Recent efforts to assess and reform our schools — such
as global education rankings released
in December and the No Child Left Behind law — have focused attention
on four so-called "core" subjects;
reading, writing, math and science.
No effort has been made to address more fundamental questions
regarding what we teach and why.
Although we don't think about it this way, a school's curriculum
is a mind-altering device, a means through which children's minds
are shaped with ideas, skills and beliefs about the world. Because
what we teach the young is so important, we need to be particularly
careful about what we include and equally as careful about what
What we do teach is far more likely to be the offshoot of embedded
traditions and our efforts to boost test scores, as if test scores
were a meaningful proxy for the quality of education our students
receive. They are not.
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.
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.
These are but a few of the lessons that art teaches. What is
ironic is that the forms of thinking the arts develop and refine
are precisely the forms of thinking that our ever-changing world,
riddled as it is with ambiguities and uncertainties, requires
in order to cope. Can we make some room for the arts? Perhaps.