Monday, August 2, 2010

10 Lessons the Arts Teach

The National Art Education Association has created a top-10 list for why the arts matter -- and it's interesting to parse the arguments the document makes.

Of the 10 lessons:
- none is an economic argument
- 3 (#4, 6 and 7) are essentially about thinking critically
- 3 (#2, 3 and 9) are essentially about empathy
- 2 (#1 and 10) are essentially about the ability to make judgments
- 2 (#5 and 8) are about learning nonliteral concepts

This document is an incredibly valiant attempt to illustrate the intangible value of the arts, but in a lot of ways I'm afraid it wanders into the same traps that we often do. It traffics in generalities, highlighting words like "ABILITY," "VIVID," and "POETIC CAPACITIES" (yes, they really used all caps) instead of stripping back the language to talk about what's really at the core. The concepts underlying the items are solid--the arts teach children to address situations from multiple perspectives and therefore think critically, empathically and soundly--but relying on nonspecific flow-y language isn't going to get us there.

My English teacher in high school (the best, most ruthless editor I've ever had), always said that behind every frilly phrase is a void where a specific fact should be. Perhaps this is why first-person testimonials are so the rage right now, because they allow the simultaneous demonstration of the power of art on a specific and nonspecific level.

One of the goals of the intrinsic impact study we're working on is to try and standardize and make more concrete some of these giant concepts that get dressed up in adjectives and trotted about--so that we can walk into a room with a legislator who is trying to cut our budgets and say, yes, here, on this graph, is what our art is doing to the minds of young people. Here's proof that they're thinking in a way they've never thought before, here's proof that they're seeing the world from a perspective other than their own. In the meantime, swanky flyers like this one will get us some of the way down the road--I just hope that we're not shooting ourselves in the foot with miles to go.

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