My best friend Graham used to work with air traffic controllers. Actually, he was their teacher. He tells this wonderful story about one day when his students are taking an exam. As he’s walking around, he notices one particularly stressed student who is anxiously pouring over her radar screen during a simulated landing/take-off situation. Graham walks up behind her, leans over and says gently: “Relax – what’s the worst that can happen…”
This is the story that comes to mind when I read comments and opinions such as that of Calgary’s David Steele, in an article run in the January 30 Calgary Herald, about the value (or decisive lack thereof) of arts in education:
Mr. Steele argues that music, dance, and painting are “essentially a waste of time unless a child has some aptitude for them”. Fearing the kids will be destined either to welfare lines or busking in train stations, he asserts we should stop wasting resources on such “airy-fairy nonsense” (fine arts), and that we should “Go back to the basics”.
I love reading comments like Mr Steele’s. They become a source of motivation and learning, not only because it helps me refine and re-define my position on arts education, but because I can find some value in his statements – like a rich fertilizer.
I love the expression ‘Back to basics’. It’s one of those notions based on a peculiar and arrogant assumption that is unique to our part of the world. For most of the world, “basics” means food, shelter, and water. Satisfying these ‘basics’ is a matter of life and death. And death wins too often.
I’m pretty sure that’s not what Mr. Steele meant by “basics”, but let’s take a look at the progression from these ‘basics’ to what we have now.
Obviously our attention should be focused on supplying these basics of life – to do otherwise would be foolish. Once our bottom-line food/shelter/water ‘basics’ for survival have been met, only then can we think of expanding beyond these basics to include things like education, or general advancement in society. (And, for the record, it would be completely naïve and morally irresponsible to assume that all of the citizens in this part of the world are able to meet their ‘basics’ of survival. I still believe that if even one kid is going to school hungry, we’re not doing our job. Period.)
But let’s assume that we have the ‘basics’ covered. Food, shelter, water. Enough? Hardly. From there it becomes a question of human experience, and a matter of opinion. I believe, from his comments, that Mr. Steele would see the value of an education. Usually this implies proficiency in the fundamental literacy and numeracy skills so heavily emphasized in our “modern” system (I put the word ‘modern’ in quotes because our current system is actually based on a model that has been around since before the invention of electricity…) From the sound of it, Mr. Steele would likely be clam-happy with these two skill sets covered.
But, is that enough? Should we really be satisfied with such base, minimal, and, frankly, dated skill sets? Or should we, perhaps daringly, aspire to more: more for our society than the ‘basics’, and more for our kids. And, possibly, more for the rest of the world too?
Fact: Our schools have been operating with a priority on ‘basics’ for about a century. Yet only two thirds of our children graduate. And still, on this day, more than half the world continues to struggle to provide their idea of ‘basics’. For their survival.
Enter the realm of ‘fine arts’; two words which have apparently evoked some measure of recoiling from Mr. Steele and the likes.
For the sake of transparency, let me state that I am an arts education advocate, and my background as a classical pianist has certainly contributed to my exploration of the true value of the arts in education. However, my ‘in-school’ experience of the arts came to a halt in elementary school, not long after our obligatory introduction in fourth grade to that most beloved of instruments: the recorder.
My entire ‘artistic’ development happened outside of school – nevertheless, I am a staunch defender of the myriad benefits the arts provide not only to our society, but the overall education of young people.
There are those (including much of our society, and a President or two) who eagerly point out the “economic relevance of the arts”. There are also those who advocate the merits of the arts as a “quality-of-life/society” enhancer. And of course, there’s the Mozart-effect-phenomenon argument that has everyone and their fetus plugging into his symphonies.
While these justifications have merit, it still seems a bit like trying to convince the general population to take vitamins, eat better, and exercise more (we’re still overweight, lethargic, and continue to die of heart disease). Obviously we’ve not yet uncovered a more tangible reasoning behind the purpose of arts education.
So I’m going to invoke the words of Dr. Elliot Eisner, Professor of Education and Professor of Art at Stanford, to build a strong and convincing case for arts education. Dr. Eisner points out seven things that “the arts do, or demand, that are profoundly beneficial to the overall education of young people.” Here I’ll list three (the rest are worth discovering yourself). And a couple of my own.
First: In the arts (and in life), relationships matter.
I am a pianist. Though I could (arrogantly, yet correctly) assume the capacity to function audibly as an entire orchestra unto myself, my performances simply cannot exist – or be expressed – in a vacuum. Choirs, ensembles, orchestras, theatre, and dance companies know this.
Not only do artists learn their relationship between members of the group, but between themselves, the audience, and often (fascinatingly), a time-travelling voice from the past.
We learn to play nice in the sandbox; to co-operate and collaborate. We learn details like subtlety, nuance. We learn to listen, to evaluate, and to re-evaluate. We learn (successfully) to think on our feet. We learn ‘work ethic’ without compare. Our reputation, development, and existence as artists depend upon this.
