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 find this approach to be both weak and ineffective.  So for now let’s just put that aside, and sit down and 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.

“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.  It is all about perception and interpersonal connection, and these, not any STEM skills, are the essential skills that you must possess if you wish to truly excel.

Do you wish to be a trial lawyer? This requires keen accurate perception of the judge, the witnesses, and the people in the jury box. Doing sales? Perceiving the customer’s emotions is key to success. Medical? Making the patient feel like they are being truly listened to– i.e., perceived– is key to success. Politics? Corporate leadership? Fund raising? Perception and connection are paramount. These are all artistic skills.

Standing in front of your peer group and singing “Some Enchanted Evening” may seem like a rather superfluous activity to some. But it is in concert halls, not in chemistry class, that you develop skills in perception and connection.  There you acquire access to the emotional infrastructure of your audience, and you are forced to deal with your own internal emotional workings as well. This enlightenment carries over to everything else.

Training in perception and connection is ever so important now, in a society where narcissism and disconnection are rampant, as they are actually being 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; again, it is about perception and connection, things we all desperately need.  It is the lack of being perceived and connected that leads to so much unhappiness, and even violence, in our society today.

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, and 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.

There is a huge difference between the rather pedestrian benefits of studying craft, such as better 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

I invite you to read a fun excerpt from my Boston Pops memoir, Real Men Don’t Rehearse: How to Be a Major Orchestra Maestro, Part One: The Name

Below, another fun story from Real Men Don’t Rehearse, the night I got the bass section drunk by mistake  🙂



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7 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

  5. Linda says:

    Hello again…A lot has happened since 2017. I just came across this post as I was googling myself with curiosity about “who I am” in the social media world. I am about to embark on a new venture and potential clients etc may look to learn more about me.
    So my question to you is…How do you feel about STEM now being STEAM? I would always connect my art classes to science, history, math when possible. I like that there is more of a concerted effort to appreciate and discoveries can be made when ” just fooling around” with stuff.
    Years ago, I worked an after school program and one of the favorite activities that students asked for was the acting/dancing to the Peter Ustinov recording of Peter and the Wolf. The music was powerful and the story was perfect for connecting to the feelings of the different roles they “felt” and expressed with their body.
    I will now try and hunt more information about you.

  6. Justin Locke says:

    Well I think this blurb from wikipedia on John Holt’s “How Children Learn” sums it up:

    “How Children Learn is a nonfiction book by educator John Caldwell Holt, first published in 1967. A revised edition was released in 1983, with new chapters and commentaries.

    The book focuses on Holt’s interactions with young children and his observations of children learning. From them, he attempts to make sense of how and why children do the things they do. The central thesis of his work is that children learn most effectively by their own motivation and on their own terms. He opposes teaching in general, believing that children find it just as patronizing as would an adult and that parents should provide information only as it is requested.

    Children learn best when they are not pressured to learn in a way that is of no interest to them.”

    That book, Sudbury Valley School, and the Finland approach, are all out there for all to see, but for some reason, we keep doing things the same old institution-centered way. I have given up trying to make changes on an institutional level, as there is no desire in them to change. Instead I focus on cultivating revolution in individuals when the opportunity presents itself.

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