Monday, October 01, 2007

A bizarre argument for arts education

I'm a big fan and proud veteran of public-school programs in the arts, especially music. Because I wish school arts programs well, I hope they enjoy better supporting arguments than this one, offered by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland in the Boston Globe. (Winner and Hetland teach at Boston College and the Massachusetts College of Art, respectively.)

Starting with the big question, "Why do we teach the arts in schools?" Winner and Hetland argue, in brief,

1. The common claim that the arts make students "smarter" (or higher achievers) in other subject areas has not held up to scrutiny.

2. However, arts classes are valuable in another way because their teachers tend to use techniques that develop "life skills" such as critical self-examination more than teachers in other classes.

3. This "arts-like approach" can be adapted to teaching other subject areas.

That last step is the kicker: if the only demonstrable benefits of the "arts-like approach" can be exported straightforwardly out of the arts classroom, why should we bother with the arts classroom as anything but a transitional space, where certain (not very revolutionary) teaching techniques are examined and extracted until the arts themselves become wholly unnecessary?

Again, I write as a supporter of arts education, but the logic of this article, ostensibly in support of the cause, constitutes one of the most effective attacks on it that I have encountered.

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