Why the Arts Matter

This morning we have the opportunity to enjoy our Performing Arts Showcase – for me, one of the highlights of the fall term.

The making – and the study – of art remains an important, powerful and, I believe, essential component of our educational program, and I am always inspired by the work of our student-artists.

I hope that you will allow me to say a few things about the arts at King’s and their place in our school.

The arts, both the practice of the arts and the study of works of great beauty, are often seen as a frill, an add-on, an extra. When the curricular axe comes out the arts are generally the first thing to get chopped.

I believe that this is profoundly wrong. The arts are not extras; they are essential, especially for a school like King’s and especially for our students – if we wish to prepare them well for college, career and most importantly a meaningful life. There are capacities of mind and qualities of character that the arts are uniquely suited to impart. So before our students take the stage, I wanted to offer you five arguments in celebration of the arts.

The first reason young people should be encouraged to study the arts is that they allow young people to practice courage. I believe that schools need to teach courage, give young people the willingness to take risks, not to shrink from challenge, and to discover the hidden strength and talents each of them possesses. The performing arts do just this; they give us courage. To risk oneself before an audience – a real, breathing audience – requires a kind of courage, and I wanted to begin by recognizing that. This is especially true of young artists who are just beginning – who are acting for the first time, who have just taken up a musical instrument, or who are exhibiting their paintings and drawing for the first time.

You will see some remarkable individual performances and works this weekend – drawing and photographs, and other student works that will take your breath away. But most of the performances you are about to see now are the work of groups – and this is my second point. An education in the arts teaches teamwork, collaboration and group creativity. Working as part of dance or theater troupe and ensemble, orchestra or design team requires that we learn to work together towards something that is greater than ourselves. We have – for better and for worse – a highly individualized concept of success, but success in life, at least in my experience, rarely happens alone or in isolation. As His Majesty noted in his Commencement address of 2012: “The greatest accomplishments, the deepest joys are shared.” The joy of art, like the joy of working in a school, is fundamentally a shared experience – between a reader and writer, a performer and an audience, and between the musicians and dancers themselves as they combine their talents and energies to create something that transcends the individual.

An education in the arts also teaches us the value of practice – and, as it does, the value of failure. Schools, students, teachers and parents operate under tremendous pressure. A changing jobs landscape, including the fear of automation, and the sense that economic opportunity is shrinking has dramatically raised the stakes for high school. What parent, somewhere deep within themselves, does not fear for the future of their child? Success, especially in school, has become all and everything, and for that reason there are few places in schools where children can make mistakes or stumble. There is no time for a misstep; the stakes are too high – with the result that young people may not develop the confidence, the resiliency and the patience that comes with not getting things right the first time. Yet making mistakes is, as everyone knows, an essential part of the learning process (one reason I have encouraged our faculty to teach for mastery and to develop in our students a growth mindset). The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett once wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Learning to play a musical instrument, like learning to speak a language or developing excellence in athletics, requires long hours of practice; there are no short-cuts. Practice leads to mastery, and practice is nothing less than the ability to move forward through continual failure and incremental improvement. When you practice an art, you learn how, as Beckett says, to “fail better” and you come to realize that there are very few things of value that do not require long hours of disciplined practice, trial and error. The skill, the ethic of practice may be one of the most important things a child can take from school, because once you have acquired it there is very little that, with patience and time, you cannot learn.

As a classroom teacher, I confess that I am envious of my colleagues in the arts, because the teaching of art offers a powerful model for education at its very best. So much in school – perhaps too much in school – has become focused on test results and high stakes testing. I am very proud of our students’ achievements in this area, and I recognize the important role they play in our students’ future. But this testing mindset worries me; since it encourages a strategic, short-term mindset rather than the deep learning that is the defining characteristic of the scholar and the life-long student.

I do not need to tell you that many of these tests are divorced from the kinds of tasks that we confront in life or that they are profoundly artificial. They exist in school and for school, and only for school.

The standard for excellence in the arts is very different; it is the live performance and the exhibition: the song, the play, the dance, the drawing. These are profoundly real – real because they are not far removed from the kinds of performances and exhibitions in which professional artists engage. The difference between our orchestra and the London Philharmonic is one of degree, not kind. One of the great challenges that schools today face, I would suggest to you, is the challenge of making school more real and making what we do more like the arts – to provide students with performance tasks that excite their imaginations, their curiosity and intellect; that result in authentic performances of mastery; and that approximate the kind of work scientists, historians, and scholars actually do. The arts show us the way forward.

Finally, the arts offer all of us a window into the beautiful. The way we talk about school tells a lot about what we value. I read about education a great deal, and I encourage our faculty to do so as well. We are living through a great age of school reform and innovation, driven by advances in online learning, cognitive science and educational research. Yet certain words have all but disappeared from the conversation about teaching and learning: words like wonder and awe, curiosity and enchantment – and beauty. We talk a great deal about critical thinking – and that is all to the good – but very little about appreciative thinking. Yet an education that neglects the study of the beautiful, that does not provide opportunities for the appreciation and the contemplation of the beautiful is an impoverished one.

The study of works of art sharpen our perceptions; they help us see and hear with greater sensitivity. Earlier in the week my English class was exploring Roberts Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and a student asked: “Why is this poem so celebrated? Why has it endured?” In essence she was asking: “What’s the big deal here?” I could really only come up with one answer: because it is beautiful. When read carefully and with appreciation for craft, it stirs the soul and it explores eternal mysteries, confronting us with fundamental questions about the purpose and meaning of our lives. A great education should confront students with great works of art and literature from a range of cultures and traditions; it should develop a young person’s powers of perception and discrimination – and to see beauty in unexpected places: in science, math and scholarship. There are many capacities an engineer must possess, but I would hope that one of those is a capacity to apprehend beauty and to appreciate grace, form and color. A great education should provide ample opportunities for expression and performance; it should, in short, ask them to contemplate the beautiful.

Last updated
January 8, 2017