The Arts Speech
This speech was given to a PTA at Knight’s Elementary School in Gwinnett County, GA, for their “Arts in Education” focus several years ago. Feel free to steal it, but perhaps you might mention that the speech you are giving is “largely based” on one given by Dale Lyles of the Newnan Community Theatre Company, in Newnan, GA.
Despite John Adams’s [and here I’m talking about the American president, not the composer], despite his statement that he studied politics and war so that his sons could study science and commerce so that their sons could study music and painting, we as Americans have never quite gotten past the science and commerce stage.
We’re still not sure that the arts have a place in education. After all, our Puritan psyches whisper, they are so seductive, aren’t they? They are far too much fun to be valuable. And they never use a textbook, do they? How can they be worth teaching our children if they don’t come with a textbook? And worst of all, the arts (and artists, especially) tend to be so disruptive, always challenging us to rethink who and what we are.
How can we rid ourselves of these nagging doubts about the value of our arts in the education of our children?
Well, I have not come tonight to charm you with an array of facts and figures. There are plenty of places to find that kind of information if you still need them after I say what I have to say. Instead, I’d like to examine some of our attitudes and see if I can give you some new ways of thinking about our educational process.
The Value of the Arts
I imagine that most of you have read in the newspaper about the study in which preschool students who were taught to play the piano went on to make significantly higher scores in tests of critical thinking skills.
You will remember that, oddly enough, preschool students in the same study who were taught to type showed no such increase.
The inescapable conclusion is that it ain’t the fingers on the keyboard increasing the child’s brainpower… it’s the music.
This should come as no surprise to those of us who have kept up with the research into the human brain and how we learn. Human beings are pattern makers: we require that life have a rhythm; we need for the universe, which truly is random, to make sense.
And so we make it make sense. We create patterns out of the things we observe. We find objects in inkblots, camels and whales in clouds, and Elvis’s face in a plate of linguine. We organize what we perceive about us into patterns that make sense to us.
If we meet with something that does not fit into the way we think things ought to work, we make it fit… or we alter the pattern so that it will fit. We make the universe make sense.
This urge to organize chaos into order is one of the most basic of human needs. Think of the constellations. Every single culture on the planet has looked up into what surely must be the most amazing and obviously random display in our lives, the night sky, and turned it into pictures. With stories to go with them.
This urge to organize has produced Beethoven and Shakespeare, and St. Peter’s and Angkor Wat, Jane Austen and the Ramayana, Michelangelo and my son Grayson’s drawings of fighter jets on the refrigerator door. It’s incredible.
So none of us should be surprised to find that children who are taught the patterns of rhythm and melody are better at critical thinking than those are not, should we?
Of course, this is just the latest study showing the same seemingly inexplicable correlation between training in one of the arts and success in academic areas. If we ever needed a defense for inclusion of the arts in the curriculum, this is it. Just keep music and art in our schools, we can say, and those elusive Lake Wobegon test scores are yours.
And maybe if we wave around enough sheets of paper with enough research data on them, it won’t sound as if we’re begging.
BUT all this is irrelevant.
I would like to suggest to you tonight that that kind of thinking is a trap.
I do not want my child taught to sing because it will make him better in algebra. I want him taught to sing because I want him to be able to sing.
I don’t want my child to learn to dance because it will help win the soccer tournament. I want him to dance so that he can feel the joy of moving his body with confidence and grace.
I want my child to know the inescapable triumph of recreating another human soul onstage. I want him to know the solace of Mozart’s Requiem, the agony of King Lear and Oedipus, the majesty of the Taj Mahal.
I want my child to be given that which will make him a whole human being: and that must include not only reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also the ability to sing, dance, draw, paint, act, write, play an instrument. And where he is not taught to do it himself, I want him taught to appreciate the work of those that do.
Let us be clear in our own minds, and let us be clear to others: The arts are valuable for their own sakes, not for any supposed benefits our children will reap in their academic classes. The fact that children who participate actively in the arts get better test scores suggests not that we need to include the arts to improve test scores but that an education without the arts is in fact incomplete.
We cannot hope to rescue the arts from their “second-class” status if we project the idea that their only worth is to support the “first-class” subject matter. Algebra is the real goal. Music is only necessary to reach that goal. That is dangerous thinking. We want the arts because we want the arts.
Back to Basics
There are people who will say to you that the schools can’t afford such frills as art and music and drama, in these days of tighter and tighter funding. They will say that not only is there not enough money, but also school time is too important to be wasted on these fripperies.
