The importance of art education

Last week the church I attend highlighted The Arena Culture, an editorial by David Brooks which considers a new book All Things Shining.  David Brooks writes:

For the past hundred years or so, we have lived in a secular age. That does not mean that people aren’t religious. It means there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions. In our world, individuals have to find or create their own meaning.

This, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, has led to a pervasive sadness. Individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up. So modern life is marked by frequent feelings of indecision and anxiety. People often lack the foundations upon which to make the most important choices.

Brooks puts his finger on a very important subject—the relationships between truth, meaning, and reality—but when he wields his rhetorical hammer, it is his logical fingers, rather than the target, he manages to strike.  As a parent, as a church-goer, and as a board member of a Montessori school, I have been on my own little journey of self-discovery, and I have had a chance to re-evaluate many of the truths I thought I had settled the first time I made my way to self and adulthood.

Let me begin by placing myself squarely and honestly in the middle of the Brooks’s description of the human condition today: I believe that individuals like myself have to find or create our own meaning.  I.e., I have no quarrel with Brooks about that.  And in my angst-ridden adolescence and early adulthood I suffered no shortage at all of pervasive sadness within myself.  In those days I used to be very cynical about the value of a liberal arts education, namely that it was uniquely suited to really sharpen one’s ability to understand just how miserable one could or should be about the prevailing condition.  But having now had the benefit to reflect upon both that liberal arts education and my own experiences in the world, I have come to understand a quite remarkable duality that I’m sure I could not have appreciated while I was in college.  The duality is this:

  • Science may be a conversation with Nature, but it is Nature who decides the facts and thus the limits of that conversation.  It is up to the Scientist to discover the facts, appreciate their beauty, design, utility, and to use whatever facts may be known to discover new facts–thereby continuing the conversation.  Thus, through Science, the Universe expresses itself to each of us, and it is up to us to listen and learn.
  • Art is the means by which the Individual can find the voice with which to express their self to the Universe.

Yin and Yang, Art and Science provide the balance of listening and speaking, observing and creating.  When I was much younger, I placed faith exclusively in Science, because Science allowed only one right answer: the answer that most elegantly and most accurately explained the observed reality.  But I ran into problems when the observed reality needed changing; specifically, to account for ME.  If it is true that “individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up,” it could be because we have purged the teaching of art and respect for art our from our educational, commercial, and social value system.  We have created generations of individuals who have no creative capacity because we have beaten the art right out of them.

The solution that Brooks proposes, which is to celebrate the effect of participation in an Arena Culture is clearly inadequate, first because there is already a substantial Arena Culture today and it has done nothing to ameliorate the pervasive sadness we see, and second because the Arena always generates more losers than winners.  In an even match there will be one loser and one winner.  In a tournament such as the NCAA Basketball championship, there will be 65 losers(if you count the two teams who “play in”) for every one winner.  And that doesn’t count all the teams who “lose” because they don’t even make the selection.

The solution to our pervasive sadness is not more sports.  The solution is to recognize that if we are going to construct a society of individuals who must find or create their own meaning, then we must equip every individual with the most powerful tools we have yet developed: science for finding meaning, and art for creating it.

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