How Critical Is Our Story

I love when I hear an amazing new perspective on something, a fresh way of seeing things that would never have occurred to me otherwise, or at least not anytime soon.

I listened to a podcast this week with Dana Gioia, in which he discussed the importance of arts education in the U.S. I’m always ultra-sensitive to this subject. It seems that, whenever I hear education or education reform discussed in the U.S., the emphasis is always placed on science, math, and technology. All of these disciplines and areas of expertise are very important, and I don’t claim that they’re not. I’m troubled, though…perpetually troubled…that so little emphasis is given to arts education. Most public schools have obligatory music programs (the marching band, after all, is a staple of half-time shows), and an old Broadway musical is often performed at the end of the year. In general, however, if a school board had to cut a position and the choice fell between a visual arts instructor or a physical science teacher…well, you and I both know who is most likely to be brushing up their vita.

For our empirical data-driven, evidence-based culture, there is hard data to quantify the increased odds of success in various aspects of life that connect with a history of music education. Theatre holds huge opportunities for learning team-work, teaching acceptance and self-esteem. The visual arts or photography hone visual acuity in huge ways. The list could go on. I’m struck by how we complain about the distress of our youth culture…or the distress of the adults in our culture, for that matter…while not investing in the artistic experiences that make us better as people.

Gioia connects this personal development with literature, as well. He talks about the importance of everyone growing up with a basic understanding of story and plot, and how they move. His assertion of this alludes to the fact that our lives are stories, and that the hopelessness and desperation that drive depression and extreme acts of self-harm, for example, are easily attributed to no longer being able to see a plausible and successful direction for one’s own story. Knowing that there are always a myriad of possibilities for every story gives the reader hope that the protagonist will still make it through…likewise in our own stories.

And this is to say nothing about the ability to effectively communicate our thoughts respectfully to each other.

This is more of the interdisciplinary thought process of which I’ve grown so enamored…the Burkian principle that every discipline serves as a lens through which every other discipline can be viewed and understood. I look forward, hopefully not in naivete, to when we weigh the arts (and humanities in general) as heavily in our support as the disciplines that make us financially and vocationally competitive with the rest of the world, because we realize that the humanities make us more mature as human beings, which makes us better able to use the skills that make us competitive vocationally.

Gioia spoke more eloquently of the interdisciplinary understanding of our lives and human condition than I have heard in some time. His call for an emphasis in arts education is something that all of us would do well to heed with whatever circles of influence in which we may find ourselves.

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