Of all the presents that I ever received from my parents, the gift of an education in the arts is the one that has never stopped giving. As the season of gift giving approaches, we can look to the arts for gifts that no other discipline can offer. Gifts that change us and move us up the ladder of cultural evolution. Gifts that strengthen us and provide us with tools to survive in today ‘s toughening world and allow us to see the usual in a most unusual way.
The first gift provided by arts education and the arts is the ability to value qualitative learning. In today ‘s classroom, quantitative education is favored over qualitative education. In President Obama ‘s push for educational reform, the entire movement is formulated in a quantitative structure as a “Race to the Top”. The focus remains, however misguided, on standardized testing, quantitative data, and test scores. Little or no interest is paid to subject areas that provide students with substantial learning experiences because their output cannot be measured, evaluated and categorized. Imagine trying to quantify a Shakespearean sonnet. Or the ballet, Swan Lake. Good art is recognized from intrinsic understanding and cannot be measured in numbers. The arts teach us that the efforts that go into creating a fine work help to define its quality. We come to recognize and value the creative genius, inspiration and emotional commitment attached to a great work of art. We learn to appreciate color, and sound and movement and talent. It ‘s those elements that stay with us throughout our lives. We look at a beautiful sunset and never give a thought to whether or not we can measure its beauty. We appreciate it, just because it is.
The second gift that the arts offer is to listen to our intuition. We all have a voice inside that guides us and brings us closer to our true potential. The more involved we are with the arts, the more we learn to pay attention to this voice. Intuition is necessary in arts training and rarely addressed in formal education. Artists tend to be more in touch with their intuitive feelings because art requires us to be reflective and introspective. By paying attention to our intuition in art, we strengthen it and learn to rely on it as we would any of our senses.
The ability to recognize and welcome inspiration is gift number three. When we are children, the smallest and silliest things inspire us and spark our creative imaginations. We play, we invent, we create. As we age, we become focused on the literal, concrete and material world with little opportunity to exercise our imagination and expand our creative self. Every living organism seeks to create. It is an organic need. Our bodies are creating everyday on a cellular level forming new antibodies, cells, free radicals and new life. While all this wonderful creation is happening within, most people ignore the desire to create because they have lost touch with what inspires them. The arts teach us to find inspiration in the world around us- from the most mundane to the spectacular. Artists see the world differently and can find inspiration in commonness. Abundance is never lacking in a world where art can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
The fourth, final and perhaps the most important gift from the arts is learning to accept and embrace failure. Perhaps the most detrimental lesson being taught in public education today is that failure is unacceptable. Failure is bad. Failure should be avoided at all costs. In the arts, failure is often our greatest teacher. In attempting to perfect our art, we don ‘t expect to fail, but we aren ‘t afraid or crushed if we do. Failure just means erasing our mistakes, or getting a new canvas, or re-arranging a musical composition. It signifies that our attempt to solve an artistic problem has failed, not that we as artists are failures. Teaching kids to expect, accept and learn from failure is the greatest gift that we can give them. It empowers them with the ability to succeed despite obstacles and setbacks and fortifies them with the motivation to persevere. If we continue to treat failure as an unacceptable part of learning then we are teaching kids that it might be better not to try at all, than to try and fail. The arts allow us to cultivate the courage necessary to navigate through failure and emerge successfully.
I often hear well meaning parents in conversations with their children talking them out of a career in the arts. Not financially lucrative, not stable, too hard to break into, not suitable. Though well intentioned, these parents are doing a disservice to their kids. They are denying them a lifetime of endless gifts. States that don ‘t provide K-12 arts education are also doing students a disservice. Arts education cannot be packaged or gift wrapped. You can ‘t buy it at Macy ‘s or download it from your computer. It is a gift, however, that once opened, changes us forever. For the better.
Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California.