The Arts Are Nice, But
Many parents feel that the study of the fine and performing arts is a nice thing for their children to do, a kind of finishing touch to a good liberal arts education. However, they feel that what prepares their children for the “real world” of college and the work place is the study of traditional liberal arts disciplines such as math or science. What I would like to suggest, radical as the notion may seem, is that the serious study of the arts is one of the best ways to educate a young person for college and work.
In this postindustrial society what is required of workers at all levels is that they be creative thinkers, problem solvers, able to work well with others, and be able to work independently. They must be self-motivated and proactive. Schools can no longer train people to do specific tasks; we must educate students in terms of broad skills so that they can function in any number of capacities.
How does arts training develop some of these skills? Think, if you will, of the young violin student. What does she learn in the study of her instrument that helps her develop some of the skills and attitudes needed for the 21st century, whatever her ultimate career?
The ability to pursue very long-term goals.
The young musician has usually begun her study by the age of 7 or 8 and, at 15, is looking forward to a lifetime of increasing mastery. She understands that learning is a lifelong process and not something that is “done” on the day she gets her diploma.
The relationship between work and mastery.
Mastery comes with hard work and practice. The young musician knows that how well and often she practices has a direct impact on the outcome. She understands that good process is important to a fine product.
Risk taking and learning from mistakes.
The violinist is willing to take risks in her playing because she knows that she learns by making mistakes. The “mistakes,” the parts that are not yet well-executed, tell her where the work is, rather than being an indication of failure.
Ownership of the work.
Young artists all have the gift of studying something in which they have a personal investment, which they have chosen. They work for themselves, as well as against an external standard of excellence. For a teenager to “own” her work is rare in this society where 15 year-olds are always preparing for the next step. A good violinist of 15 is approaching professional competence.
Learning by doing.
It is a fact that the best way to learn anything is to do it. Often in schools students do not do anything: they learn about doing something, or watch someone else do it. The young musician learns by doing, by playing the violin, not listening to someone lecture about how to play.
Learning to work in groups.
Young musicians, as well as other young artists, often have to work in groups. Playing in a small ensemble is one of the best possible ways to learn how to work with others. It requires listening, responding, and asserting your own “voice” while supporting the voices of your fellow members, in a way that contributes to the beauty of the whole. Research tells us that one of the most important reasons Japanese education produces such productive workers is not the many hours in classrooms, or rote learning, or longer days, but the fact that children are taught in school how to work well in groups. The arts provide a natural place for learning to work in groups.
Clearly the study of the arts develops creative thinking along with the development of the technical skills to give such thinking concrete expression.
At the time in her life when she is developing a sense of her own identity in the world, the young violinist has the gift of seeing herself as a “musician,” as a member of a larger community of accomplished people. She isn’t a “nerd,” a “prep,” a “jock”: she is a musician. In a time when Madonna tops the list of people most admired by teenagers, to have a student wish to emulate Itzak Perlman is much to be desired.
Acting on one’s beliefs.
Artists are activists. They perform. They are willing to put themselves and their work before the public. If you fail a math exam, you, your parents (maybe!) and your teacher knows. But if you have a hard time with a concerto, everybody knows. Art is not for the faint of heart.
The study of the arts helps students develop a sense of judgment, of choosing, and of asserting their choices. Only they can decide how they wish to interpret a passage. This is a quality of the self that cannot be “taught” but must be developed.
Having high ideals and values.
The study of the arts supports a view of the world that is idealistic, and strives for higher meaning. This is an essential quality for citizens of the 21st century to have. Further, since artists have to work so hard to become accomplished, they know that ideals are hard to reach and are meaningful only if acted upon.