Sunday, February 22, 2015

In the Skills Adults Think Kids Need to Succeed, the Arts Come in Last

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………."

In a recent Pew Research Center survey of what adults think are "the most important skills for children to get ahead in the world today", disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the arts come in last. Again.

"Across the board, more respondents said communication skills (90%) were most important, followed by reading, math, teamwork (78%), writing and logic. Science fell somewhere in the middle, with more than half of Americans saying it was important.
Rounding out the bottom were skills more associated with kids’ extracurricular activities: art (23%), music (24%) (sorry, right-brained people) and athletics. There was virtually no difference in the responses based on whether the person was a parent of a child aged 18 and younger or not."

This is frustrating.  At the core of art is "communication"; at the essence of performing arts is "teamwork".  That's intuitive.  Why then does someone who values communication and teamwork as skill sets, not equally value the arts?  It's mind boggling.

What was somewhat surprising in the study (to me anyway) is that whites and college educated people ranked the arts lower than Hispanics and Blacks, and lower than those with a high school diploma or less.  Assuming that most of the educational decision makers are white and with college educations, that is discouraging.  The assumption (mine included) that whites and college educated people are likely to be more supportive of the value of arts education is also somewhat discouraging.  On the plus side though, there is increased support from the growing ethnic communities, and at least (nearly) a quarter of the respondents did pick Arts / Music as important.  We need to embrace and build on that foundation.

For some reason (unclear to me) the Survey arbitrarily included Music and Art as separate categories instead of the wider and more generic Arts (plural) category (but curiously left off entirely as a choice - Social Studies).  Music fared better on the ranking than did Art - but not by much.  The ten skills might have gotten a different response if creativity and / or innovation were included, but the results are still telling.  Political affiliation (unsurprisingly) impacted the responses: Democrats and independents put a higher value on learning about music, a skill that just 17% of Republicans agree would be helpful for kids to succeed.

What does it all mean?   It means despite decades of work citing and arguing the value and benefit of the Arts as a core subject important to the education of our children, despite substantial research on that importance,  despite the flourishing of hundreds, if not thousands, of exemplary programs across the country, and despite all our efforts, the public seemingly STILL thinks of the arts (at least as important in education) as a frill, a luxury.  It means that despite the recognition in the survey of the importance of communication skills and of teamwork as a skill, the public doesn't make the link between the arts and those two key skills - let alone to reading and writing.  We haven't yet succeeded in demonstrating and convincing the public that inclusion of the arts in the curriculum directly relates to preparing better communicators and team players.

We've centered our past arguments in support of Arts Education on the value of the arts in improving SAT and other test scores, in fostering better academic performance and model classroom behavior, and in raising the level of self esteem and confidence of young students.  We've argued that Arts Education helps to equip innovators and is the natural hand-maiden of creativity.  Perhaps we now ought to spend more effort on linking the arts directly to those skills the public already values - communication, team work, reading, writing and even math and science.  And help the public to make the link between the arts and those valued skills.

If we want universal, curriculum based, sequential arts education, then (it seems to me) one of the potentially most fruitful strategies will be to convince parents to demand it in their schools.  And maybe we can move to increase that demand if we link the role of arts to what those parents already seem to value as critical preparatory skills.

Somehow, some way, some day we have to successfully challenge, attack and bury once and for all the notion that the arts are just a nice indulgence unrelated to truly valuable skills.  I'm tired of always coming in last in these kinds of surveys.   We really need to ask ourselves WHY we continue to come in last; and how can we move purposefully and strategically to change that.  We ought to do research, surveys, focus groups and dig deep into the reasoning behind the public's perception with an eye to changing it.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit


  1. a quick comment between the last sip of coffee and work. So i wonder, if, in the minds of the respondents they are differentiating as a function of the difference between skill and talent? that math and writing and communication skills are all something that everyone can do with practice, by investing time. but, acting/playing/painting are things that you have to have a talent for and as most don't, have lesser importance, in their minds, not as important.

  2. I believe that both the Pew study and Barry's analysis fundamentally mis-align both the information contained in the study and the issues facing the arts.

