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?
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