It’s been a strange winter here in Wisconsin. I won’t go into a lot of the lurid detail, except to say that when I gave a dramatic reading at the Association of Arts Administration Educators’ recent conference of a purported student essay on Wisconsin’s budget situation, the room exploded. We are all Wisconsinites now, I guess.
What the budget situation has done is bring into sharp focus the differences in the way people think about the role of arts, culture and education in our society. It becomes easy to say that teachers get paid too much money if we don’t value the work that teachers do. It becomes very easy to say that supporting the arts and public broadcasting are wasteful spending if we have not made the case that government support of these things helps ensure that they will be accessible to all and driven by artistic excellence, not the marketplace.
This semester, my senior seminar has been discussing arts education. We’ve had a wonderful discussion and, as always, I’m amazed and inspired by my students’ insight and enthusiasm.
There is lots and lots of research on the benefits of arts education as a lifelong pursuit. One of the arguments du jour is that the arts encourage creativity, and creativity is one of the skills that will be most valued in the 21st century. But we also discovered that arts education does not automatically translate to creative skills — those skills need to be actively nurtured. Merely sitting in choir or drilling a band part is not creative (it does, of course, encourage discipline and teamwork in a noncompetitive atmosphere, which are equally valuable).
Sir Ken Robinson is one of the people who has been talking a lot about creativity and arts in education. But in order to bring education – including arts education – to the point where it fully achieves its potential, we need to think in a very different way. Part of that is reexamining the very purpose of education. Is education the accumulation of a specific set of skills and knowledge, or is education the development of the individual? Society seems to be moving away from the assumption that there is just one set of facts and skills that every child needs to know, and all we need to do in education is open the brain and dump stuff in. But our educational systems and our political assumptions, as usual, are lagging far behind the reality of modern life (or postmodern life, as the case may be). Watch the video below — it’s well worth the 4 minutes.
We live in a society where the facts are available to anyone, at any time, at the click of a mouse. These facts are surrounded by an ocean of opinion, innuendo, and misinformation that must be sifted through in order to get at the truth. Thus, the teacher’s job in the 21st century becomes less to provide knowledge to students and more to curate their experience — teaching them how to evaluate information and giving them the skills and confidence not only to find the path that is right for them but to take risks, make mistakes, and become fully realized human beings instead of automatons.
If you look at my Facebook page under “political beliefs” you will find the words “The arts can solve everything.” I’m not just being cute, I truly believe this. I believe that the arts offer us an avenue to reform education, and create an atmosphere where we can teach children to be self-expressive, questioning, thinking and ethical human beings. But we can’t do that just by making it easier to take choir and band and painting. We need to include the arts in every aspect of education and every day of life. We need to allow students to act their history lessons, to dance molecular structures, to create mathematical poems.
A lot of schools are starting to do this. I’ll share a few next time.