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You Can Build A Toilet, But You Can’t Make Me Use It!

There may be no greater evidence that increasing arts in schools won’t create more arts patrons/lovers than the fact people in India won’t use toilets.

Yes, while that statement may be a cheap ploy at getting you to read the rest of this post, there is some truth to it.

According to a CityLab article, even though the government of India has gone on a huge toilet building campaign in order to improve sanitation, so many people refuse to use the commodes that the government is pondering a monitoring program to make sure people do. (my emphasis)

In a recent survey of 3,200 rural households by Delhi-based Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, half of respondents who didn’t have a toilet believed that “defecating in the open is the same or better for health than using a latrine.” Most people who owned a government-constructed latrine still chose to use the outdoors. Some end up using their loo for storage or extra living space.

Many people in the article talk about the use/non-use as a factor of cultural and religious values and advocate for everything from education campaigns to social pressure and spying in order to achieve the goal of no public defecation by 2019.

It can be perplexing to read about the difficulties this effort faces despite the clear and nearly immediately demonstrable health benefits of sanitary practices (Not to mention the government will do the construction.)

We might think that the benefits and importance of using a toilet would be self evident, but apparently that is not the case in India. In that context, saying something that is far from self-evident like arts education improves test scores starts to sound a little weak as an argument.

Comparing toilets in India to Arts in America is probably rife with more flaws than I am immediately imagining. But there is a similarity in the societal inertia that needs to be overcome. Because India is a situation outside our experience, we can examine it with some objectivity and recognize some of the common issues we face.

Parents and schools providing arts experiences to kids certainly contributes to socializing young people to participate when they get older. When I look at India, it reinforces my sense that any effort to help people recognize the presence and importance of arts in their lives is going to involve a lot more than just advocating for more arts teachers in the schools.

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Info You Can Use: Good Fellowship Opportunity

Tomorrow as the new year dawns and you make a resolution to be the best darn arts administrator you can be, you might want to consider starting an application to Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new arts administration/leadership fellowship.

According to American Theatre, the Paul Nicholson Arts Management Fellowship is meant to increase diversity among arts leadership.

The seven-month fellowships are for professionals interested in a career in arts management and artistic leadership. Candidates need only be interested in leading an arts organization; a background in theatre is not required. The chosen fellow will work in close capacity with OSF managing director Cynthia Rider, and will lead projects across multiple administrative departments.

Johka emphasizes that while the Paul Nicholson Fellowship is designed to give potential leaders of color an opportunity to develop professionally, the application process is open to all, not just candidates of color.

“You can’t make a claim to have a commitment to diversity and inclusion while maintaining that in order to bring people in, they must have a long history in a field that has been traditionally all white,” Johka adds. “You have to open up your criteria to accept and value all kinds of transferable skills.”

Just in case you breezed over the sentence I bolded above, it is not necessary that you have a background in theatre.

Deadline is February 1 and the fellowship, which includes housing, transportation and a stipend, begins March 31, 2015. Application is accepted online.

Seems like a great opportunity. My only nitpick is that the application process requires three letters of recommendation to be attached at the time of submission. I realize this is likely to be a highly competitive process and there needs to be a weeding out process. However, if the goal is to attract people of diverse backgrounds, requiring three letters of recommendation may end up excluding people who have advanced along the less traditional path with “all kinds of transferable skills” they are seeking.

Getting quality letters of recommendation for your application file in a timely manner is often even a difficult task for university doctoral students who operate in a culture in which they are de rigueur.

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Not As Simple As Adding an “A” To STEM

When the concept of teaching a STEM curriculum in schools started to take off a few years back, I was among those who quickly started advocating for turning STEM into STEAM.

However, a thoughtful piece on Education Week gave me pause and made me realize blithely calling for the arts to be inserted without really understanding what the curriculum was all about is somewhat akin to deciding an English teacher directing a play after school is sufficient to meet arts standards.

According to author Anne Jolly, the arts isn’t something you can or should simply plug in to STEM like a Lego block. (my emphasis)

Recently, the idea of adding the arts to STEM programs has been gaining momentum. Surprisingly, I’ve heard push-back from both camps:

1. From STEM proponents: STEM lessons naturally involve art (for example, product design), language arts (communication), and social studies and history (setting the context for engineering challenges). STEM projects do not deliberately exclude the arts or any other subject; rather, these subjects are included incidentally as needed for engineering challenges.The focus of STEM is developing rigorous math and science skills through engineering. How can you focus on other subjects (such as art) without losing the mission of STEM or watering down its primary purpose?

2. From arts proponents: Engineering and technology can certainly serve the artist and help create art. But if we’re talking about how one can use art in engineering… as an artist, it seems we’re missing the point and devaluing, or not realizing, art’s purpose and importance. We have it backwards.

Jolly goes on to make some suggestions about how the arts can have a place in a STEM program, but none of them really feel like a clean melding of ideals, and she admits as much. As she points out numerous times in her writing, a good STEM program will never exclude an artistic component.

“Just one word of caution, though. Art is often touted as a method of adding creativity to STEM—but keep in mind that engineers are rarely lacking for creativity and ingenuity. Just look at the world around you for proof. The purpose of STEAM should not be so much to teach art but to apply art in real situations. Applied knowledge leads to deeper learning.”

This is one of those articles where every commenter has something insightful to add to the conversation. No one manages to come up with the definitive approach, but they draw attention to the issues that need to be considered in order that neither Arts or STEM get short shrift in a relationship.

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Community Is Free

I was in a local comic book/table top gaming store a couple weeks ago talking to the owner about providing tickets as a prize for a Magic: The Gathering tournament.  While we were chatting, a kid comes in and says it is his first time in the store. As he looks around admiring the things on sale and talking about what he would like to acquire, he mentions he just moved into town and is living at the shelter.

The first thing that popped into my mind was that if he is living at the shelter, he should be focusing on using his money for something else besides buying more Pokemon cards (his preferred game.)

A couple moments later, the 2010 Haitian earthquake came to mind. Back then one of the things that struck me was that amid all the devastation and loss people experienced, people came together and started singing. The singing didn’t help to feed anyone or clear the rubble, but it did provide a sense of community and security for people who lost so much.

In the five years since that earthquake, I often think back to that incident when people talk about how irresponsible it is to spend money on the arts and culture rather than on things like medical supplies and equipment.

But it is just as important to provide people with the opportunity to have a communal experience with others as it is to heal their bodies.

Despite all the merchandise he was admiring, the kid in the store wasn’t opening his wallet to buy anything new. He was primarily there to find a place where like minded individuals met.  While buying cards may not be free, the opportunity to sit at a table and play with other people using whatever he has is free.

A lot of times what arts organizations have to offer isn’t free, some times it is. Regardless, it is important to remember that often what you are providing people goes beyond what you think you are specifically offering at that moment.

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