct is totally spot-on: your son possesses intelligences that deserve respect. From you, from the world, and above all, from himself.
One final thought about artists specifically:
Michigan State University physiologist Robert Root-Bernstien claims that most Nobel Prize winners have arts-related hobbies. French Physicist Henri Poincare said aesthetics was a "delicate sieve" that helped scientists sort through the confusion of facts and theories.
• Nobel Prize-wining chemist Road Hoffman is also a poet.
• Condoleezza Rice trained as a concert pianist.
• Leonardo DaVinci invented flying machines and painted the Mona Lisa.
• NFL player Rosey Grier used… um, needlepoint, to calm himself before big games.
• Thomas Jefferson played the violin.
• Einstein said the imagination was more important than knowledge.
Artists see, hear and feel the things other people ignore.
Artists see, hear and feel the over-looked, microscopic, or outright hidden links between everyday experiences, people and things.
Because our artists, just like our scientists and great thinkers, have to see the world both as it is, as well as how they dream it to be.