This week, I’m attending an intense, week-long conference for arts educators. Music, art, theatre, and dance teachers from all over Tennessee are gathered at lovely Belmont University for professional development. From 8 to 5 each day we are taught by nationally-recognized experts in the field. It is demanding and hands-on and has me thinking.
For many years now, it has been popular among advocates of the arts to try to tie their value to other things. For example, one hears that participation in the arts leads to higher test scores, or more empathy, or that the arts drive economic development.
I don’t want to get lost in these woods, because there is a larger point I think needs to be made. It is wonderful if the arts help improve test scores or support a local economy. But it’s not why we do them. It’s not why they are valuable, and it’s not why they ought to be in our schools. In fact, if I have to sit through another discussion on how it’s important to do music so that we can do well in math, I think I shall emit a fortississimo ascending vocal chromatic scale. That’s a musical way of saying I will scream—music gives me another way to communicate and understand various things.
It is wrong-headed, I think, to argue for the value of the arts based on the value they bring to other subjects. In my mind, that is sort of similar to hearing that those who are married have more financial stability or longer lives or something. That is a wonderful outcome. But it’s not a good reason to get married. Imagine someone saying, “I would like a better chance at financial security, better heath, and quality of life. I assume you would too. Will you marry me?”
There is a trap I think we fall into when we start trying to show the value of something based on quantitative, measurable data. I acknowledge that in our current climate, this might be a tactical necessity. Nevertheless, I think it is unwise as a strategy, and that we need to begin working to change that climate by focusing on some other arguments. Most simply this: some things in life—I would say the best and most important things in life—cannot be measured or quantified.
Looking at a beautiful sunset, watching fireflies, or hearing birds sing is something many people enjoy, something they find great value in. Vacationing in a place with a lovely view is a fairly universal pleasure. None of these have any objective, measurable value (I suppose one could have a lower stress rate or something).
Most people like music. Whatever the style, most people have go-to songs for when they are depressed, or when they need to be motivated, and so on. Judging from the number of cars I drive by with music playing, this is another fairly universal pleasure that really can’t be quantified.
What about relationships—how do you give an objective measure of the value of loving and being loved? Of having friends? And so on.
I would argue that we make a mistake when we try to quantify and justify certain things.
Some subjects allow us to understand the world around us. Science, math, history all explain the world, as it is and as it has been. These subjects allow us to understand various phenomena, both natural and man-made.
English (and math as well) teaches us to think. It forces us to communicate by writing our own thoughts and by reading the thoughts of others. It disciplines our minds and helps us process our thoughts and emotions. It can be artistic as well, but it is also very utilitarian.
These subjects have obvious value, although there is debate about what teaching these subject should mean, and what the best ways to do it are. But most people, I think, would agree that there is value in these subjects and that they are important for living in the world successfully day in and day out, so I’m going to label these as subjects that effect our ability to live.
Of course, the need to earn a living and interact with our most basic daily needs is important, and if we look at Maslow’s idea of a hierarchy of needs, these subjects fit fairly well into the primary levels of survival.
But the arts teach us how to live well, or at least allow that possibility. That is why you see early humans starting by making pots and tools—necessary for survival—and then begin to decorate them. It’s why you see early societies grappling to survive and feed their bodies, but then adding the things that feed the soul.
As societies become more stable, one generally sees the arts began to flourish. They go from decorating pots to making ornamental pottery or painting pictures. They go from telling stories around the fire to representing stories. They began to organize sound and pitches into songs. On and on. Why? Why did our ancestors all across the world do that?
The arts speak to something inside of us. They allow us to communicate things that are deeper than words. They allow us communicate feelings, and ideas. They allow us to be more fully human, and I would argue that they encourage social growth by allowing us to share lessons and experiences vicariously. We all understand that. It seems ridiculous to try to prove or measure it. And, if someone does not understand that, then I doubt very much that any amount of evidence will convince them.
If you listen to a song you really love and you have that experience, then you know the value of it, you understand how important it is to you. But you can’t quantify it. You may not even be able to articulate it. But you know it’s real. In fact, in terms of how it feels, it probably is deeper and has more meaning to you than a scientific fact or mathematical theorem.
In other words, you can’t place an extrinsic, objective value on it. And it’s a mistake to try. But does that reduce its value?
The value of having arts in schools does not lie in improved test scores. It does not lie in future economic growth, although I don’t discount the value of those goals.
The value of having arts in schools is that it acknowledges that students are more than brains. It allows them to use a different part of themselves. Call it what you want—their soul, being human--whatever—we all know it exists. And it can’t be measured or scored. And we shouldn’t try. It stretches them and it pushes their emotional boundaries. It gives them another way to understand the world around them and to communicate those thoughts. It acknowledges that humans have always tried to create things that are beautiful and meaningful beyond being immediately useful. How about the idea of being creative? Of solving problems and thinking out of the box? Of working together and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
As a slightly pragmatic note, if you like music or movies, then where do you think those people come from? It takes a lot of people trying lots of things to generate successful art that people like--even popular art. I'm not only talking about opera here, I'm talking about rap or country. I'm talking about The Avengers as much as I am Shakespeare.
Not every student will like the arts. Not every student will be good at the arts (although with regular instruction, it is surprising what can happen). Fine. I was terrible at math. I still am. And I don’t use anything beyond simple math in my daily life. I certainly have no real need for equations or anything beyond that. But I was forced to take math—geometry and college algebra. I don’t use science in my life usually, nor do I have an urgent need to know historical facts. But I’m glad I had to take these subjects. They pushed me and stretched me and challenged me. And they have allowed me to have a richer, more interesting life.
