Study art for art’s sake

Why study art? It’s not a way to boost math and reading scores, much less to prepare students for the 21st century workforce, writes Jay Greene. We’re trying to educate civilized human beings.

As he researches the effect of field trips to art museums on student learning, Greene encounters arts educators eager to climb on the economic utility bandwagon. Afraid art will be seen as a frill, they feel compelled to argue it’s a form of job training.

Most of what students learn in math and reading also has no economic utility.  Relatively few students will ever use algebra, let alone calculus, in their jobs.  Even fewer students will use literature or poetry in the workplace. When will students “use” history?  We don’t teach those subjects because they provide work-related skills. We teach algebra, calculus, literature, poetry, and history for the same reasons we should be teaching art — they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in.  We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.

Policymakers, pundits and others suffering from PLDD (petty little dictator disorder) use economic utility to club their critics into submission, Greene writes. Even math and reading must prove to be economically useful.

You have folks like Tony Wagner and the 21st Century Skills movement suggesting that we cut algebra because students won’t ‘need’ it.  Instead, students would be better off learning communication skills, like how to prepare an awesome Power Point (TM).  And you have Common Core cutting literature in English in favor of “informational texts.”

If the purpose of school is workforce prep, then let’s do away with it and set up apprenticeships, Greene writes.

His study asked 4,000 students to write short essays in response to Bo Bartlett’s painting, The Box.  “It may be harder to code and analyze essays about paintings than to run another value-added regression on the math and reading scores that the centralized authorities have collected for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.”

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    I wouldn’t want to be a petty little dictator and force young people to go to school for 13 years to learn things that will allow them to make more money. Better, says Jay Greene, to force young people to go to school for 13 years and take art, algebra, calculus, literature, poetry and history because (Jay says, and it must be true) “they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in. We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.”

    Well, that certainly isn’t petty.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.”

      So, when do they start teaching them? Pompus pompusness.

  2. Mr. Greene has hit the nail squarely on his thumb.

    Math teaches (or is supposed to) problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis. Reading and Philosophy are also useful courses, and I’d agree with him that most students would never use calculus in their daily careers, but many people use algebra every day, and don’t realize it.


  3. “… math and reading also has no economic utility”
    Maybe not in his universe but in the REAL world it most certainly DOES.

  4. Ponderosa says:

    I absolutely agree with Jay Greene. Education is not the same as job training. Unfortunately most Americans don’t grasp this because they’ve never had a good liberal arts education themselves. So they think those of us who’ve seen the light are just trying to be snobby. Most great civilizations have espoused an ideal of a civilized, cultivated man. China, Japan, India, England, Rome, Greece…I’m afraid we’re losing sight of that ideal. We’re happy with myopic MBA brains –completely innocent of the actual content of our heritage (including the actual content of the Bible that many of them vow to love). Most of us are unwittingly mental slaves to contemporary groupthink, the prejudices of our place and time; only the liberal arts can liberate a mind from this provincialism.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Most American receive a liberal arts education – a crappy liberal arts education. The basis of most state high school standards are liberal arts standards. Going on about how beautiful and meaningful these standards are in the face of growing failure is self-delusional. Hello?! A significant subclass of Americans talk 4 years of English, and 3 years each of science, math and history and yet remain ignorant and unprepared to even support themselves.

      How’a about we set some priorities? Basic literacy, numeracy, and knowledge of world would be a start.

  5. Greene is right about the arts being important to human flourishing. There must be a place in the curriculum for the good, the true and the beautiful. But even math need not be defended solely on the basis of utility. It has its own inherent beauty.. Do we really need those classroom posters that show the 99 ways math is useful?

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Liberal arts suffers from the difficulty of definition. One person’s liberal arts–the CFT cartoon showing the rich urinating on the poor–is another person’s indoctrination.
    Besides, when Western Civ got to go, what’s left? Most small towns–and I make it a point from time to time to pass through small towns–have libraries, and even internet.
    You can’t teach liberal arts without making moral judgments or value judgments. The State will be making those judgments. Anybody see a problem here?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Right. And this is why we end up with a hodge-podge of sorta liberal artsy courses offered depending on location and socio-economic class. It’s too many cooks ruining the soup until it’s watery and tasteless.

      There should be a place for a rigorous liberal arts education, just as there should be room for many other types of education depending on the individual and community values.

      The problem is the public education tends to embrace the baby totalitarians in people. The Great Minds want to enforce a value system – because they value it and believe everyone else should as well. Unfortunately we have ample proof what happens when we attempt to force people to not only value what we value but to LIVE that value as well. Failure. But it’s for our own good.

    • Richard— good question. Where does this put you on the matter of the common core?

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Ruth. I’m not a teacher, although most of my female relations are, over several generations.
        I haven’t read CC.
        I have done some college anthro and been burned by cultural relativism. As Thomas Sowell said, cultures vary and differences have consequences. I’m not sure that could be taught in pub ed today, irrespective of any mandated curriculum. It would depend on the emphasis or lack. A zinned teacher could ruin any curriculum.
        Two of the acquaintances (one HS, one MS) of one of my teacher relations voted for Obama because “he’s going to bring us together”. For real. I didn’t ask for any evidence that that was one of Obama’s objectives, or how he’s done so far. It would have been cruel. Picture these airheads and CC.
        Some time back, in a history discussion on the ‘net, I conceded that the colonists during the Rev War were divided into three roughly equal camps, rebels, loyalists, and neutrals. Why, I asked, did so many more of the first group turn out than the second. A couple of HS teachers gave lame excuses, such as the loyalists were older, or they were more High Church. Eventually, they figured it out. I must be a patriot. So there. Same-same knuckle-dragging idiot.
        Were I czar of everything, my first ukase would be to limit video games and ‘net communicating to one hour–not during business/school hours–per day for people under the age of eighteen. Any longer than that and their equipment spontaneously combusts. They’d have to read to pass the time, or get out into the real world, one way or another. So that’s why I’m not czar.
        Suppose an Am Gov teacher had a sign up in his room that the only money the government has is the money it takes from you. That would be my style, and it would probably keep me from getting tenure.

        • Richard— Thanks for the reply. The problem with any curriculum—especially social studies–is the matter of who will be dong the deciding. And when it’s a national curriculum, there is not only less local input into the whole thing, it’s much harder to change if it’s a bad one. It reminds me of the Buckley quote that it would be preferable to be governed by the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Additional info about those two hist tchrs on the web. I mentioned a lot of folks had left NY state to come west. Scoffed, told me I didn’t know what I was talking about.
            At the time, I was living in Flushing, MI, not far from Montrose, Mt. Morris, Genesee, Geneseo, somewhat further from Saranac, and a couple of places south of Lansing, which have names something like towns in NY.
            Also, see the fabulous review on Amazon of The Bark Covered House, a story of settling Dearborn, MI from…NY state.
            Yup. Just ’cause I live there and see it doesn’t mean I’m right.

  7. Tom Linehan says:

    I would like some research into whether a really rigorous curriculum in arts produces elevated standardized test scores similar to those in schools with the more demanding conventional curricula.