Friday, June 9, 2006

some thoughts on art and education

It’s the end of the school year. Somehow, though I’m happy to have free time again, and to be able to sleep in a little, I am not feeling the giddiness I expected to feel. I have mixed feelings about it – I will miss the kids terribly, I will miss the staff, I will miss the daily opportunities to teach and learn that presented themselves to me in the classroom and out.

Today were the end-of-year faculty meetings, and the atmosphere, at least in the fine/performing arts department, were a little tense, as all departments had received a mandate to provide data demonstrating the success of their program, including test scores, grades, and (the real kicker) the percentage of kids who go on to major in the fields related to the department. This made everyone immediately defensive. First, fine and performing arts do not lend themselves well to this kind of data – there are no exams to speak of, nor do the teachers want to create an environment of competition and judgement among the students. While there have been several students in the last few years who went on to major in the arts or related fields, none of us felt this was a valid way of evaluating the success of the program, nor did we feel that a small number in that category diminished the validity or importance of the program. I did not participate in the music program at my high school in my senior year because I wanted to take Physics and French IV. I excelled in math and science and was a national merit scholar, and an academic decathlon state champion and captain of the swim team, and many fellow musicians I know have similar academic records. I am lucky in my life to know many people who excel in the fields of math and science, and I have to say that the ones who are most successful are people who are also successful at music and/or visual arts and/or languages and/or writing. One of the most gifted medical students I know, one of two recipients of a highly competitive full scholarship to one of the nation’s top institutions, came to the program after completing a master’s degree in tuba performance from one of the country’s top music programs. I edit math text books with gifted mathematicians who also speak four languages, or are involved in other more “artistic” pursuits. Going further, I happened to sit next to Bill Gates at a play a couple seasons ago, and noticed him enjoying it whole-heartedly. Paul Allen opened a museum dedicated to the history of rock and roll here in Seattle, where he’s currently displaying his art collection, which could easily be displayed at the finest museums in the world. There are working opera singers with degrees in engineering, and I was at an opera workshop last summer where one of the participants was a family medicine practitioner. When will people see that educating and nourishing the whole person does not come at the cost of excellence in math and science and SAT scores, but rather that a holistic approach to education enhances all these things and creates a society where people end up in careers that fulfill them, whether that be working in a biology lab or being an accountant, or playing in a symphony orchestra or working as a stage manager? And beyond that, it creates a society where people value other people because they understand things beyond their own field, and appreciate the importance of art, and music, and engineering, and scientific research, in their communities.

The arts department at this school is really quite amazing for a school its size (450 kids spread out from grades 5-12). The drama productions are outstanding, the music groups provide terrific opportunities for kids, and the visual art I’ve seen blows my mind. In the end, my recommendation was that, instead of providing a sheet of paper with data, the arts department might be better served providing a cd-rom with clips of plays and musicals, recordings from concerts, and photos of artwork. And it would provide a format, if they chose, to also include the data that does exist, that kids involved in arts programs tend to be the most academically high-achieving, and have the highest test scores, and are more attractive to colleges because of their well-rounded interests. Just a thought.


Lane said...

It's so great that you've given voice to these things. One of my frustrations when I was a teacher (and one of the reasons I am no longer a music teacher) was constantly being judged and compared with other faculty in other programs on the basis of criteria that make no sense for the fine and performing arts. Study of the arts leads to so much success in life in ways that have nothing to do with being a professional artist.

I discovered that the best way to make the Dean of the college where I taught understand what the arts mean was to make analogies to athletics.

The students in my chamber choir consitently had the highest average GPA of any student organization on campus, followed by the larger choir.

Brendan said...

One word: Beautiful
If only my high school had a teacher like you....