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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