“Do not defend a music program because it’s good for other things [such as raising test scores and making students smarter]. That’s like defending kissing because it gives you stronger lip muscles for eating soup neatly.” Peter Greene, educator.
This week, I have been writing my syllabus for my fall semester course called Arts in the Community. In it, my students discuss the ways that the arts intersect with various aspects of community life: education, the economy, civic engagement, tourism, social needs and community identity. This fall we will be spending a lot of time on government involvement in arts and culture because…well, we need to.
When we talk about government support of the arts, we need to talk about the value of the arts to society and the best arguments to make to candidates and elected officials about why the arts are worthy of attention. I share statistics about how much economic value is returned to the community by the arts, how the arts can be used to beautify distressed areas, bring self-esteem to trouble teens, and “brand” a community. These are wonderful things and they are exciting to talk about, since for many of my undergraduate students, this is completely new information. Most of them have bought the societal myth that the arts really don’t matter to anyone except those who want to buy tickets to the theater or attend art museums.
But then, we come to arts education, and invariably my students research the reasons for arts in the schools and come up with articles that claim that school music and art are good because they “help raise test scores.”
This is where I have to have the intrinsic vs. instrumental talk.
Let’s forget for a moment that the arts are pretty much the antithesis of everything standardized testing is about. Let’s ignore all of the research that says that children need to develop both sides of the brain – the left, data driven side and the right, creative side – in order to be able to become properly functioning adults, and that schools have cut the arts for years in order to make room for more left brain academics that, some believe, will make us more “competitive” in the global economy (the result of 30 years of this mentality may be evident in this year’s presidential election, but I digress).
Let’s just focus on the idea that the arts are only worthy in schools if they help students achieve something that is considered more important than the arts.
The arts community was effectively blindsided in the 90s by the culture wars, and the determination of some elected officials to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and other arts support. One of the excuses they used was that the arts were a “frill” and a “luxury” that we could not afford in difficult economic times. So, the arts community started working harder to collect data that would support the value of the arts to society. We had to concentrate on informing people about the instrumental values of the arts – that is, the ways the arts benefit the economy and other aspects of society, because the arts were clearly not holding their own by thinking of them as a lovely thing which made life more beautiful and gave us meaning.
The intrinsic – or inherent – values of the arts are evident to anyone who has experienced them. But along the way of trying to prove that the arts also had instrumental value and could be of enormous economic benefit to communities (which is true, BTW), we lost the argument that art is good for art’s sake alone.
A billion years ago, when I was just starting my career, I heard a wonderful story from a friend who was student teaching in an inner city school in Minneapolis. Following a visit from a professional string quartet to the school, a young woman approached my friend in tears, saying that she wanted to know more about music. When my friend asked why, she replied, “Because today I think I understood what happiness might feel like.”
Kissing has many instrumental benefits. Health professionals claim that kissing can lower blood pressure, increase serotonin and dopamine levels which create good feelings, and even help prevent cavities. But I think most of us would agree that when we think about kissing, we are not thinking about avoiding a trip to the dentist.
As we begin this school year, let’s remember the goodness, the soul-filling, the beauty, the incredible wonderfulness of the arts – and let’s share it with our elected officials and the candidates for whom we will vote.