Valuing the arts

Last week I went to a talk given by Nnenna Freelon at the Lied Center of Kansason the importance of arts in education. I'm already a convert, but there was a moment in the Q and A that I loved. One of our local politicians who has always been a strong backer of the arts asked the loaded question: "Should government support the arts?"

Photo by Ann Dean. For those of you not in Kansas, this cardboard cutout is a take on the mural of John Brown in the Kansas Capitol painted by John Steuart Curry. It was seen at a demonstration for arts funding in 2011, when our governor defunded the Kansas Arts Commission.

Photo by Ann Dean. For those of you not in Kansas, this cardboard cutout is a take on the mural of John Brown in the Kansas Capitol painted by John Steuart Curry. It was seen at a demonstration for arts funding in 2011, when our governor defunded the Kansas Arts Commission.

The audience, knowing the situation in Kansas and knowing this particular senator, laughed a little. Nnenna's response was great. Instead of the expected "Of course!" she took a long pause and said, "That's not the question. The real question is, who do we want to be?" 

She's right. Who do we want to be?  I want us to have the possibility of being interesting, creative, funny, engaged, connected problem-solvers, with a wide emotional vocabulary. Will everyone be that? No, certainly not, but I want the possibility, and I believe the arts can allow that possibility. 

I recently came across this fabulous list, Ten Lessons the Arts Teach, by Eliot Eisner: 

1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.

2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

4. The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.

7. The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

9. The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

10. The arts' position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.


SOURCE: Eisner, E. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind, In Chapter 4, What the Arts Teach and How It Shows. (pp. 70-92). Yale University Press. Available from NAEA Publications. NAEA grants reprint permission for this excerpt from Ten Lessons with proper acknowledgment of its source and NAEA. A .pdf of this list, in pretty form, is found on the NAEA site. 

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