Arts education gives students skills to create, adapt and take risks in the future.
Anxiety abounds concerning the demands of our rapidly changing and ever more complicated world and about the ability of our educational system to respond. Yet the education we are fashioning for our children and their children seems ill-suited for the lives they will lead.
We hear widespread calls for “outcomes” we can measure and for education geared to specific employment needs, but many of today’s students will hold jobs that have not yet been invented, deploying skills not yet defined. We not only need to equip them with the ability to answer the questions relevant to the world we now inhabit; we must also enable them to ask the right questions to shape the world to come.
We need education that nurtures judgment as well as mastery, ethics and values as well as analysis. We need learning that will enable students to interpret complexity, to adapt, and to make sense of lives they never anticipated. We need a way of teaching that encourages them to develop understanding of those different from themselves, enabling constructive collaborations across national and cultural origins and identities.
In other words, we need learning that incorporates what the arts teach us.
The arts are about imagining beyond the bounds of the known. They embrace the past and the future of the human mind and soul. Playing music can be both a model and a metaphor for important aspects of the lives our children will be called upon to lead. Take, for example, Thomas Sudhof, a winner of 2013’s Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology. He attributed his discipline and depth of understanding to the mentorship of his bassoon instructor.
Music stresses individual practice and technical excellence, but it also necessitates listening to and working with others in fulfillment of the requirements of ensemble performance. In jazz, collective improvisation offers musicians the freedom to reinvent, adapt and change. But that freedom is tempered by a shared overall objective: swing. The art of swing is the art of balance, of constant assertion and compromise.
Learning to play or paint, dance, sing or act, means constantly being refashioned, constantly demanding risk. “If you don’t make mistakes,” Coleman Hawkins once said, “you aren’t really trying.”
And dealing with one’s inevitable mistakes is also part of an artist’s education. “If you hit a wrong note,” Miles Davis explained, “it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”
These are lessons for how we all can grow throughout our lives.
We are a diverse nation, constantly working to define what makes us one. It was no coincidence that one early example of racial integration in America took place on the jazz bandstand of Benny Goodman: The arts provide a critical means of communicating across divisions and differences, of sharing and appreciating the riffs and rhythms that diverse players bring to the common enterprise.
In recent years, though, we have witnessed a depressing retreat from arts education in American schools. In 1982, nearly 66% of 18-year-olds in the U.S. reported taking art classes; by 2008, the number had fallen to below 50%. The percentage of elementary school students who had theater or dance classes available to them went from 10% in the early ’90s to only 4% and 3%, respectively, in the 2009-10 school year.
We once knew better. In 1884, the National Education Association established a Music Education Department, and the teaching of music proliferated across the country. It is worth remembering that Louis Armstrong, born in 1901, has described being given his first music lesson — and a cornet — in a segregated, underfunded reform school.
As we lament the discordant tone of our national conversation, perhaps we should focus less on that which we can easily count. Let’s instead look to the longer run as we teach our children how to practice until it hurts, to bravely take the stage, to imagine, create and innovate and — after hitting that wrong note — follow it up with the right one.
We must teach our children to be ready for a world we cannot yet know, one that will require the attitudes and understanding sparked and nurtured by the experience of the arts.
These are the qualities by which the future will measure us.
Harvard President Drew Faust invited trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis to present a series of six lecture-performances during which they joined forces on the importance of an arts education.
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