Beyond that, I might have liked them. I might have been good at them and gone into fields where I would need them. There was no way to know until I tried them.
Some kids will be artists and musicians and dancers and actors and so on, but they won't know unless and until they encounter that in schools. They deserve to have their futures sparked, just as much as future engineers do. The value of their lives and their futures are certainly important, even if it does not increase our GDP or national security.
The arts cannot be quantified or measured. But again, most of what humans really value cannot be measured or quantified. Why have other civilizations all over the world all through history focused on the arts? Are we that much wiser than they that we can toss this out? Is what can be measured likely to endure? Is it wise to reduce education to only what can be measured? Does that sound like something that will work out in the long-term, or lead to a healthy society? Do we want to live in a society where, as older adults, those who make policy decisions and vote have been taught to only value what can be measured?
Preparing Today's Students for Tomorrow's World: Why We Shouldn't Change Everything We're Already Doing
I'm at an arts and education conference this week, so I'm thinking a lot about education and related issues. One of the arguments one hears from school reformers goes something like this. "Today's students will be living in a world we can't even imagine. They will have careers that haven't been invented. For that reason, we need to get them ready by doing [insert new program/idea here]." This usually involves throwing out traditional curricula, subjects, and skills and implementing new things that are mostly untried.
I believe this is absolutely wrong, and I want to explain why.
First of all, this argument about a new world usually requires using archaic methods like standardized testing. Testing is certainly something with some value, but standardized testing dates waaaaayyyyy back. It is not new or dramatic or innovative in any way. It goes back to philosophies that had currency well before WWII--like back to the turn of the century. My purpose is not to re-trace this history, but it's well-documented. The point is, if tomorrow is going to require such radical readjustment, then going to a method and philosophy that was current when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House is a bit contradictory.
Politicians/Corporate Leaders: "You teachers need to change! You're too old fashioned. You need to do X. And, by the way, we're going to use early 20th century methods to track how well you prepare students for the future."
But there is another reason I think this argument is basically bunk. Think about this.
What is the biggest change in our lifetimes?
I'd say the internet and the availability of digital connectivity. Of course, there are other technological marvels that are in the pipeline (self-driving cars, etc.).
How did this amazing new future happen?
It happened because people who were educated in the old school made it happen. Some of them were college drop-outs, but they were students educated in the old regime. They grew up in a time when schools were still teaching penmanship and diagramming sentences.
And yet, this amazing technical future happened. No one foresaw the technological innovations of the last 20th century. No one planned it, and no one tried to change the schools to make it happen. No one said, "We don't know what our students will do in the late 80s and early 9os, so we need to change our educational system."
The thing about traditional education is that it allows innovators and inventors to succeed. By blending learning traditional skills with an economy that rewards innovators and affords people the chance to experiment and follow their dreams.
Since I was a child, I have heard that the Russians were going to overtake us in education. Then the Germans. And the Japanese. And the arabs. Then the Chinese. But they haven't. And the technological innovations that changed the world largely happened here in the U.S., driven and imagined by people who came through the traditional school system.
No one specifically anticipated the digital revolution and no one tried to make it happen. Now, we live in a time when we say we must change because we don't know what's ahead.
Think about that logic carefully, and ask yourself if you would be comfortable applying it to other key areas in life.
I'm not against change and improvement. I don't think we should never change, and I'm not advocating that our classrooms remain like they did in 1967. But I think those changes ought to be carefully considered and based on classroom realities and long-term benefit. I also think those changes ought to be carefully considered based on research.
Another argument that usually stems from this line of reasoning goes something like this. "We need to stop doing X because its outdated and students won't need it in the future." So, in other words, we don't know what the future will be, students will be doing jobs that we can't anticipate, but somehow we know what will and won't be obsolete. And we know that with certainty.
Let me offer two reasons we should be cautious about making changes based on a nebulous future. It became self-evident a few years ago that handwriting was no longer needed or valuable. It also became de rigueur to jump into using iPads* and the like and throwing everything else out.
Guess what? Cursive is coming back. It turns out it was important because it had significant mind-body connections that have a big impact on reading skills. Also, it turns out reading on screens can make it hard for brains to engage in deeper thinking and using books can be very important.
Those two changes were made because some people advocated with absolute assurance for those changes based on the future. But they were wrong.
I think that ought to give us pause before we go tinkering with schools and throwing things out because they are obviously obsolete in a new world.
This new world will be made by people who live in the current world. The future will evolve and happen based on today and tomorrow. And, I would argue, that future can be shaped best by people who can read and write. By people who can think, and articulate those thoughts. By people who know their past and know what great thinkers in the past thought. By people who have been mental discipline and who know a lot about a lot of things. By people whose minds and souls have been stretched by exposure to the arts.
If we want to argue about the value of different subjects and different modes of instruction--fine. Those are healthy discussions. But to simply say we don't know what students will be doing and therefore we have to change everything is misguided. Especially if it simply is a way to get some corporate leader or politician's new idea implemented, which it often is.
Education is highly susceptible to shiny new ideas. That is because it is extremely difficult. Consequently, there is always someone who is sure they know the solution to those problems. Ironically, those people are usually not teachers, nor have they spent a lot of time in a classroom. But that is a topic for a different time.
*I am not opposed to iPads or technology per se. They can have great value. I'm fortunate to work in a school where technology has been seen as a useful tool, something that can help serve the curricular and instructional goals. In some places, I fear the majority, technology has simply become the driver.
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