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.

All too often, the people making these pro-arts arguments (myself included) have a not-so-subtle axe to grind.  We are asking for more money for ourselves.  That obvious bias makes our arguments sound a little hollow.  It’s time to re-think how we present it.  The current approach is just too darn small.

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 aspect of certain artistic endeavors. Finding the locations of notes on a clarinet may very well  enhance a student’s abilities in mathematics, but that has proven to be a not-very-compelling argument.  For one thing, there are no math teachers clamoring for more funding for music, and it also implies that “being a better student” is the highest goal of existence, which it is not.  It further misses the big point, which is that arts education, by itself, is more important than any other academic pursuit.

Genuine “arts” education is not just about growing new pathways in the brain.  It is about perception, connection, communication, and managing emotional energy and vulnerability.  It’s BIG.

Sadly, here in America, as a society, we have become somewhat arts-un-educated, thus artistically illiterate, in the sense that we don’t collectively know how to express anything outside a fairly narrow range of emotions.  We lack artistic vocabulary, and as a result, we have lost our intrinsic sense of permission.  Thus, we are generally hesitant, afraid, and unable to display any emotional vulnerability. In fact, we are, according to Dr. Brene Brown (see 15:25), “numbed up.”

Why does this matter?

When an entire society becomes emotionally emotionally illiterate (by that I mean generally afraid, or lacking the vocabulary and sense of permission, to express many of the more subtle nuances of our many emotional states), even though that society may ostensibly have “freedom of speech,” it has become afraid to use it.  If you are afraid to “speak up,” that’s the same result as not being allowed to speak up.

The lack of artistic sensibility on a purely technical level, of knowing how imagery and rhythm can affect emotional energy on a grand scale, is a form of ignorance that is a danger to democracy.    Modern political movements such as Occupy Wall Street have failed to coalesce, in no small part, because of a lack of a theme song.

It is essential to know how easily we can fall prey to the “art” of propaganda.   There was a reason why Popes, the Medici, and the Doges of Venice competed for the work of great artists.  There is a reason why Jefferson studied Palladio.  There was a (political) reason why Florence hired Michelangelo to carve a statue of David.  There is a reason why every army in modern history has had a choir and a band.  People in power understand how easy it is to use the arts– like music, architecture, pictures, and now movies and commercials– to manipulate large numbers of people on an emotional level.  We disregard this at our peril.

Accepting and understanding our individual and collective vulnerability, managing the power of our emotional energy, distinguishing the hard truth of ourselves from manipulative hyperbole, and developing individual command and control of our emotional energies are what arts education is really all about.  The crafts education of, say, violin fingering and bowing technique, will not give you the guts to stand up and confront the people currently in power.   Arts education . . . does.  This is why dictators censor artists.  They understand and fear both their willingness to challenge authority, and their power to alter feeling on an industrial scale.

The many symptoms of this lack of arts education are obvious.  Decades ago, Americans would gather to do social partner dancing.  We would go to movie theaters and, as a group, sing along with strangers as we followed the bouncing ball.  The political and social revolution of the 60’s ran on its music and visual art.

Now, we dance alone and surreptitiously, if at all. If we sing, we do it in the shower. Unlike “folk” songs, the average popular music song of today is usually unsingable by an amateur, is too risque to sing in public, and is not something multiple generations can share.  To anyone over 40, the songs sung at the Grammy Awards are generally unfamiliar.  The only songs we collectively know and feel safe in singing together in public are just two patriotic songs, i.e., the National Anthem and God Bless America.  Visual art outside corporate logos is abstract and meaningless.  That’s a pretty narrow shared cultural experience gluing us together, but as a group, we do not have open permission to sing or draw anything else.  There are no operas (or even science fiction shows) about current political problems.  The political power of “protest songs” has been essentially suppressed, without our even noticing, and not by government decree, but by something much more subtle.  We have been muted by artistic illiteracy.  We don’t know how to do it.

One of the best ways to acquire and keep power is to divide and conquer.  Suppressing great art (or suppressing the capacity to create it or understand it) suppresses mutual acceptance and understanding.  It makes us uncertain, ashamed of ourselves, and afraid of strangers.   It keeps power in the hands of the few that do understand it, just as the medieval churches had the power of being able to read the bible and selectively share parts of it with the illiterate masses.

If we don’t study our own vulnerability as well as that of others, if we do not actively study and discuss the perceptions and universal “road map” of human emotions, we inevitably become weakened by self-consciousness and vague narcissistic notions.  We become afraid to openly “express ourselves,” either on a stage with a song, in a town meeting, or in a voting booth.  Democracy demands a citizenry that is not afraid to calmly speak openly and honestly, and make connections with others in an articulate and compelling fashion.

The true purpose of “arts education” is not the inner-directed study of one’s own feelings, it is not about “self expression,” it is not the benefits of the disciplines of “craft.”  At its heart it is about consciousness.  It is about understanding “the audience,” and that means understanding what we have in common with other people of all nations.  “Arts education” relentlessly forces one to study and learn this.  It is about learning how to connect with an audience, and its importance goes far beyond the possible beneficial side effects of learning the craft elements.  Of course, craft is a necessary prerequisite; knowing where the notes are on a fingerboard, or knowing the nitty gritty of how the law works, are each key to achieving “freedom,” be it artistic or political.

If someone were to come along and say, “we don’t need to teach reading anymore, it’s not necessary for kids to communicate with each other,” I would hope that we would all recognize this as being an utterly ridiculous idea. To even question the need for true arts education is just as ludicrous.

I suggest to my many colleagues in this realm that it is time to think bigger, far beyond the fiscal year school budget allocations.  The real skills that are needed as we go forward, if we are to survive as a society and as a species, are about understanding and effectively managing the intensely complex issues of human vulnerability and emotional energy. To not have collective understanding of this complex subject, a subject that is shared and expressed largely through “art” (i.e., storytelling, music, physical movement, and imagery) is to condemn ourselves to a life of emotional isolation, along with being controlled and oppressed by those who do understand it and know how to exploit its extreme power for nefarious purposes.

That is the true purpose of “arts education.”

(c) Justin Locke

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



This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *