Comments on Polisi’s ‘Put the Arts Back into Schools’

Joseph Polisi, president of The Juilliard School, in “Put the Arts Back into Schools,” says, “Today the arts are simply undervalued or completely ignored by many school systems around America. In New York City, teachers, principals, and entire schools are evaluated based on test scores in reading, mathematics, the sciences, but not in the arts” (Education Nation, NBC News, June 21, 2011.)

Picture of Joseph Polisi, smiling, 40ishJoseph Polisi

Polisi says, “It is time that legislators, school administrators, parents and the general public collectively come together to reinstate the presence of the arts in our schools’ curricula. Some of the attributes that we value most in our country – discipline, creativity, imagination, empathy, unconventional thinking – are exactly the qualities that are nurtured and developed by the study of the arts.”

ETCJ writers William H. Zaggle, Harry Keller, and Frank B. Withrow respond to Polisi’s article.

Small picture of William H. Zaggle, smilingThe Arts Are Critical for Whole-Brain Learning
By William H. Zaggle

What Joseph Polisi experienced, both personally with his own 1950s education in Queens New York and continues to realize in students who move through the Juilliard MAP program and no doubt what occurs in quality Arts programs around the country, is indeed not highly complex or esoteric. Daniel Pink does a job of explaining that the future belongs to the balanced brained student in his highly acclaimed book A Whole New Mind.

We are a proud generation of left brained lawyers, accountants and computer scientists, but the leaders of the next generation will be balanced artists of all disciplines who will wield the technological tools we created like the brush of a Rembrandt or the chisel of a Michelangelo. When we examine the left brained world, we see attributes such as logical sequential, rational, analytical, objective reasoning, and  focused on parts — attributes that easily describe the technology solutions we have today.

When we look at the right brained world, we see attributes such as random, intuitive, holistic, synthesizing, subjective reasoning, and a focus on wholes — attributes that  obviously describe the antithesis of most technologies. Is it any wonder that our graduates have declined in terms of innovation and creativity!

I remember in 1980 when I was in a fast food restaurant and the power went out just as I was being served. , All of the cash registers that totaled amounts and computed the required change went down. The girl at the counter said, “Oh, well, looks like we’ll have to do it the old fashioned way.” I started adding the numbers in my head, and she pulled out a calculator.

The reality is that our traditional left brain tasks are being accomplished more and more by technology. However, it can easily amplify our right brain thoughts, providing pseudo random numbers, enhancing our creativity, providing confirmation of our intuition, simulating synthesis, offering clarity of our reasoning and details on the parts that make up the vision of our whole. This does not mean that logical sequential, objective reasoning, and other  left brain tasks are no longer important. It just means that they are very different and of much less value without their proper right brain counterparts.

I doubt I would have survived high school without a music program. I learned tenacity, teamwork, performance, and how to listen to and appreciate my right brain creativity and how to give it its rightful place in my productivity. Quite honestly, I also learned to appreciate the applause for a job well done and the hard work it took to accomplish. Yet, it is human nature to simply push harder with current methods, when current methods are failing the most. The attitude is that current methods must be correct; we just have not performed them long enough or hard enough.

HR 1891 is only another example of that desperation in action. This, too, was made obvious by Clayton Christensen in his book, Disrupting Class. He says that the problem, more than likely, is that the current methods have gone too hard for too long. It is quite possible that the proper course of action would be just the opposite, a mandate of arts education from an early age and throughout the educational process in order to attempt to foster and encourage Pink’s vision of the “Whole New Mind” within students.

Certainly an education including the arts is not the only way to achieve a balanced brain, but I believe the balance is the ultimate responsibility of the student and is only facilitated by the teacher. To me, this means that providing a strong arts component could be essential to opening the minds of students to better apply their learning in a balanced fashion. It is important for all of us to remember that the ability to make critical decisions that will quite possibly determine the very future of this planet will be the last gift we will give to our future generations.

Beyond the skills of creativity, imagination, empathy, and unconventional thinking that an education in the arts tends to encourage, the act of making a valid decision is not an English, math or science issue. Ultimately, decision making is a right brain task based on intuition, subjective reasoning, and a strong view of the whole, no doubt combined creatively and strategically with at least a small bit of random luck.

It is the informal part of knowledge development that I recently wrote about, and  I fully agree with Polisi that the strong continued focus only on formalized left brain learning, ignoring the creative and decision making part of our student’s education or at best leaving it to chance, is a very risky proposition and one we can hardly afford to gamble our future on.

Small picture of Harry KellerThe Arts Is Not Only About Music
By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

I have a small problem with the article in that it says, “… are evaluated based on test scores in reading, mathematics, the sciences ….”  I see very little emphasis on science as an evaluation criterion. My sales and marketing people are unhappy that we don’t do mathematics yet because so much budget money (in NYC too — I get lots of my feedback from there) goes to language arts and mathematics and so little to science.

So, I’m empathetic to the arts problem presented in the article. They feel the problem even more than I. At least, science is considered to be a core subject. The other issue I have with Mr. Polisi is that he titles his article “Put the Arts Back into Schools” but only talks about music. He’d like to take a musically elite segment of students and give them special treatment. I’d like to see painting, sculpture, drama, and creative writing also emphasized and no child left out of all of these programs.

Please understand that I love music and wish that I had had any music training, any at all, as a young person. Every student should hear a wide variety of music and learn to play at least one instrument well enough to make recognizable tunes. Every student should be exposed to great art and allowed to produce expression in painting. Every student should read some excellent written works and encouraged to try out writing. Every student should have the opportunity to understand sculpture and to do it. Every student should be on the stage at least once. Taking Mr. Pelisi’s lead a step further, students having all of this experience can then be tested or just allowed to choose one mode of artistic expression and provided with the tools and support required to develop in that direction.

It’s not just about music. It’s about artistic creation, and no child should be left behind.

I’m a scientist by inclination and training. I love great music or an excellent piece of drama. A very well written novel not only entertains me but also give me joy in really good writing. A visit to an art museum can be a thrilling experience. The earlier we can provide our children with this appreciation the better. Allowing them to participate in one such expression is a critical part of gaining that appreciation.

The same is true of science. Anyone can become a scientist to a small extent. All should have the experience because it trains minds to think better. To repeat myself, science is just a bit higher on the education totem pole than the arts along with history. All are treated as second-class citizens these days with all testing being on language skills and mathematics.

It’s time to realize that arts, science, and history provide a real, living context in which to learn language and mathematics skills and so make them more interesting and thus more likely to be learned.

The Arts Engage Students and Encourage Learning in Other Subjects
Small picture of Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

When we examine the things our students do based upon their drives, we find arts the subjects they devote much of their time to. They are willing to spend their own time to practice in the marching band, the school orchestra or to create an oil painting. They are willing to spend hours practicing for the school play, becoming cheerleaders, etc. In today’s world they will spend time with their computers developing layouts, art and stories for the school paper.

For the most part they do this as almost completely voluntary activities. Often these are the things that they remember as they grow older. They were in the chorus line in the school play when their senior class performed Guys and Dolls or when they played in the school orchestra that went to the state finals.

We need to examine why students are eager and work hard in these efforts many times far above and beyond the required class time. For many students the accomplishments in arts are the most significant thing in their entire school life.

Barbra Streisand testified before Congress a few years ago that her public school music classes were the foundations of her career. Other professionals joined in to say how much their public school art and music programs meant to them and their careers. Often for many youngsters the public school music instruments are their sole source of such hardware.

Interviews with former students often reflect that the main thing they remember about school is their participation in music, dance, theater and art programs. Modern students are also being recognized for their computer-related performances that range from computer art to computer based stage management and audio programs. Teachers in these fields are the most important because they can inspire and engage students. Evaluation is immediate by audiences for performing arts.

There is a correlation between music and science. Many of our scientists have also been great artists. If in our frenzy to cut costs we eliminate arts, music and theater, we will be destroying the heart of modern education.

As mentioned earlier these are things that students are eager and willing to spend their own time and efforts on. Work in these transfers to science and other areas. If I am recognized for my oil painting or illustration, that accomplishment often transfers to other fields. In my anatomy classes I was by far the best illustrator if not the best student. It helped me with my professor. He said without a doubt I was the best in the class in drawing and illustrations. If I ever learned to spell, he thought I might even be the best student in the class. I did pass the class even though my spelling has never really improved.

