The Necessity of the Arts in Education

Exclusionary education is becoming more entrenched than ever. As governments across the nation slash budgets and continuously decrease funding for public education we begin to see its effects. Not only is the new paradigm one of test-oriented learning and rote memorization, it is also one of increasingly institutionalized neo-liberal reform.

Story Time isn't just a break from 'real' learning, but a  necessary part of education

Story Time isn’t just a break from ‘real’ learning, but a necessary part of education

Public schools are no longer content with providing a well-balanced education, but rather with providing one that is predicated upon false ideas of purely “career-oriented” educational development in which people are fit in pre-defined molds. After all, isn’t the true test of American education how well can we conform? Or is it rather how effective one can be at rising to the rank of an invisible middle manager in Corporate America? Make no mistake about it, our education is being stratified and we, as the whole of society, will be worse off for it.

Let us begin by looking at some of the programs cut.

The first academic programs to be eliminated during fabricated “times of struggle” are arts, music, language, and general enrichment programs. This may not seem like a major issue, but it reflects a greater division in our society regarding the role of arts and the individual. While public schools cut these programs, private schools and other such institutions actually increased their cultural curricula and offer more choices to the children of the elite.  In fact, the number of students in private schools learning languages is 50% higher than in public schools.  There is no shortage of empirical evidence to corroborate the value of these programs and studies are constantly released showing the benefits of language learning in terms of both cognitive development and career success.

What this differential prioritization does is clearly establish that “cultured” personal development is a privilege meant only for those willing and able to pay the exorbitant price. It was already hard enough to find public school graduates in ages past that could interact with art of any form in a productive capacity, but now that is guaranteed to never occur.

Athena - Goddess of Wisdon, Civilization, and the Arts as well as Patron of her namesake Athens.  The Athenian Ideal was a Sound Mind in a Sound Body.

Athena – Goddess of Wisdom, Civilization, and the Arts as well as Patron of her namesake Athens. The Athenian Ideal was a Sound Mind in a Sound Body.

In fact, what this really boils down to is a continued exclusion from cultural capital. Many people erroneously think that climbing the economic ladder is just about learning about math and reading. But it is actually just as much as learning about the culture—meaning the arts, music, language(s), as well as norms and mores—of the wrung one would hope to reach.  Jobs are never usually earned by CVs alone, but also by personal connections, communication on a cultural level, jokes during an interview, and a bevy of other intangibles that can only come from shared experiences, which includes an education based in the development of the individual as a whole.

This stratification and exclusionary difference mirrors the rise of the neo-liberal culture and its desire to measure, quantify, classify, and judge people in a systemic and “dispassionate” way. However, it does not pass any sort of litmus test in regards to its impartiality, but instead quite brazenly ignores already extant privileges built into our society across cultural, social, and economic lines.  It is quite obvious for one to see the differences between private and public schools, but few people realize the extent of its influence and continuation into people’s careers and jobs. According to Center for American Progress (CAP) report on social mobility, the United States ranks in the middle of the pack, with the Scandinavian and Western European countries leading the way. This is no aberration and clearly shows the result of our American school system, which has been stratified and has not only created a tiered education system, but by extension, a tiered social, economic, and political landscape that affects all facets of our lives.

Clearly, the elimination of arts funding in our public schools is a reflection of the larger capitalistic project to legitimize the rule of the elites by making certain subjects and domains of knowledge inaccessible to the greater part of people in America. It also further creates two types of people for the coming generations: the publicly educated, cog-in-the-machine worker and his well-educated, renaissance-man-esque master with impeccable credentials. After all, the most elite institutions in our nation are the private/charter schools and universities that serve as feeders for the C-level executive and political class. This also speaks to the greater issue of nepotism, which will be addressed in an upcoming article.

