By Hank Jacobs
Here’s the thing: not everyone is alike.
It’s not a revolutionary idea, I know; and yet, we seem to be trying to educate our children as if they were. We focus on testing, on developing math skills in a certain way, and learning science facts without context. We teach how to communicate with teachers over the internet, how to turn in assignments online. Writing skills are taught with an emphasis on regurgitating what is already out there, rather than digging deeper to find new ideas and perspectives.
In our current cultural climate, even science is being pushed to the backburner. In the suburb where we’re currently in the public schools, my 5th grader has a class called art/science, where everything that is not directly measurable or has even the whiff of creative thinking is banished to one hour a week. And she is constantly frustrated and bored at school. My older kid is perpetually frustrated at the density of the lesson plans, how inflexible they are, and how they de-emphasize self expression in favor of rote memorization and regurgitation of empirical facts.
Our political culture is deeply focused on the easily measurable. How much are you worth? How far is it from here to there? What does that desirable consumer good cost? How many points can I get in exchange for going into debt? How many jellybeans are in that jar?
There has been a major political push in this country since at least the 1980s to categorize what is “useful” to society and then- using the blunt instrument of government financing- herd people into those pens. That which is not obviously “practical,” i.e. makes someone money in the short term, is not important. Learn to count money, to sell products, to buy things, push paper, fill out forms, work in law, pharmaceutical, finance. Be a person who builds houses, fights wars, enforces laws, puts out fires, fixes cars, and wakes up early in the morning, punches the clock.
Let’s call these people Measurables. They’re the ones whose labors make immediate and measurable sense. There is nothing actually wrong with being Measurable- they are vital to the operation of society. I would not argue that learning math and technical writing is wrong. We should know how to work out our finances and credit card benefits (though the system I came up in did little to nothing to teach personal finance).
But not everyone is alike. There is a huge swath of the population that approaches life in a creative manner. There are lateral thinkers, visualizers, aural learners, intuitives, the emotionally intelligent, the out of the box thinkers that are lionized in TV commercials (but not budgets).
Let’s call these people Creatives. These are the people who tell our stories, make the music, paint the pictures, design the clothing and shoes, make great food and brew tasty beer, imagine future cars and technologies, soothe our pained souls. The ones who make life bearable and enjoyable, who contemplate the mysteries of existence, and hold space when some tragedy has occurred. These are the artists, holy men and women, mystics, wizards, film directors, actors and actresses, creative architects, muralists, entrepreneurs, and massage therapists. These are the visionaries, the ones who think up the new technologies, fly rockets into space, and find ways to get water and electricity to everybody.
Of course it’s not a hard line between these two types, the Creative and the Measurable. A lot of our problems come from making things binary that actually resist that. It’s more likely that all of us have some of the Creative and the Measurable within.
The fetishization of the stoic, hard, unemotional American who can build a bridge, shoot a gun, and never feels anything- a perfect Measurable- is, interestingly enough, an invention of the Creative.
Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote an interesting column that gives another way of looking at this argument. He talks about developing “eulogy virtues” versus “resume virtues.” From his column:
“We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”
What’s missing in all of this is balance, and arts education is the solution to creating this balance. Teaching our children to recognize and value virtues and perspectives other than our own is key to a healthy society. Having lots of money doesn’t make you a better person, anymore than not having money makes you bad or unworthy. This is a damaging and deleterious story that is rotting at the heart of the American dream.
Arts education teaches that there are other ways of perceiving the world. It teaches teamwork, positive leadership, and that it’s okay to laugh, cry, and share. It shows that there is more to life than what can be seen and directly measured. The value of doing things for others with no expectation of return on that investment, of living morally, and caring for one another are not only good Judeo-Christian values, they are the antidote to an unyielding Capitalism that devours most of its citizens. Love thy neighbor as you do yourself.
Arts education teaches us that, while we may not have all of the money we need, we can use the values of creativity and the tools of community to solve problems in our world.
While learning measurable skills, we also look at and learn about art. We listen to many different kinds of music and hear the stories of the communities that created it. We see plays and act in them. We face fears of public speaking. We realize that each of us can sing, each of us can dance, that we all have a voice, or a pen, or a typewriter. We read tales of far away places and very different people. We can come to realize that life is more than secrets and mistrust. There is collaboration, trust, honor, kindness, honesty, communication, and fearlessness. These are all things that education in the arts teaches and they are well worth the investment. The purpose of school should be to make better humans, better citizens, not just automatons that can fill specific jobs and go into debt.
There is no one who does not benefit from exposure to the arts.
And how did I arrive at this conclusion? Indulge me, and I’ll tell you a bit about my journey. I’m not your average normal guy. I live an artist’s life. I struggle to fit in to the larger society- I’m the proverbial square peg. I’m also a dedicated father of two teens, a very hard worker, and a passionate and compassionate human being who touches a lot of lives.
In my school years in the eighties in the upper midwest, I was constantly reminded that I didn’t fit in. I was beaten and bullied in school. When I complained to the Vice Principal, I was told to “not be a snitch.” So I learned to fight back, and found myself in constant trouble. I was causing problems in school. I was skipping class, running from the police on a regular basis for being a dumbass kid, and retreating into fantasy worlds for escape.
I wasn’t good at math or sports (much to my chagrin- I wanted to play centerfield for the MInnesota Twins). I didn’t care about pop music or religion or other things that sorted people into groups. There was no place to fit me in. I was a perpetual outsider. I had friends, but they tended to be other weirdos like me.
Art saved me. My mother saw an ad for a play at the local community center. I got in, got a lead role, and I was hooked. Finally, something I was good at. I got into another play, then another. I stopped getting in trouble so often. I became a (somewhat) better student. It helped me so much, I even decided to try to fit in a bit better. I cut my hair and joined the cross country ski team, where I earned a varsity letter. Wow!
Then my mother got a job on the east coast, and I ended up going to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C. This opened my eyes in so many ways. I was immersed in an unfamiliar culture, but because of my skill and dedication as an actor, I was accepted and loved. Here I was, surrounded by other Creatives, in an environment where creativity was valued and respected. It truly helped shape me into the man I am today. And I am a good man (though I’m sure there are those out there who would beg to differ). Arts education guided me into a sense of purpose that I still carry with me to this day. It taught me to be patient, to listen, to be kind, and to speak up when it was my time to speak.
And I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is: I am currently helping my Creative kids get into magnet art schools for the remaining years of their primary and secondary education. I know they will thrive in these environments.
Without arts education, it’s quite possible that the rage I carried as a kid would have led me to incarceration, substance abuse, or early demise. But the arts taught me there was more to life, that there were other ways to express myself, positive ways. And most importantly, it showed me that I was not alone. That a huge part of the human race is Creative.
And it’s time we were proud of that fact.