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Point of View: A Teacher of the Arts Answers the Question “What is the Point?”

Guest post by Greg Blankenbehler

After the moving premiere performance of his sublime oratorio Messiah it is said that a spectator came up to George Frederic Handel and congratulated him on providing “a wonderful new entertainment” for the English public. Maestro Handel soberly replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”

Only slightly better is Plato’s abuse of the arts in his famous dialogue The Republic. Socrates does not seem very interested in the truthful explorations of human nature that help us appreciate the good and redeem the bad. Instead, he wanted to manipulate the populace by only allowing contrived moralistic stories that would help him meet his goals of creating patriotic and well-behaved youths that he can go on to train in the “higher” arts of mathematics and philosophy. Whether in earnest or irony, Plato’s depiction of Socrates in The Republic seems to have a shallow understanding or respect for the important place the arts have in connecting communities through the sharing of experience and ideals. There is little surprise that in a reductionist, scientistic society the arts are often considered irrelevant “fluff.” 

When it comes to limited facilities and budgets, mere entertainment rightfully doesn’t typically make the cut in schools. Even utilitarian uses don’t stand much of a chance. What is the use of doing a non-math activity that “has been shown to indirectly increase mathematical skills” when you could just do direct math instruction? No, all justifications of the arts without addressing the aesthetic experience fall flat. They all miss the point.

Moved by Beauty

The purpose of the arts in schools is not to give scholars an enjoyable guided recess activity. (Just because an activity is enjoyable does not mean its outcome is the most important.) It is not to teach times tables or grammar rules. (It can be used for that, but that is a shallow application.) It is not even to build self-esteem, leadership skills, or make friends (although it does do each of those well). The main point is to see the Truth-Beauty-Goodness in nature and in humans in a way that cannot be adequately addressed or quantified in science or math, and that cannot be adequately explained in essays and term reports. The point is to be moved by the beauty of it to the extent that your perspective on life shifts and your values are rearranged to what really matters.

The enlightenment gained through the aesthetic experience is nearly impossible to understand or value without having experienced it yourself. But once scholars, parents, staff, and administration experience and value the aesthetic experience of the arts, the facilities, funding, and scheduling necessary to help it thrive always follow.

Beauty and the Community

As with any other subject, it is almost always a good idea to involve the greater school and outside community in educational experiences. Community artists or performers provide great support to the teacher’s efforts to show that the arts are indeed relevant in the real world. Public art shows and performances also show scholars that their efforts are accepted and valued by the world, building confidence like nothing else can.

However, another way that I think the arts should effectively connect with the greater community is through service. It is easy to believe that the arts are about showing off for others in pursuit of admiration or accolades. We see many models of that in our society today, though we have a natural distaste for it. Instead, it is important for scholars to learn that creating and sharing art is an act of altruistic service. It is, quite literally, learning how to find yourself and then sharing it with others.

Surface—Inside—Out

I like to use a simple formula with my classes called Surface—Inside—Out. For example, I mentor the scholars in discovering all there is on the “surface” of a piece of music: all the right notes and rhythms, tempo and dynamic markings, words, and composer-indicated expressions. We work to get it all right. But we don’t stop there. Next, we delve into the meaning expressed in the words, melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture of the piece to feel the deeper truth and beauty within the piece. We seek it out with our minds, but we also feel it out with our hearts. In short, each person determines what the piece means to them, how it personally connects to their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Finally, I invite the scholars to share part of that personal meaning with each other and with the audience through their performance in the concert. They don’t need to share everything; many things are too private to share publicly. But they can share many authentic and meaningful personal truths through their facial expressions, emoted feelings, and vocal inflections as they perform the piece.

In sharing these personal meanings through performance, the scholars effectively connect their technical skills with the authentic Truth-Beauty-Goodness they have discovered in the piece and share it with their audiences. They give their audience a gift of genuine Beauty, a priceless treasure in this world! And what is more, they feel that Beauty even more strongly from the giving of it. This is a genuinely transformational experience, for both the scholar and the audience. This is the greatest gift the arts has to offer, and it is as possible from a moderately-skilled as from an experienced scholar in a school.

Another way to “Support the Arts”

The most important thing a parent can do to support their scholar’s arts education is to show that they genuinely value and appreciate it.

Parents understandably want their children to get a good education that prepares them to support themselves in the world when they come of age. Sometimes, this causes parents to devalue the arts (What good will this do them in getting a good job?) and either directly or implicitly discourage them from participating. This, again, comes from a low level of sophistication of aesthetic understanding. There is often the case that the parents only experience the arts in their lives as a sort of cheap entertainment, a functional distraction from the “real” efforts and problems in life. And why would any good parent encourage their child to spend a lot of time and effort on distracting themselves in school? Even supportive parents sometimes betray this belief with comments like “I just hope she is having fun in choir, that is all I care about,” or “I don’t understand it at all, no one else in our family has been into art, but he likes it, so we support him in it.”

Many of the most successful people in history (Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking) were artists and musicians as well as hugely successful scientists, public figures, and entrepreneurs. Developing determination and aesthetic sensibilities in the arts does not handicap a person going into another field like medicine, law, or business, but rather greatly improves their character, creativity, and drive to be successful. The famous violin teacher (and friend of Einstein) Shinichi Suzuki said, “The purpose of [music] education is to train children, not to be professional musicians but to be fine musicians and to show high ability in any other field they enter.” (Nurtured by Love) And he would know — millions of children have become fine musicians through his Suzuki method and gone on to successful and high-paying careers in other areas.

Be Invested

My strong recommendation to parents is that they take the time to attend their scholar’s performances and shows, carefully view their artwork, and give as much thoughtful praise as they can genuinely muster. Ask the scholar to talk about their experiences and what the artwork means to them. They will likely learn the profundity of meaning that piece has for their child, or they may even draw closer to their daughter or son in discussing things that really matter to them. Yes, participating in the arts is making them happy, but why? Do they feel more connected with their peers in the group? Do they feel a sense of accomplishment in what they have created? Are they fascinated by the ideas and experiences that the art works brought up? Whenever possible, talk with them like an adult as they discuss the things they have learned. Maybe they can’t even articulate every benefit, but you can start to make them out through their excited comments on the songs or drawings they have started doing non-stop at home. Yes, they are happy, but not in the same way they are when they get to play video games all day. They are connected to their peers, to great artists from the past, and to great ideas and experiences that great minds have pondered over the centuries.

And that is where you will find both the Beauty and the point.

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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