Make no mistake. The line has been drawn and the battle for the minds of America’s children has begun. Will the great majority of people be able to rise up and hold back the tide of school budgets cuts?  The quantification of intangible critical learning skills? Will we as a nation, be able to educate our children in a complete, classical Renaissance manner—to nurture a whole person? Or will be content with what we have and decide that Chopin, Picasso, Bach, Verdi, Bizet, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Klimt, and many more will hold no role in our lives? Will learning languages not make our children more learned and erudite individuals? Perhaps the battle is lost, and we have already been dealt our death knell. Or maybe, just maybe—we can still change things.

Harold Alexander Mesa (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Harold Alexander MesaHarold Mesa is a Rutgers University alumnus who received his B.A. in 2013 in History. He was born in Medellín, Colombia and lived the second half of his childhood in New Jersey. His interests include post-colonialism, linguistics, Marxian political thought, feminism, and Buddhism—amongst other things.  He enjoys playing and discussing soccer.

5 responses to “The Necessity of the Arts in Education

  1. One issue is that, while math and science subjects are usually quite standardized, I believe most humanities classes are created by the professors themselves. The lack of a fundamentally shared discipline can cause problems in finding a common goal among the courses.

    I understand that there is a growing amount of scientism in the arts themselves. What I mean is that there are a number of humanities disciplines (history, english, etc.) that incorporate ideas from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience into their curriculums in order to try to justify their existence. I don’t believe this is the right way to go about this (for example, artists make paintings to express themselves, among other reasons, but not necessarily to make a scientific portrayal of the human intellect), but it seems like a last resort to protect these fields from death. It’s not idealistic and seems rather practical, which is why it’s so attractive.

    I think the Cold War (with our emphasis on creating new technology) had a huge impact on making sure math and science were respected areas of study, while the arts and humanities lagged behind.

    Do you know any solutions or have ideas about how to go about keeping these fields in our curriculums? Will closing the gap between public and private schools solve it?

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    • I understand where you’re coming from and agree with the sentiments you expressed. Overall, I think that attempting to frame the humanities under a neo-liberal analysis of “this too can be quantified” is the wrong way to go about it. I honestly do not have a good proposal regarding how to keep these subjects in our schools, but I do think the gap between private/public must be bridged quickly. I am also of the opinion that the humanities’ decline mirrors the growing anti-intellectualism in contemporary American society and only by winning that cultural war, will we be able to save these important subjects from extinction. Lest you were to believe that only the upper classes should have access to the critical thinking and intellectual stimulation inherent to the Liberal Arts.

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      • Woah, I honestly was not expecting a response, hahahaha.

        I just think it’s important to bring something to the table when you offer a critique. Perhaps there is something we could change in the way we teach mathematics/science that could allow them to coexist better with the humanities without having full-fledged scientism?

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        • There is a solution floating in my head, but I don’t think I have all the answers in this respect. I critique in order to foment a discussion of the issue at hand and to encourage a productive dialog. I believe that the crux at the heart of the problem is the need to quantify, measure, and standardize everything about a child’s education, whilst simultaneously de-professionalizing the teaching profession. What this does is relegate the responsibility of measuring learning onto the neo-liberal state which can only understanding things within the paradigm of capitalist progress and profit-driven machinations. So “learning” is no longer treasured as an inherent value of education, but as a side effect of passing through all the levels.

          Would there be a difference between a student who earned a 95 on a math test and one who earned an 85? The current policies would indicate that one is clearly superior to the other, but in actuality there may be a minimal difference and our current system does not address actual deficiencies in learning and is satisfied with merely passing you along — never truly developing you as a thinking individual. To save the humanities, we need to save the sciences and maths from this push to make them another hurdle in getting that grade, getting that high GPA, obtaining some imaginary milestone that says more about one’s conformity to a system than how learned or knowledgeable one is.

          ‘Tis a bit idealistic yes, but I guess youth has that effect on people. However, there is a tinge of pragmatism contained in it because one can endeavor to conceive a program similar to what I described and see that it would provide for better-educated individuals….and that is worth any price (though beyond what the cost-cutting neo-liberals would be willing to pay). A re-prioritization of our economic goals/spending could help bring forth a more educated populace and would help us advance as a country.

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