Arts Education in the 21st Century

05 September 2017

With the rapid pace of technological change leading to an uncertain economic future, schools today are expected to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) on the assumption that these are the paths that will best prepare students for successful futures. Given this worldview, what is the justification for offering an arts education in the 21st century?

The most common response to this question points to numerous studies suggesting that students involved in the arts do better in school, score higher on standardized tests, use less drugs, are more creative, and develop stronger critical thinking skills than students who are not involved in the arts. Could this be the rationale for arts education?

Not in my opinion.

Please don’t misunderstand: I believe in these studies, but I think the positive outcomes are serendipitous by-products of an arts education rather than the rationale for it. To explain what I mean, let’s look back at an earlier era.

What was human life like forty thousand years ago? The sheer effort of staying alive would have required considerable effort in those days. Despite this, we have discovered musical instruments and cave paintings that were created during that time. These prehistoric humans were probably not interested in standardized test scores, so why were they creating art?

I believe there is a drive to be creative that is deeply rooted in what it means to be human. There is something about the human condition that compels us toward the arts – both as creators and consumers. In other words, the arts are an important aspect of our humanity.

The Robin Williams character in the movie Dead Poets Society, John Keating, sums this up well as he introduces his students to poetry:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
— Dead Poets Society, Touchstone Pictures (1989)

This is such a powerful statement: “These are what we stay alive for.” Our rationale for arts education should be to perpetuate this vital aspect of our humanity.

The arts allow us to express the inexpressible. Consider Pablo Picasso’s magnificent response to the horrific bombing of the Basque village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. In support of the Spanish Nationalists, let by General Franco, the German Luftwaffe bombed Guernica for more than three hours:

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter…The rhythm of this bombing… was… a logical one: first, hand grenades and heavy bombs to stampede the population, then machine-gunning to drive them below, next heavy and incendiary bombs to wreck the houses and burn them on top of their victims.
— George Steer, The Times, 27 April 1937

Picasso’s response to this merciless attack on his homeland could only be expressed through paint on a canvas. Today, this work of art stands as a universal symbol of the horrors of war.

American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein summed up the power of the arts this way:

The point is, art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed… because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events… by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.
— Leonard Bernstein, Los Angeles Times Interview, 31 December 1972

But, what about career training? The arts industry is a vital aspect of our global economy. According to a 2015 Ernst & Young study, sponsored by UNESCO and the International Confederation of Authors and Composers Societies, the creative industries generated $2.25 trillion USD, 3% of global GDP. The creative industries were responsible for 29.5 million jobs worldwide.

Moreover, an arts education prepares students for many careers outside the arts. Many of today’s viable jobs did not exist ten years ago, making job-specific training impossible. Students today should prepare for unspecified future careers, with an education that develops the skills employers seek: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, leadership, and the ability to continue learning. These are exactly the skills developed through arts education.

“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make life unbearable.”
— George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methusaleh, 1922

Sunway University is committed to making the world better, and offering an education in the arts is an important part of this effort. The School of Arts at Sunway University currently offers degrees in Communication, Interior Architecture, Design Communication, Music, and Film Production.

For The Expat (Vol. 241 • October 2017 • page 59)


Don Bowyer
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