‘Back to Basics’ Basically Flawed

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.


About HaleySimons

I am a musician, educator, and co-founder/director of 'Creative Alberta'; an initiative to establish Alberta as a world-renowned center of creativity in commerce, culture, and education.
This entry was posted in Creativity, Education. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to ‘Back to Basics’ Basically Flawed

  1. Alicia says:

    I appreciate this post, thanks Haley. I’m working towards my Bachelor of Education with a Elementary Major and Art Minor. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to constantly defend my position for choosing Art as my Minor. There is an overwhelming majority of University students that are changing their Majors/Minors and even programs to Mathematics and Sciences simply because they believe they have better employment opportunities after graduation, not because they’re interested in those subjects. What is happening?

    “I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel – let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing. I’m concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers.”
    – Howard Zinn

  2. Robert Snowdon says:

    While I agree that the arts are (or should be) an important part of education, I think you were a little harsh here.

    The most important quote from the David Steele’s article is not the one you included, but is his opening line. “I disagree with the parents who think that fine arts should be a major part of the public school curriculum”

    I think that he’s 100% right in that assertion. Fine arts, though important, should not be a major part of the public school curriculum. (I suspect many people would agree with this.)

    He’s also right when he says we are creating an entire generation of illiterates. I’m in a position where I must interview potential new hires. What I’ve discovered is that the younger the person is, the less likely it is that he or she can write with any degree of skill. Some don’t even see the value in it. Dey r uzd 2 IM w/ thr BFF Jill and haven’t bothered to actually learn how to write.

    The effects of this are easy to see. We’re seeing it now with the generation of kids before this one (now 30-somethings) who are unable to do math. (This generation can’t do math either, but it started long before them.) The current recession is all about generations of people who can’t do simple math. Math like, if I make $30,000 per year and buy a home where my mortgage is $1,400 per month at 3%, and the rate jumps to 7.5%, will I lose my house? Millions couldn’t do that simple problem and our current economic crisis is the result.

    What David is saying, with perhaps a little too much vigor, is that our kids are losing the ability to read, write and do simple arithmetic. These are basic skills that people need to have to succeed in worldwide economy.

    The recession has caused an incredible amount of damage worldwide. All because the average person can’t do simple math. That needs to change. If it means that we don’t have enough resources left over for the arts, then so be it.

    When you’re in a crisis you pay the bills first, then spend on the luxuries.

    • HaleySimons says:

      Thank you for your comment.
      What I am saying is that our kids are losing the ability to read, write, and do simple arithmetic precisely because these skills have been isolated as ‘basics’. Obviously if we’re still talking bills vs. luxuries I was perhaps not harsh enough in my response… Kids today are not illiterate because there is too much fine arts education happening at schools. Honest.

    • Dale Skoreyko says:

      Where do I begin, I can hardly see you out there on the right wing of life. Arts education is the “luxury” that we can’t afford? Arts education is the essential that we can’t afford to be without!
      If you begin to examine the catastrophies that have come our way in the last 10 years you will see the possibility that they could have been averted with imaginative, creative individuals making critical decisions rather than the MBA’s that followed procedures without examining the possibilities.
      Creative Alberta and organizations throughout the world that promote creativity, imagination and innovation are not suggesting that “arts should be the major part of public school curriculum”. You miss the point!
      The arts cannot be the only place in public schools where students are exposed to opportunities for creative, imaginative solutions. Herein lies the condemnation of our public school assessment suystems that drive students into confined boxes for the ‘right answer’. This is (unfortunately) not only on standardized tests, but all too common in our k-12 classrooms.
      It would be to our great peril that we dismiss the critical need to develop thoughtful, creative, imaginative individuals.

  3. David M says:

    “Math like, if I make $30,000 per year and buy a home where my mortgage is $1,400 per month at 3%, and the rate jumps to 7.5%, will I lose my house? Millions couldn’t do that simple problem and our current economic crisis is the result.”

    Seriously? That’s what you believe? THAT is why there is an economic “crisis”. It’s a crisis because people can’t bother to understand what really happened and vote for governance accordingly… and it largely didn’t happen in Canada because we have better governance. I think you are proving Haley’s point here.

  4. sounstalk says:

    Love the article. Have forwarded it to our families at http://www.counterpane.org. I have spent three decades stating firmly that you can teach anything through the arts and nothing without them. I really appreciate your voice.

  5. Kieran says:

    Haley – what a beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent piece. I am looking forward to reading your book! Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Interesting and provocative article. I’ve spent 25 years in the world of business and have seen many examples where the narrow perspective of the MBAs (you can’t get more “basic” than that) have dragged a company to the brink of disaster. A few more artists and musicians may have injected the creativity and “what if” thinking that would have saved us all a lot of grief.

    So on a completely different note, you’re a musician, I’m a lawyer, you blog on creativity, I blog on health care, and we’ve both chosen the same beautiful ferny banner for our blogs. That tells me that there is a lot of common ground out there for the “basics” and “creative” types. We just need to take the time to find it.

    • HaleySimons says:

      Wonderfully said, thank you for your comment.
      Daniel Pink claims the MFA will become the new MBA for our world. I believe this to the core. My wish is that we spend less (or no) effort on separateness (as seen in the division of subject areas), and more (or all) time spent reflecting on the similarities, collaboration, integration, and the depth and potential of this in human development. I enjoy imagining the possibilities.

  7. John Barell says:

    Reading this post reminded me of what Jacob Bronowski (Ascent of Man and other splendid works) said about science and art: “Science is as much a matter of the imagination as is poetry.”
    Feynman and others wondered “What would I see/feel were I an electron, a bacteria?” This requires imagination, something fostered by the creative arts.
    Therefore, one of the “basics” in education is to foster development of the imagination, through child’s play (also at deep risk!), through all of those subjects that require students to create images (especially math), to take themselves away from the immediate present, to project themselves into strange situations , dream of possibilities in a distant future and to feel what others do, to empathize.

    Art teachers ought to collaborate on the teaching of all subjects in schools to help us invite students to explore, imagine and inquire about the mysteries therein.

    Those who would do away with the arts in education may have this narrow view of what will be required in the 21st century, mastery of a set of skills to solve problems. But the imaginative person is one who like Bernard Shaw who said, “You see things; and you say `Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, `Why not?'”

    Arts combine intellectual challenges with emotional investment resulting in people who can see “A World in a Grain of Sand and Heaven in a Wild Flower.”

    John Barell

    • HaleySimons says:

      Thank you Dr. Barell for taking the time to comment. I am a fan of your work and am honored by your response. I believe Harriet Tubman: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer”, and that we can truly honor the dreamer in the ways you suggest. I look forward to meeting you in Edmonton, May 2.

  8. Denis Lapierre says:

    You may wish to read William Ryan’s book entitled ‘Equality’. Even if the arts were more fully embedded in our school systems, they would eventually be turned into a competitive endeavor.

    • HaleySimons says:

      Thanks for this Denis. I believe, in many many ways, the arts have already been turned into a competitive endeavor, perhaps have always been. Why there’s hardly a (successful professional) musician alive – at least of the classical ilk – who has not competed in some sort of music or performance competition. Witness our current fixation on mainstream media talent show competitions. Good, bad, or otherwise – and likely a great subject for a future blog – I steadfastly believe the arts, design, and even more ideally and more broadly, creativity, absolutely must must must be nurtured and developed in our school systems for the survival of democratic society. I look forward to discovering William Ryan’s views.

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