Why the Arts Aren't Welcome in Our Schools
All that is true as far as it goes, and important to understanding the American disdain for 'eggheads' and intellectualism, but it doesn't explain why, after almost 150 years of compulsory education, the most educated populace in the world, and decades of lip-service intended to verify the glories of an education and its necessity to modern human beings, we still maintain that bedrock core of barely-disguised hatred for and disgust with any part of education not directly related to getting a job. Some have labored mightily over the last five or six decades to foster an understanding of the importance of a well-rounded education, and while their efforts have been somewhat successful, they have been concentrated on teachers while parents and school administrators tend to remain at least passively hostile: starting an arts program, even as an extra-curricular activity, still always involves a fight with administrators and sharp questions from many parents about whether or not it's really 'necessary' and how exactly learning to play the violin is going to help Susie get a job as an investment banker when she grows up.
Through the 90's, I tried to build a career for myself as an acting and writing teacher--my only genuine skills. I'm very good, paritcularly with adolescents--that most troublesome of school groups--but I don't have a college degree, which meant that I had to find work in the cracks: teaching night classes, for instance, or as an artist in residence, or directing the school play and turning the rehearsals into de facto classes. Before Junior's tax giveaway to the rich, manufactured deficit, and costly but unnecessary war eliminated all the 'extra' Federal money that was paying for such things, I spent ten years on the outskirts of the educational system. It proved to be a particularly valuable experience for the purpose of understanding the way Americans split their belief in education into two parts: the crucial and the dispensable.
At the time it all fell apart, I was on the point of formulating what I thought was a fairly radical explanation that went beyond the simplistic 'It's our Puritan heritage' slogan and got closer to the heart of what was really going on: the arts challenge our basic American assumptions about life whereas we conceive of schools as the place where those assumptions are reinforced. In other words, learning to make your inner life richer and to express your emotions invariably makes you question those very emotions and everything in your life that gave rise to them. That's bad enough, but the idea of 'questions' alone goes against everything we think schools ought to be: the place where you get answers, and the simpler the better.
It turns out I'm not the only one who's noticed this. In last week's LAT (sorry about the delay but it took that long to percolate), Elliot W. Eisner, a professor of education and art at Stanford University, published an article in which somebody people will listen to finally tries to face the facts.
One of the casualties of our preoccupation with test scores is the presence — or should I say the absence — of the arts in our schools. When they do appear they are usually treated as ornamental rather than substantive aspects of our children's school experience. The arts are considered nice but not necessary. Just what do the arts have to offer to our children? Are they really important? Put most directly, what do the arts have to teach? Join me on a brief excursion.Read over that list again and you'll see that each and every one of Eisner's 'lessons' is in direct conflict with everything else the school is teaching:
First, the arts teach children to exercise that most exquisite of capacities, the ability to make judgments in the absence of rules. There is so much in school that emphasizes fealty to rules. The rules that the arts obey are located in our children's emotional interior; children come to feel a rightness of fit among the qualities with which they work. There is no rule book to provide recipes or algorithms to calculate conclusions. They must exercise judgment by looking inside themselves.
A second lesson the arts teach children is that problems can have more than one solution. This too is at odds with the use in our schools of multiple choice tests in which there are no multiple correct answers. The tacit lesson is that there is, almost always, a single correct answer. It's seldom that way in life.
A third lesson is that aims can be held flexibly; in the arts the goal one starts with can be changed midway in the process as unexpected opportunities arrive. Flexibility yields opportunities for surprise. "Art loves chance. He who errs willingly is the artist," Aristotle said. Creative thinking abhors routine. Routines may be good for the assembly line, where surprise is the last thing you want. As our schools become increasingly managed by an industrial ethos that pre-specifies and then measures outcomes, there is an increased need for the arts as a counterbalance.
The arts also teach that neither words nor numbers define the limits of our cognition; we know more than we can tell. There are many experiences and a multitude of occasions in which we need art forms to say what literal language cannot say. When we marry and when we bury, we appeal to the arts to express what numbers and literal language cannot. Reflect on 9/11 and recall the shrines that were created by those who lost their loved ones — and those who didn't. The arts can provide forms of communication that convey to others what is ineffable.
Finally, the arts are about joy. They are about the experience of being moved, of having one's life enriched, of discovering our capacity to feel. If that was all they did, they would warrant a generous place at our table.
- Schools function by rules; art teaches you to break them.
- Schools work hard to dampen or kill emotions because emotions are dangerous to proper 'order' and control; art lets them loose.
- 'Teaching to the test' means inculcating students with a blind acceptance of the 'There's only one right answer to any question' approach to education; art teaches you just how limited--if not utterly bogus and bereft of essential human truth--such an approach is.
In other words, the arts are antithetical to the style of education we've decided to favor. They oppose it, undermine it, and often show it up as a fraud. Teenagers are drawn to the arts not just because they're 'glamorous' although that's certainly part of the attraction, but because they confirm what many of the kids feel: that high school doesn't have a whole lot to do with their real lives or the issues they struggle with every day. Arts don't make rebellion more manageable, they give it teeth and sharp claws. If you can keep the arts off in a corner somewhere, like a sort of educational leper colony, you can keep them from infecting the rest of the system with their loathsome openness and endless questioning.
The proof is in the lack of dialectical tension you usually find in a charter school built around the arts. Worcester has one, and a project I did there gave me a chance to see how it operated. It was a revelation.
In the arts schools, the whole pattern and teaching methodology is different, starting with the way the school day itself is arranged: it's looser, more flexible, less rigidly controlled by the infamous 'bell' (or actually, these days, more normally a really annoying buzzer). There are a few more minutes between classes and teachers can extend their class a bit in order to bring at least temporary closure to a lively discussion. Everything else follows the same pattern: more flexibility. Curricula flow as much from the directions class discussions take as from the course syllabus; literature classes may include discussions of biology and science classes may require the reading of novels. All the usual strict compartmentalization of knowledge fields on which standard American education is based is thrown out the window and replaced by a synthesis that acknowledges that nothing exists in a vacuum and that there are multiple possible answers to any given question, depending on the variables involved.
Do I have to tell you that not only is there a long waiting list of kids wanting to get accepted but an even longer waiting list of teachers who want to work there?
The reason the arts aren't an integral part of the American educational system is simpler and more basic than inherited Puritanism or latent anti-intellectualism: the whole system would have to be reformed to accomodate them because if it wasn't, they would ultimately destroy it. That may be a desirable result for some of us but reactionaries and conservatives get nervous and/or outraged at the very notion of change, however minor. A from-the-ground-up sea-change from a focus on solid, simple, single answers to constant questioning and the instability of doubt would make them apoplectic, and they're the ones administrators worry about; they're noisy. Living in fear does that to you.
Yet such a change is exactly what the new generations will need. The simple answers that have defined American ignorance are what created George Bush, the neocons, and enormous corporate power, as well as allowing SUV's and the Iraq war for oil. Such thinking is, as we are learning every day, NOT helpful. What we need to survive the final--and necessary--loss of our innocence is generations of kids trained to think around corners, make complicated decisions after weighing convoluted options, and face uncomfortable facts--exactly the skills art teaches and standard education avoids. So what are we doing instead? Killing arts programs all over the country and concentrating on teaching a style of thinking that virtually guarantees our demise as a great power. Naturally.
Maybe we should re-think that decision. Oh wait-- That's right, I forgot: we don't know how.
(Special thanks to Kath for igniting this whole line of thought.)