A modest proposition: We can trace the entire, swelling crisis of leadership and governance in the United States to the systematic removal of the arts, and artistic thinking processes, from mainstream education.
By the way, you don’t get consistently poor leadership in a democracy unless you have a poorly educated citizenry as well. That’s how those guys got to the halls of power in the first place. But since the people in the spotlight mirror those who put them there, let’s focus on them for a while.
Think about the spectacle just past, when contradictory, inflammatory, and disrespectful debate won out in Washington over creative, collaborative thinking. The entire country is disgusted with the results, as shown by record low poll numbers for Congress. But no one has taken time to look at the causes of the atmosphere of combat in what is supposed to be an inclusive, democratic process.
Yes, there are lots of proximate causes for this unsustainable and counterproductive behavior, but there is a root cause that everyone has overlooked. The arts, since time unrecorded, have been the language of wholeness, understanding, and community. Humans began teaching each other their vision of the universe by dancing, singing, painting, storytelling, sculpting, and acting like the world around them. The arts also became a telling part of each community’s unique cultural identity.
Many competing theories of education tangled during the early part of the 20th century as the United States grappled with becoming an industrial and military power. Because the capitalist system as practiced here needed large quantities of relatively unskilled labor and the captains of industry were able to get pretty much anything they wanted, the factory model of education won the day.
From that point forward, the business drive for efficiency, productivity, and profit dictated that schools eliminate the “soft” curriculum (arts & humanities) in favor of the “hard:” Readin’, Ritin’, and ‘Rithmetic. That these subjects were and remain almost universally known as “The Three R’s” tells you something about the mindset of the times — then and now.
As a result, we have a system of education that values knowledge over reasoning, volume over clarity, and form over function. We even instituted a national law that requires children to memorize endless strings of facts, but never asks them to apply their knowledge in constructive ways. We require students to have a lot of information without asking them to do anything important with it, and then we wonder why kids are turned off to school by the time they are in 4th or 5th grade.
Here’s the thing: solving complex problems, like those the entire globe faces today, requires higher-order thinking skills. In another post, I applied Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences to dance, as a way of showing how education theory and the arts reinforce one another. Here is a version of another model of human thinking, known as Bloom’s Taxonomy:
Notice where facts and information (Remembering) are located on the ladder. Now let your eye scan upward. Don’t those thinking skills look pretty important? Do you wonder why we don’t teach or assess those skills in school?
Also notice what is at the top: Creating. When we take facts and apply them to real-world situations, we look at the parts, evaluate our approaches, and create a new solution. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this is how a whole mind is designed to work. Creating in the arts means making new and surprising connections between facts, putting them into a context, and executing the idea with a high level of craft. What if laws were made like that?
Another model for thinking about our thinking (known as metacognition), is called “Habits of Mind.” Some noted educators have defined a set of sixteen such habits, and it turns out that study in and through the arts helps us develop exactly these habits of mind. Look at a few with me:
Persisting. Our immediate temptation, when faced with a difficulty, is to throw in the towel and go on to something else. As we learn to create in the arts, though, we also learn that repeated revision (look closely at that word) of our work and refinement of our techniques leads us to our goal — as long as we don’t give up. How many times in the past few weeks did people “walk away” from the discussion and give press conferences stating why they were incapable of making progress? “Failure,” for an artist, is just an opportunity to make it better the next time. Our innate desire for mastery (see Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive”) brings us back into the studio or classroom again and again to refine and polish our work. Meanwhile, Congress is on yet another vacation, with plenty of work left undone.
Listening with Understanding and Empathy. It is one thing to listen to a perceived opponent’s arguments in order to figure out how to refute them. It is another thing entirely to truly try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. When we engage in creating art, and discussing our artistic choices, we begin to realize that there are multiple “correct” answers to any problem. Even if we do not agree with another’s view, we respect that view as valid from their perspective, rather than writing the idea and the person off as stupid, or worse, evil.
Managing Impulsivity. Half of the problems that individual politicians face are ones they have made for themselves due to a simple lack of executive function. Do you think Anthony Weiner and his wife might have benefited if he had taken a moment to ask himself if “sexting” was a good idea before he hit the “send” button? Does Larry Craig wish he had never taken that “wide stance” in that Minneapolis restroom? Does Rick Santorum regret his ill-thought-out comments on homosexuality that landed him in the dictionary as a derogatory sexual term? (Google “santorum.”) Artists quickly learn that their first impulse is rarely their best choice, and they approach creation thoughtfully and deliberately.
Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations. Once children have “passed” a knowledge test, they never want to think about that knowledge again. Facts seem dead and lifeless out of context. So when a new problem arises, children who have been taught “the American way” are stumped. And the flip side of this is that products of this system tend to repeat past mistakes because they didn’t learn from them. How many other “powers” went into Afghanistan, confident they could impose their will through might, and how many lessons from those invasions went unlearned in 2002?
Thinking Flexibly. This is the 800-pound gorilla of this bunch. Being able to change perspectives, consider options, and generate alternatives is the hallmark of the artist. And it is the singular worst failing of the people we have sent to make, judge, and execute laws. The tea partiers are only the most egregious example of inflexible thinking. How much more inspiring it would be to see people of passion and conviction working together to reconcile differences, which is the true meaning of “compromise” – to make something together while not surrendering our principles.
There are many more of these habits of mind. (Check them out here.) Each is an example of what we learn as we create in the arts. Would focusing education through the arts mean that we do not teach facts, that there is no content we expect students to learn, that they just spend their days doing whatever comes to mind? Not at all.
A rigorous study of the arts requires that we learn (or invent) techniques, that we create in the arts, that we engage in thoughtful and objective evaluation of our efforts and those of others, and that we learn about arts in other cultures and other times. The subject matter of our art work can, and should, be mathematics, science, history, language, culture, and even the arts themselves. Rather than focusing on rote remembering, we engage in higher thinking skills to create lasting and meaningful work.
Such an education would be a process of discovery of self and universe, with the arts as the connecting fabric on which we embroider our understandings. It would be both individual and collaborative, both guided and open-ended, both rigorous and playful. And it would help us create a society in which diversity is valued over parochialism, shared success over stardom, and cooperation over power. Not to mention we would all be having a great deal more fun.
What do you suppose it would take to change?