Arts Education / Editorials

Is an artistic workforce useful?

I was at a round-table discussion held at the University of Rochester a few years ago, and the subject of that discussion was the place of the arts in America in the 21st century. While the panel members were drawn from a variety of professions, and they all got their turns, there was one panel member who was just plain louder than the others. He was a steel industry man, and he had one opinion – the only thing that was going to get America’s economy back on track was industry, and artsy-fartsy people don’t have the skills necessary to produce.

I feel like many people who hold opinions similar to this have the idea that this is what people learn when they go to college for 4-6 years to study the arts –

Well. We’ll get a clearer idea of how much work goes into a career in the arts in a future post. We aren’t even going to ask whether or not arts are relevant in this post. No, the only question we’re going to answer here is whether the arts teach generally useful skills.

A 2012 study directed by University of California professor James S. Catterall definitely finds positive benefits associated with an arts-inspired education. The study, which was called “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” examined the academic, civic, and professional outcomes of youths who had both high and low arts involvement across a broad spectrum of socio-economic standings. The study found, among other things…

  • Underprivileged children who participated extensively in arts activity earned a GPA of 2.94, versus a 2.55 GPA for those with little arts activity. They were also 30% more likely to make college a part of their life plans as well.
  • High schoolers with high levels of arts experience tend to be more civic minded. Whether they were of high or low socioeconomic standing, seniors with high levels of arts engagements surveyed had higher rates of participating in school service clubs. This was particularly marked in underprivileged seniors – a senior with high levels of arts activity was four times as likely as a student with low levels of arts activity to participate in school service clubs.
  • Young adults with high engagement in the arts tended to obtain jobs with a higher level of qualifications than their counterparts. Executive, administrative and managerial positions ranked No. 5 in a survey of the top ten occupations of 23-27 year-olds, versus No.9 for those with fewer artistic experiences.

Maybe this is all just a coincidence. After all, a person who earns a good job doesn’t do so because he or she learned what a key signature was in school, right? Maybe that’s not all that the arts teach. Maybe the arts also teach…

  • Interdisciplinary studies – music lessons teach a student history, theory, culture, style, emotional intelligence, physiology, physics and many more subjects, and then requires them to conglomerate all of that knowledge into a single product.
  • Conflict resolution – In most classrooms, if two students have a problem with each other, the teacher sits them on opposite sides of the classroom. In a chamber music setting, since students are equal co-creators, they are unable to competently complete their task until they learn to listen to each other, respect each other, and try each others’ ideas out. You cannot play music with someone unless you want them to succeed at some level, because as long as you share the music, you share the goal.
  • How to chase your dreams – music is first and foremost an imaginative science – it is the act of imagining how you’d like something to sound, and then figuring out how you can make the thing that only exists in your imagination, exist in the real world. Achieving your dreams is not just some fruity sentiment that Hollywood uses to sell movies – it’s an actual skill that can be taught. This also teaches…
  • The value of preparation, and follow through – Nobody ever achieved their dreams without working hard. This idea is definitely reflected in a musical performance –  a student who thinks that they’re going to get what they want without putting much effort in will find otherwise the first time they stand up in front of an audience without having prepared their music very much.
  • Creative problem solving skills, and attention to detail – physically playing an instrument is a very complex task. The act of playing an instrument gives a student hundreds of choices to make per second. Therefore, in order to play an instrument well, a student will first develop the ability to be sensitive and discerning about their own playing, and then to solve each original problem with an original solution. Practice doesn’t make perfect – but perfect practice does!

Look through that list again, and ask yourself this – how many of those skills are essential to being a good businessperson? Now ask yourself this – how many other high school classes emphasize – not just includes, but emphasizes – these elements?  While the core four (English, math, science and history) certainly touch on these subjects, they’re generally too focused on teaching hard skills, to be able to emphasize the soft skills much. What’s worse is that with our nation’s emphasis on standardized testing, these essential soft skills are finding it harder and harder to make it into the classroom.

The nation’s educational system is gripped with an unyielding attachment to a modernistic way of thinking – that is, if you can measure it, than it’s real. If you can’t, it’s written off as nothing more than superstition. While there surely is value in wanting measurables present, excluding other perspectives doesn’t seem to be wise, which is something that is backed up both by the teachers in today’s educational system, and by the students. Hopefully someday soon, the educational climate will shift towards one that values teaching children as much as teaching tests and facts. In the meantime though, I look to the education offered by the arts to supply the crucial soft skills which are falling by the wayside in the public schooling sector.


One thought on “Is an artistic workforce useful?

  1. Pingback: Response to Samuel Mehr’s Study on Music Education | Dana Huyge

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