Makes sense, but according to a new report on the state of Ontario’s publicly-funded elementary schools, many schools aren’t teaching arts.
So either my syllogism is wrong and we can dispense with all notions that the arts deserve priority placement in our schools, or else schools aren’t teaching indispensable knowledge.
I’ll side with the premise that the arts are indispensable.
The report that documents the lowly state of arts education was produced by People for Education, an educational think-tank. Their research shows that less than half of elementary schools had a music specialist on staff in the 2016-2017 school year. Full-time music teachers tended to teach in the more populous schools, meaning arts education tends to be concentrated in urban centres. Visual arts specialist teachers were nearly non-existent in elementary schools in the last academic year, and a mere eight per cent of schools had a teacher who specialized in drama.
The overall trend is towards less arts training for young Ontario students. Some students will receive education by arts specialists but most won’t.
Defenders of arts education like to point to the economic benefits of the arts. Creative people innovate and stimulate the economy – that kind of stuff. What a cringe-worthy defence. We shouldn’t evaluate the arts based on their economic potential for the same reason we shouldn’t try to weigh a soul: we don’t have the tools to make an accurate measurement.
The reason to train students in the arts of a culture is to prepare them for life in that culture. If we want students to aspire to higher things – to raise the culture we all inhabit – we must give them the language and knowledge of higher culture.
Historically – and hypocritically – it has been conservative-minded tax-cutters who have axed arts education funding. Art is a frill, they told us. Schools should prepare students for the economies of the future. They and their supporters are the same people now complaining about the erosion of cultural literacy.
An understanding of the arts is the mark of a cultured, educated person. The educated person can read and write a story, know how to look at a painting, and tune their ear to fine music. More importantly, they can distinguish why one work of art deserves attention while another does not – why one lasts while another doesn’t.
The educated people – the ones who hold the arts close to their hearts – will be able to defend the arts against the anti-artists. Anti-artists are disenchanted misanthropes who like to call themselves artists. Rather than speak a universal language, anti-artists speak in code. Their art is bitter social criticism steeped in a sour broth of revolutionary politics. It is purposefully ugly, intentionally divisive and resolutely incomprehensible.
Art is no substitute for religion but it can offer a means of contemplation. To write a poem – to read a poem – is to turn inward. When the artist succeeds, that inward turn points viewers outside themselves so they may see other people. The artist unifies. Art shows our common humanity. Given a choice between speaking for life or speaking for death, the artist will always choose life.
Ultimately, we study the arts to study beauty and to answer the questions: What is good? What is beauty? What are the many reasons not to kill yourself? What is the way to live in the world?
The arts pierce the surfaces of this world we inhabit. The highest arts penetrate to the truth, which, when we see it, we recognize as beautiful.
Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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