The True Purpose of Arts Education

All too often, people who advocate for “arts education” will buttress their arguments by making references to various scientific studies. These studies correlate the playing of musical instruments with superior academic performance, or brain development, etc. And that seems to be the main argument, or at least, the one that gets offered most often.

Please pardon my contrarianism: I disagree with this approach.

Now before you think that I’m some sort of grinchy person who wants to cut off funding for the arts for kids, guess again. Remember, as the author of “Peter VS. the Wolf” I am a purveyor of “arts education” around the globe, and I’m actually a proponent of quadrupling (at least) arts education budgets. But not in the way you might think. It’s time to think hard, really hard, about the true function, purpose, and practical applications of arts education.

So first of all, let’s understand, there’s a huge difference between “crafts” education and “arts” education.  And by the way, the discussion is usually entirely about the former.

“Crafts” education has to do with the purely physical/technical aspects of artistic endeavors. Finding the locations of notes on a clarinet may very well enhance a student’s abilities in mathematics, but surely there is a more compelling reason than that for arts education.

The unspoken problem here is that so much of the “arts education” business, especially at the beginner/school system level, is monetized around the processes of developing craft, e.g., method books, student instrument sales, and beginner level lessons. The people whose livelihood depends on this part of the business have much skin in the game, and so they tend to dominate the discussion– almost entirely for purposes of carving out a larger piece of the government/school budget. This is one reason why the argument veers so far off course, and fails to think big.

The big point here is that true arts education, by itself, is more important than any other academic pursuit. This is because arts education transcends the concept of technical skill. It is all about perception and interpersonal connection. These are the essential sine qua non core skills that you must possess if you wish to truly excel at any enterprise that involves more than one person. And if one is looking to “sell” arts education, this is the product one should be selling.

Do you wish to be a trial lawyer? This requires keen accurate perception of both the judge and the people in the jury box. Doing sales? Perceiving the customer is key to success. Medical? Making the patient feel like they are being truly listened to– i.e., perceived– is key to success.  These are all artistic skills.

Training in perception and connection is ever so important in a society where narcissism and disconnection are rampant, and even cultivated, by various commercial and political interests. With so much emphasis on my grades, my looks, my weight, my house, my car . . . arts education is an essential counterbalance, one that reverses that self centered perceptual flow.

Art is not about self expression or beauty; it is about the feeling of being listened to and acknowledged, something we all desperately need.  It is the lack of this feeling of being perceived and understood that leads to so much unhappiness and even violence in our society today.

When it comes to grander political issues, perception of and connection to voters is key to success in politics of course . . . And then there is the dark side of craft, where elements such as imagery and storytelling and music are used for nefarious manipulative purposes. A reasonable amount of arts education in the body politic might make it a little harder to manipulate the masses with such tricks.

When I took up the string bass, I was not interested in improving my math skills or my SAT scores. Craft was merely a means to an end. I wanted to go on adventures, and be accepted into institutions, i.e., professional orchestras, that I felt would lead me to a higher order of being.

When I took up swing dancing, I did not do it to improve my math skills– I wanted to be able to ask beautiful women to dance, and feel physical (and eventually, spiritual) connection with them. The art of it– the connection and perception– was my true purpose. The craft elements, I only bought as much as I absolutely had to. Craft development is not the purpose of arts education, nor will it ever have the appeal. It’s as much fun as dieting. It is merely a painful necessity, a means to an end.

Peter Drucker once said, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer,” meaning, the purpose of a business is to create a product that, once people become aware of it, they instantly have to have it. If you feel that you have to “sell” arts education, your concept of your product is flawed. If the broader marketplace is not choosing your product, perhaps you should accept that, and ask the Toyota Lean 5 why’s.

Anyone who is seeking greater success in virtually any professional endeavor, be that corporate leadership, management, communications, teaching, you name it– will immediately become more effective if they develop command of the fundamentals of artistic performance. This means overcoming and transcending narcissism, rising to higher consciousness of both customers and employees. It is about transcending shame by accepting the truth of one’s existence, and discovering one’s virtually infinite capacity to perceive and connect.

Once this “product” is clearly presented, customers will be created. There is no need to “sell” a product that offers this much immediate benefit. All you have to do is make people aware, and they will line up to buy.

There is a huge difference between the rather pedestrian benefits of studying craft, such as hand-eye coordination, and the massive leaps of consciousness and personal empowerment that come from true artistic training and development.

Let’s start to think big about arts education.


(c) Justin Locke

Below, a fun story from Real Men Don’t Rehearse, my Boston Pops memoir  🙂



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5 Responses to The True Purpose of Arts Education

  1. regina leyva says:

    As a visual art teacher at a charter school, I found your article compelling. Thank-you

  2. Justin Locke says:

    Well Regina thank you for visiting and for the kind comments! I often get into trouble because I occasionally “push the envelope” of conventional wisdom and accepted standards, so I can use all the support I can get. 🙂 — jl

  3. Biggie matore says:

    Thank you so much for this insight.l have been teaching/lecturing art at school/college but still find this touching.

  4. Linda Eckmann says:

    I had an intense discussion about arts literacy in school with parents and I look forward to sharing your point of view that enlightens them to the purpose. Thank you!!!

    • Justin Locke says:

      Well thank you Linda for checking in. I wrote this four years ago and it has become one of my most popular blog posts . . . I ought to re-write it as it does ramble a bit, but yes, the general concept of “arts education” is in dire need of a collective rethink! Good luck! JL

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