Before you read the rest of this post, I want you to make a list of the five things you do that add the most value to your life. These should be things that are not the source of regret or seem fun at the time but exact a high emotional or financial price afterwards. Just write down things that are life-enriching and that have lasting value to you and others. Don’t read further until you have made your list.
Now, look over the list and put a check mark next to each one that you were tested for when you were in school, from kindergarten through graduating from high school. While some of you may have Calculus and Physics on your list, as important as they are, for most of us, they are not what we choose to consume our time with when we are looking to build value into our lives and the lives of loved ones. It is much more likely that things related to the arts, sports, and spending time with loved ones was on most of your lists; yet most of us never had to take a standardized, mandated, government authored test on any of these things. In fact, you may have discovered that the more heavily tested something was, the less value it now adds to your life, and the less tested something was, the more value it adds to your life. While this is not an iron-clad argument, it is worth observing that students who spend as much time being tested as our students eventually come to the reasonable yet false conclusion that because the only thing that seems to matter to educators is testing, the only things they do in school that really matter are those things that are tested.
That list I had you make is a powerful statement of how backwards so many have this issue. It is a worthwhile exercise to have students make that list, and then ask them how many of the items on the list they have to be tested for. Students quickly see that what passes them through school will not be enough to get them through life. Most of them can scarcely get through one day without singing, drumming, dancing, or interacting in some way with some art or other. Yet because the arts are so accessible and so pervasive in their daily lives, they can sometimes go unnoticed even as they are being enjoyed. They are the very essence of a thing taken for granted, and devalued as a result.
The Arts Education Partnership has noted that the arts prepare students for work and life. They do this by filling in education that is easily overlooked in academic classes, but when missing is the root cause of apathy, behavior problems, and disenfranchisement. According to AEP, the arts prepare students for work by equipping them to be creative, strengthening problem solving skills, building collaboration and communication skills, and increasing a capacity for leadership. The arts prepare students for life by strengthening perseverance, facilitating cross-cultural understandings,building community and supporting civic engagement, and fostering a creative community. This last group, how the arts prepare students for life, is perhaps the most important, because unlike the ways in which the arts prepare stduents for work, the way in which the arts prepare students for life are not as well represented in athletics. Cross-cultural understandings beyond those already acquired through associations at school, and building a creative community are especially needed and absent from athletic programs.
The obsession with testing in our schools and valuing only what is tested there is, I think, a symptom of an American obsession with competing in the workplace, and winning at all costs. Such a worldview devalues all that is not profitable financially, and leaves the competitors to lead futile, hapless lives caught in what has been coined the rat race, which as too many have learned, is unwinnable. The solution is to jump off the race track and embrace the arts as a pursuit through which all humans can find a missing piece to the whole and satisfying life we want and were meant to have.
During school spring recess next week, I will not be posting new material. Please enjoy the archive of posts available on this site, and look for new material beginning Monday, April 20.