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Why Educate Your Palate If All They Serve You Is Hamburgers

Playwright Mike Lew criticizes the logic behind blaming a lack of arts education for a decreasing attendance at arts events.

Take the basic argument of “We need more theater in schools so more people will go see theater later in life” and substitute comparable forms of entertainment where young people are already dropping boatloads of money. The very logic of the construction collapses.

Consider the following assertions:
-No one likes cooking anymore because we stopped teaching Home Ec in the schools.
-We need more video game training in classrooms to ensure the next generation of Xbox users.
-If we don’t teach kids how to listen to standup comedy, Louis CK will go bankrupt.
-Kids who never played live music in school just plain won’t pay for a Jay-Z concert.

Now consider the converse, swapping out theater for things that we do teach in schools:
-Good thing we taught kids biology, because zoo attendance is up 50%.
-Colonial Williamsburg is popping thanks to US History classes.
-Now that we have English in schools, bookstores are saved!
-My classroom had a PC, therefore this ipad is nonsense.

Some of his examples are a little flawed. Whether it is due to the lack of home ec classes or not, people actually aren’t cooking.

Much like cooking, arts attendance and participation is influenced by the example provided by parents and educational environment. I would argue with both the arts and cooking, the more you know, the more you will be willing to experiment with unfamiliar fare.

But as Lew points out, interest doesn’t depend on you being introduced to the arts in school. People will make the decision to attend if the opportunity appears interesting enough.

While his contentions that the problem is based in inflexible timing of performances, dearth of social opportunities, programming choices that don’t resonate with the lives of young people and general lack of hospitality are not new arguments, it doesn’t mean he is wrong.

As I was reading some of his examples, I thought that it wasn’t logical to draw a direct line from biology to zoo attendance and English classes and bookstores because there are plenty of other positive outcomes that can result from these classes. The same can be true of the arts. English, sociology and anthropology can as easily lead to the arts as directly arts education when you think about the stories people tell and the way they express themselves.

Give his post a read, he makes many interesting points in his contribution to this ongoing discussion.

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Oh, You Want Us To Teach It, Too?

Last month on Americans for the Arts’ Arts Blog, Elizabeth Laskowski, wrote about how she welcomed standardized testing for the arts because it was making her school finally take her seriously.

My first thought was that she was basically embracing the philosophy of the kid who always acts up in class–even attention in a negative context is better than no attention.

Because students will now be tested in the arts area, Laskowski will now receive regular evaluations of her teaching, attending her class will no longer be a “carrot and stick” privilege afforded well-behaved children, students will get up to 135-180 minutes a week with her instead of 30 and the grades in her class will actually count.

It probably goes without saying that I think it shouldn’t take the threat of testing to create a situation where a music teacher is thrilled that:

“We will no longer be simply a prep time for general education teachers, or a way for the kids to blow off a little steam before they get back to work. The arts will be full fledged, real, and valuable subjects, worthy of time, money, and respect.”

Elizabeth Laskowski’s post illustrated for me that it isn’t enough to just advocate for arts in the schools, requiring that they be treated seriously and taught is also apparently necessary.

Parents may have to scrutinize claims of arts classes being offered. It appears all classes are not created equal and one should not assume that three years of music class provides roughly equivalent instruction hours as three years of French.

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Be The Propaganda You Wish To See

Last Monday was March 4, according to my grandmother, the most commanding day of the year. (March Forth!). I am guessing other people’s grandmothers must have used the same line because last Monday there were a lot of hits on the post I did nine years earlier called The Most Commanding Day of the Year.

My grandmother had a lot of funny turns of phrase that she used to entertain and trick her grandkids. She was also very proud of being Irish (though she was second or third generation in the U.S.).

Now I have more German than Irish in my background from grandparents on both sides, but I didn’t realize that until I was much older thanks to my grandmother’s constant propaganda about how wonderful the Irish are and how wonderful it was that we were Irish.

I never recognized how much influence that had over my life. I have never been rabidly Irish, even on St. Patrick’s Day. However, two weeks ago I was listening to a Deutsche Welle report on how successful Ireland has been at achieving their goals while holding the European Union presidency. I felt a this sense of pride in Ireland’s accomplishment even though I only have a vague idea of how the EU presidency works.

