Our Ambivalence with the Arts makes Bad Education and Economic Policy

Our Ambivalence with the Arts makes Bad Education and Economic Policy

On October 13, 1996, the L.A.Times quoted several prominent film and digital production executives who lamented the lack of skilled workers with basic aesthetic training. In their view, California's public schools no longer provide children with an adequate education in the arts due to the lowered standards and reduced number of hours dedicated to the arts as a result of Proposition 13. The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, which bases educational success on reading and math testing, leaving little time for arts education, put the rest of the nation on the same course as California. No Child Left Behind prioritizes the creation of a skilled labor force fed conventional educational approaches including heavy doses of rote learning, lectures, and memorization. The arts are seen as expendable non-essentials that take a back seat in the drive for competitive workers.

Ironically, while we degrade the arts to second-class citizens in the classroom, we celebrate the leaders in our creative fields and take pride in the creative messages we export internationally. Our creative leaders contribute significantly to the economy, and are often are far better known, more influential, and more frequently emulated than our political and scientific leaders. More than half of Americans polled admitted to getting important health care information from the TV show ER. Business, and even military spheres, also rely on the creative industries: 40% of pop songs have brand placement in the lyrics, and in 1999 the U.S. Army paid $45 million to USC to marry Hollywood and the military through the creation of the Institute for Creative Technologies, which uses the entertainment arts to develop training videos for combat.

Instead of passively permitting the relegation of the arts in our public schools, we should reexamine our attitudes that have allowed this neglect. When we talk about creating educational systems able to produce workers for competitive markets, we need to be clear what we really mean. By and large our current economy depends on inventiveness, a personality trait found in both artists and scientists. In fact, the artist and the scientist have more in common than not. Recent studies of intelligence coming out of Harvard reveal that artists and scientists require similar thinking skills. Both the artist and the scientist must develop a mastery of their medium, understand unique symbolic systems, and possess a gestalt perception that enables them to bring multiple perspectives to a problem.

In a city like Los Angeles, whose very heartbeat pulses to the rhythms of a creative score, we should capitalize on the intrinsic value of the arts to solve some of our city's most pressing challenges. We may not be able to change national education policy and we may still struggle with the fallout of Proposition 13, but there are other solutions. Instead of spending more money on gang czars and police, I propose that our tax dollars build art centers in our most blighted neighborhoods - art centers that could step in to educate and inspire young people in the place of failing public schools. And I propose that instead of building more jails we create mandates to help boutique creative businesses, like graphic design and production houses, open in our poorest communities through city incentives such as gap financing and low-interest loans. These businesses could offer internships and entry-level jobs to young people, helping them to use the thinking skills developed through work with the arts as well as master craft-specific tools needed to participate in the creative economy.

More than 50 years ago we worried Soviet technology would surpass our own, and we created educational systems we believed would build our nation's competitive capacity. We emphasized "pen and paper" tests that attempted to gauge intelligence based on language and logic but told us little about an individual's ability to reach his or her fullest intellectual potential in different domains. We created and continue to create policy that suffocates our public educational system and leaves hollow carcasses of schools in our poorest neighborhoods--schools that today contribute little to the economy but fuel for our prison systems.

It shouldn't take our creative leaders shouting from the tallest mountains that arts-based education is key to developing the kind of workers they need to grow their industries. We should all recognize the role of the arts in our lives and create opportunities for each individual to develop the kind of open-ended creativity and thought processes which are critical to reaching our highest human intellectual and economic achievements.