Music and arts education programs matter because they engage the bizarre and beautiful creativity of Generation Y.
So, I've been thinking about education recently. Entries on the joys and trials of being a Suzuki Mom have flooded my inbox (send more!), and my colleague Alberta, a fine violinist and writer here at SHAR, just posted an entry last week on the sacrifices and payoffs of studying and playing the violin.
The entries on this blog, however, aren't reflective of the dominant opinion on most school boards. No surprise there. Arts education can't really compete with the sciences, and I'm not sure if they've ever been able to compete. Certainly these days most of the rhetoric from President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has centered on the sciences. When Obama and Duncan talk about our test scores dropping behind Scandanavian countries or China, it's usually in the sciences. Administrators value reading, but not reading as a way to make art: more so, they care about reading skills because the savvy use of language is necessary to get ahead.
Don't get me wrong. Few of us grow up like Mary, Sibyl, and Edith Crawley on Downton Abbey and a degree in engineering or business is more likely to land you a comfortable job than a degree in writing sonnets or playing concertos (believe me, I know). But what the administrators, czars, and boards who are running America's schools don't understand, or haven't really recognized yet, is how bizarrely creative and talented young folks are these days.
I'm not ignoring the shortcomings of my generation and Generation Y (when I was teaching, I sometimes wanted to smash the smartphones, Donkey Kong-style, that snuck into my classroom. Then after class I would fire up Facebook to complain about smartphones). While there's a virtual explosion of creativity on social media and the Web, it's not all encouraging. I've noticed a recurring sad character in recent indie films: the young, directionless, and irredeemably weird psuedo-artist who makes YouTube videos (e.g. Sophie in Miranda July's The Future. Maybe we should actually group Generation X and Generation Y together and just call it the Miranda July generation). I guess my point is that there are plenty of shortcomings and annoyances to go along with these generations, but there's certainly no shortage of creativity in them.
I admit that I'm personally invested in arts education. I earned a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Virginia in writing, and before starting work in SHAR's social media and web department, I taught writing at the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia. I loved teaching college students, but one of the most rewarding teaching jobs I had was at the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia, where I taught high school students during the summer.
At Young Writers, I taught writing workshops for three hours hours a day, five weeks of the summer. My students and I talked through their work, we took field trips to catalyze their writing, and we read work by contemporary writers with an eye to see what methods they could steal. Then they would belt out their poems in front of their peers at the end-of-session performance events. Similarly, my fellow teacher, the musician Andrew Rose Gregory of Autotune the News fame, coached his young MCs, cellists, pop singers, and guitarists to sometimes painful and sometimes achingly gorgeous concerts.
What was so rewarding about that job was that I watched young adults encounter the power of creativity. Students weren't necessarily "finding their voice" (is that voice inside us? where does it come from? does it change?) but tapping into creative energy bigger than themselves and bigger than productivity quotas. No one at Young Writers was "getting ahead." No one was learning how to build a better stealth jet, game the financial system, or make a killing in widgets. We were honing a shared craft (though I hate that word – long story), and forming communities whose core value was making art. We came to value the insoluble problems of literature and music's rangy, emotional force because we saw these intangibles reach even the most jaded sixteen year-old kid.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that music and arts education programs have helped release this creativity. I believe that's a totally sane thesis. I've certainly experienced (and witnessed and benefitted from) the joy that goes along with making art. And as a proud member of the Miranda July generation, I don't think I would have known how to experience all this joy without someone pointing me in the right direction.