I see art, music, drama, dance and theater as an essential aspect of a public education for all students. They are the very heart of programs that can engage, inspire and empower our young people, and they often transfer to excellence in science and mathematics. Art programs are essential elements in a well rounded education system and bring a balance to student learning.

3 Responses

  1. I am sure that principals decided that my brian was more wried for the arts than serious reading from the book. I am a PAEMST teacher. I teach using hard fun. My science lessons were also magic.

    One of my passions was to teach about Shakespeare. I was teaching Sixth Grade and ti was a part of the curriculum. We had some little books, ” Shake Hands with Shakespeare” but the books were not well regarded by the parents and so the children started bringing in the books from their parents libraries.
    Oh the vocabulary they learned! We had wonderful scores.

    We saw calligraphy. Fortunately the art teacher decided to help me. We learned calligraphy, and then they did such a great job that they were allowed to do Illuminated calligraphy. That was in the art room and in the class. It was labor intensive.

    The helping teachers in my school were fabulous. But their time was so limited that the music teacher who wanted to teach them madrigals and to use the flute gave up her lunch time to teach the flute. We found a section on construction or instruments at the Exploratorium. The High School Teacher brought in the instruments to let us see and learn about them. You can see that a lot of this was volunteer work by parents in community. I live in Washington DC , the Metro area so that was relatively easy to do.

    The National Gallery of art had a collection of still life paintings that we used to
    learn some of the art styles of the time.

    Some of our art was done in dough. Bread dough dragons we designed and made and created almond toenails for our creations. That was a lot of fun, as well as exploring the culinary ideas of the day. I did have to talk the kids out of throwing the haunches of food on the floor, because they had read that the dogs were allowed to clean up the mess.

    They liked Sorrel Soup, Orange Tarts, Apples and Cheese and .. Turkey Haunches
    Big old turkey legs., with rice, and bread to sop it up.

    What was the accidental science they learned?
    Mordanting we made our own dyes using yarn
    How to Grow the Herbs of the Times
    Crop Rotations
    We hatched our own Chickens , but we did not eat them
    We learned to drop spindles of yarn
    We constructed and studied castles , ( David Mc Cauley, and movies helped)
    We engineered fanciful castles and studied Cathedrals
    Making candles.. that’s not really science but
    finding and learning how to use bayberries was a new learning.
    Rocks and Minerals. The SMithsonian lent us huge rock samples to
    learn with. There is more at this site
    We had a parent who came in to teach about stained glass windows and the way that art the cathedrals were used to teach the illiterate.
    We learned the language of flowers and planted an Anne Hathaway Garden.
    We learned chess.
    We wrote poetry. I think we made our own ink .
    We made maps and charts
    We had a Shakespeare Festival at our School.
    We learned about medicines of the times.

    Links to the Folger Shakespeare Library
    Look under all of the tabs. . THis is good arts education

    This class was such a hit that I got to teach it county wide.
    Working in the Career Center there were other things we could do there
    the chef did illusion foods ( Turducken) and fancier foods than I could afford. No camels

    The only thing was that most of the funding had to be secured from grants.
    I also wanted each student to own an instrument, a small flute, but we managed to rent them.

    We found lots of books in used book sales. Many children read works of Shakespeare that I did not teach because they loved the language.

    When I went away in the summer to learn physics at Berkeley, the kids put on their own summer in the park play. I could not leave the class, but the arts created a wonderful learning landscape for the kids. It was a lot of work and could have been available to all of the children, not just the ones I taught..

    I was pleased.

  2. Here is an interesting article from Edutopia that was published today. It’s about how an art teacher and a government teacher collaborated to create a joint project. I think it’s pretty cool!

  3. Arts education must be delivered in sequential disciplined ..quality programs in every school in Alaska if our students have a complete education and compete in a broadening world…..The arts are unique in that they encourage many fine academic..traits in children while allowing open-ended creative work. In fact the arts mimic life in that..success may only be achieved after a very long sustained effort ..failure is seen as a step in the learning process…..Success in the arts education can be improved through the State..Board of Educations continuing support of the standards process..and processes encouraging changes in how we go about helping high standards.

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