I have generally been cynical about the effectiveness of constantly telling kids that they are smartest and most talented because reality tends to rear its ugly head a vast majority of the time and they realize they don’t measure up to the billing.

My recognition of my reaction to the Ireland story gave me some insight into the power of reinforcing ideas for kids as the grow up. It has started me thinking about the long term benefits of encouragement absent of specific value, consistently telling kids they can be artistic and creative without necessarily saying they are the most creative in class or specifying what being a successful artist looks like.

I know this sounds very vague and touchie-feelie and I will be the first to admit that I have no data to back this up.

I do know that many experts encourage parents to praise the process rather than the result– praise the hard work that went into preparing for a test rather than telling a kid they are smart for scoring so high. That way there is a sense of cause and effect behind a failure and how it might be resolved rather than a total sense of loss and bewilderment when the natural ability you have been told you possess seems to have abandoned you.

The idea that exposing and involving kids in the arts at a young age is important is barely news to any of us. My purpose in writing this post is to point to just how subtle and pervasive cultivating part a person’s identity as a child can be.

In terms of my Irishness, my grandmother’s influence was reinforced by the fact I lived an hour outside of NYC, one of the great bastions of Irish identity in the U.S.

But though my grandmother has been dead over a decade now, my immediate family, uncles and cousins inevitably bond over obscure “holidays” like March 4. My mother and I talked about it on March 3 and though neither of us spoke to my sister, she emailed out about the most commanding day of the year to my siblings and cousins on March 4.

If you think about it, there is probably some equally peculiar element from your own upbringing that influences you to this day. Considering all this, it may be helpful over the long term to include phrases like “what do you like to do?,” “what have you created lately?” in every day conversation with kids of all ages.

(By the way, I haven’t appropriated the saying commonly attributed to Gandhi for my title. There is no evidence he said it. But as with all evidence debunking misattributions, the research is pretty interesting.)

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Teachers Don’t Know From Creative

We all know that arts classes and opportunities have been disappearing from schools at varying rates for decades. It may or may not surprise you to learn that creativity is not encouraged in schools either. While you may have suspected it all along, Alex Tabarrok links to a number of studies from the Marginal Revolution blog.

He cites in one study,

“What the paper shows is that the characteristics that teachers use to describe their favorite student correlate negatively with the characteristics associated with creativity. In addition, although teachers say that they like creative students, teachers also say creative students are “sincere, responsible, good-natured and reliable.” In other words, the teachers don’t know what creative students are actually like.”

As Tabarrok notes, the classroom process is not conducive to impulsive creative expression. Self control is valued in students in order to create an environment for a group to learn in. I would note though that this is not to equate self-control with smothering creativity. Even in self-directed learning environments where students are more in control of the pace and manner of their learning, a degree of self-control is still expected.

It occurs to me that part of the fight to restore arts education to schools needs to include advocating for a learning environment that encourages creativity. Arts people may hold certain assumptions about that arts in education involves cultivating creative expression, but it might not necessarily be so. Everyone probably has a story about a teacher who nearly killed their interest in an artistic discipline.

It may seem like incrementalism in the face of the size of the struggle to get arts education restored, but in the process, it will be important to try to preserve opportunities for creative expression still have left lest they slip away.

Think about it– outside the classroom the only place where a child is still permitted to indulge their screaming anarchist tendencies is on the playground and a lot of schools are doing away with recess. Without recess, there is another moment of a child’s life where they are expected to behave.

Now granted, for all I know kids today may stand around at recess playing on their Nintendo DSes and ignore their screaming anarchist tendencies without any help from their schools and such advocacy is for naught anyway.

My point is that while fighting for the restoration of arts, it is probably important to make teachers aware of what creative students are actually like and provide tools/guidance for dealing with them rather than requiring them to conform to expectations all the time.

Essentially the approach of “Arts offer X, Y, Z to your students. But since you may not provide opportunities in the coming academic year, we will happily help you to recognize the creativity of your students and engage it in your classroom to some degree since these kids are likely the ones you have pegged as disconnected.”

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