Judgement without rules is the name of the game here. I can certainly think of a few real-life situations where this particular skill would come in handy. Graham’s students would agree.
Two: In the arts, one must learn to think within the confines of a medium or material.
In a word: Discipline. In another word: Mastery.
We can see the analogy easily when it comes to the ‘discipline’ of ‘mastering’ an instrument, but how many other life opportunities examples did you just come up with yourself?
I prefer my air traffic controllers disciplined and masterful.
Third (fourth in Dr. Eisner’s list): Not all of what we know can be conveyed in literal language or in numbers.
A while ago I attended a seminar where one of the presenters was discussing the different ‘levels of literacy’. Apparently there are four. Three and four are much higher than, and preferable to, one and two. We were at tables of eight or so, and were given that irresistible large poster paper, and a bunch of (scented!) color markers. We were asked to discuss, record, and then present our “priorities” regarding literacy, and how we viewed one’s role in that endeavour.
I loved this – and hijacked the direction of the conversation (if Graham will forgive the analogy). I challenged those at our table – a table of very learned and distinguished professionals – to draw their ideas in picture form, without using any words or language to describe. When it came time to present, their pictures had such voice. After dozens of written presentations, ours stood out.
After our group’s presentation, I mischievously asked our presenter which of the four literacy levels he would assign our presentation. At the end of the seminar, I’m pretty sure he told me – albeit in Welsh – to kiss his ass.
Four: (Now I’m going to throw in a reason of my own) Empathy.
This may be a leap, but consider. My entire performing career has been based upon my ability (assuming technical facility, discipline, and mastery) to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of some long-deceased composer. I need to do this in order to express, as musical translator, what I thought he (as usually it is a ‘he’) was thinking or feeling with that particular piece of music.
Turning to present day relevance: Every single experience or engagement of or through an artistic form, whether it be in an actual ‘arts’ class, or in a math, science, computer, or French class (a ridiculous and unrealistic division which I find utterly archaic and stunted, for the record), offers the opportunity to empathize with another’s thoughts, situations, viewpoints, and so on.
Empathy is the single-most important characteristic of personal development, in my opinion. This one aptitude will enable every creative, every cooperative, every innovative thought and idea to find its full fruition – to the benefit of mankind. Teaching through the arts can accomplish this.
Five. As a topper, I get to throw in: Imagination.
I’ve gleefully forsaken the need to defend the imperative for imagination – especially within the context of education. Now I simply refer people to NASA (that little institution which sends people into space), who have embarked upon an initiative with Lincoln Center (that little institution which includes the Julliard school, the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and their amazing Center for Arts in Education) to develop creative strategies within the education sector. And, to one of Lincoln Center’s largest clients: the Department of Homeland Security (that little, small-budget department in the US that is responsible for – well – the security of their country).
Yet despite the seemingly universal acknowledgment of the importance of creativity, imagination, and the arts, expressed by such renowned thought leaders as Sir Ken Robinson*, Scott Noppe-Brandon, Eric Liu, Daniel Pink, and so many others, there are still those such as Mr. Steele who either refuse to believe, or for some reason doggedly resist, the legitimacy and necessity of what he labels ‘airy-fairy nonsense’. Try telling that to the largest military security system in the western hemisphere, if not the world. Go ahead. (I’m fairly certain the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t fancy in its ranks a bunch of “little Beyonce’s or Van Gogh’s” eagerly awaiting their big break…)
As a colleague of mine (who trains managers at Wells Fargo and Boston law professors) claims, “there’s nothing in the history of mankind that hasn’t been taught at least once using the arts.” So, when I hear such comments about getting ‘back to basics’, I will rail. It’s simply – clearly – not good enough. And I am secure in the overwhelming international corroboration of this premise. It’s kind of like having an entire army/navy/marine corps/central intelligence agency as a protective older brother defending my honour.
Our ‘basics’ need to expand and develop into far-reaching, all-encompassing, powerful tools for human development. They need to become the scaffolding for the onset of a future that should realistically scare the pants off Mr. Steele and everyone who believes the old system adequate and sufficient to tackle the issues they can’t even imagine lie in wait.
If more than half the population of the world remains powerless to provide the basics for their very survival, our outdated, soon-to-be obsolete idea of ‘basics’ isn’t working.
Waste of resources? Have it your way. Let’s continue along this same rusty old industrial-model path of education as we propel headlong into an uncertain and unpredictable future.
Really. What’s the worst that can happen?
For kicks, a 24hr world-wide view of air traffic:
*If Mr. Steele is reading this and is still holding fast to his ‘back to basics’ ideals, I am inviting him to Sir Ken Robinson’s (head of the British government’s advisory committee on arts and education, and author of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything) upcoming Public Dialogue in Red Deer on February 9. My treat.