No, they say, schools need to concentrate on the basics. Back to the basics: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic! Our children need to improve those test scores. None of this frivolous playtime stuff, that only keeps the kids from studying more important things. A child who doesn’t know how to read certainly doesn’t need to be wasting time in the fifth-grade operetta.
In the face of such categorical assertion, it is tempting to drag out the correlation between the arts and critical thinking skills and fling it on the table with some dramatically triumphant exclamation.
It is tempting to point out that the arts require far more attention and discipline than most subjects in school. It is tempting to remind naysayers that memorizing the periodic table, for example, is much easier for students who are used to memorizing lines than it is for those who aren’t.
It is really tempting to point out that a student who has a couple of years of ballet under his belt has more agility and stamina on the soccer field than one who doesn’t.
It is useful to remember that humans were singing, painting, dancing and storytelling long before they were reading, writing, or ciphering. Every preliterate culture has incredibly rich artistic means of expression; they sing, they dance, they paint, they act, even if they do not have an alphabet or algebra.
Not only that, but each and every child of yours here tonight, without any prompting or training from you, sang and danced and drew before he or she learned a single letter or number. I can make that statement without fear of any contradiction whatsoever, and I could make that statement in front of any group of parents anywhere on this planet. You know it’s true.
It’s even true about you and me, isn’t it? We may have shoved all of that out of our minds, we may not “play” in the arts any longer, but we were that way, too, weren’t we? It’s universal.
So if all of us in this room played “Let’s Pretend” before we were troubled by words on the page, if we all sang “I’m a Little Teapot” or “Jesus Loves Me” before we could count from 1 to 10, if we all drew a blue sky and yellow sun and little red flowers long before we could write our name, then where did we get the idea that these means of communication were extraneous to who we are?
When did we start thinking that we had to justify these primary instincts through their utility to those other, later elements of our education?
It just isn’t so. When anyone tells me, “We need to get back to the basics,” I tell them, “Let’s do it! Let’s make sure every child knows how to read music by fifth grade. Let’s put an art teacher in every school. Let’s require high school students to be able to produce some significant work in order to graduate. Let’s make dance an integral part of the curriculum.”
Let’s get back to the real basics.
Ambiguity, dissent, and challenge
But as we do that, as we begin to integrate arts into the fabric of our children’s education, let me ask you to keep some things in mind.
We’ve seen that the arts are primal to human nature. Poet Wallace Stevens [who, incidentally, besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry was also a vice-president of the Hartford Insurance Company] used the image of a garden to illustrate the nature of creativity: he pictured the universe as a wild, untamed jungle. Human creativity, he said, organizes as much of the jungle as it can, orders it into its own private garden. The truly creative person is always looking for a way out of that garden, looking for more jungle to organize.
And that’s the purpose of the arts: To make the thing that is not. We all give order to the universe, all of us, every day. We can’t stop ourselves. But the artist gives order to the universe in such a way as to make us do a double-take: that’s new, we say, and look back to see exactly where that came from.
As the painter George Seurat says in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George, “Look! I made a hat, where there never was a hat.”
And that can be bothersome. Maybe we didn’t expect a hat there. Maybe the hat is inconvenient, or different, or ugly. George also says, “Pretty isn’t beautiful. Pretty is what changes. What the eye arranges is beautiful.”
The fact is, once we cut ourselves loose into the world of the arts, we are at risk of change, and change can be threatening. Can we deal with that as a society? The past decade or so suggests that we might have a problem or two with being challenged by art.
In the Newnan Community Theatre Company, we say that the purpose of theatre is to mess with the audience’s mind. That’s a fairly amusing way to state our belief that an audience should leave one of our productions changed in some way. That doesn’t mean we do in-your-face, belligerent theatre, although we have on occasion. It means that when we produce the thing that is not and offer it to you, something should happen inside you that makes you different from what you were before. That holds true for every show we do, from the silliest piece of Neil Simon to the staggering works of William Shakespeare.
That’s the purpose of art, and if we want our children to have the experiences and the worth of what the fine arts has to offer, we have to accept the risk of the inevitable ambiguity, dissent, and challenge to ourselves.
And you know what? Being able to discriminate in the face of ambiguity, being able to hold two different ideas in one’s head at the same time, being able to resolve our own cognitive dissonance over some issue that challenges our view of the universe: aren’t these sort of, well, critical thinking skills? Think about it.
We want the arts in our schools because they are valuable beyond measure in their own right. We don’t need to justify their presence through their usefulness.
We want our children to be able not only to produce works of beauty themselves but to appreciate such works from others, to share in the great conversation that began when the human race did.
We want our children to have the experiences that the arts give, in order to enrich their lives, to deepen their souls, to make them more human, and most assuredly, to make them better humans.