    The study itself, studying skills to "Get Ahead" presents a very random assignment of categories. It didn't break out the various arts, or the various sciences (social and physical), maths, or Athletics. It didn't include social studies, or Humanities etc... It framed its question as skills needed in "getting ahead", rather than valuable to a "rounded education", "college experience," or "living a fulfilling life". I think most Americans, especially those with college educations that are being paid off, view "getting ahead" with making money and career, so its not surprising, despite the very poorly designed categories, that the answers leave the experiential and some of the life-expanding parts of education in the minority. Is education merely about job skills.

    I understand that college athletics in many sports is publicly subsidized job training for professional sports, but we have already lost the argument, if we allow education and the arts to be framed as the tools for "getting ahead" rather than as living a full life. Are our colleges and universities now merely job training for corporations and business? If we accept that framework, then we have already lost the argument.

    Barry's analysis, in my opinion, makes a similar mistake. Starting with Jesse Helms and the Culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, we allowed the arts to be framed by their ancillary benefits instead of their life enhancement. The Arts are the Research and Development of the human experience, what it means to be alive. The scale for judging the success of art is not monetary or skill driven. It is about experience and enlargement. Once we allowed the reframing to happen, that the arts were valuable because of the skills and job prep, or because they teach history or philosophy or anything lese, we lost the argument. We surrendered the real value of Art, which is that it makes us feel more alive and it allows us to understand and appreciate our world and ourselves in a different way. We all know this. That's why we love it. That's why we do it. But we keep trying to justify by another scale that it can never compete in, because that is not its purpose.

    Many years ago I wrote a piece, "The Arts are not Accounting" and it still applies. Because we have allowed this re-definition, in order to try to head off the culture wars, we have allowed those who really don't understand us, to define us, and set the parameters for our success. This has resulted for us fighting for the scraps of a governmental and educational funding system that no longer understands why we exist. Arts and Humanities funding has flatlined for years, and this has created the impression that the Arts and the Humanities is ancillary.

    We have to re-frame the argument, not make a losing argument better. The Arts are not about "getting ahead," we are about experiencing life Right Now!

    We all know this to be true, it is an argument that we can make as true believers and put our entire life behind. We may not convince everyone, but we at least won't accept the slow death of attrition that has afflicted us since we surrendered our right to define our worth to Jesse Helms.

    1. Thank you Peter. Your observation is similar to Carter’s below. I don’t disagree with either of you in that the true value of the arts has (or ought to have) little to do with job skills, getting ahead, or making money. But as you point out, the strategy or default approach to defending the arts centering on its ancillary or instrumental values is a horse that has already left the barn. Now what do we do? If we are to “argue” that the arts are about “experiencing life right now” so as to reframe our value as intrinsic to itself, then I think that might take a generation or longer to even begin to establish (and I am not sure that value was ever established) - and in the meantime what will be the cost to arts education, to the provision of arts in this country?

      I also think it suspect to adopt the position that there can be only one value to the arts. The value to some people may in fact be that it enhances their skills level and even that it helps them to get the job or career they want; to get ahead. Are we to dismiss them and tell them they are wrong? Is it not somewhat presumptive and arrogant on our part to determine for other people what they value and what they don’t and why? Mind you, I don’t disagree with your premise, but am concerned about where we go from here. Is it not possible for there to be multiple values for the arts, or must one overarching value be all that we can embrace - or tolerate? When you say: “”in order to head off the culture wars, we have allowed those who really don’t understand us, to define us, and set the perimeters of our success. This has resulted for us fighting for the scraps of a governmental and educational funding system that no longer understands why we exist.”, I would argue that those systems never really did understand why we exist, and that funding has little to do with understanding anything, but rather it is a political act, governed by politics. And I also believe the “culture wars” had little to do with “culture” or even art. Those attacks were political in nature and conformed to a political agenda. My complaint has long been that in terms of succeeding with those systems, it has little to do with our value, but everything to do with our political power - or lack thereof. We have continually made the classic mistake that success in funding has to do with making a convincing argument - whatever that argument might be. It doesn’t. It has to do with whether or not those who want something have the political power and “on the ground” savvy to play the system. We don’t. In that sense, I agree with Carter that “no matter how well we make the case for the importance of the arts (in job preparation or helping people to “get ahead”), it would not be enough to change people’s minds.”

      I am all in favor of valuing the arts because of how they make us feel, how they allow us to experience the world, how they elevate beauty and any number of “values” that I think are core to life itself, but I also think we have to defend ourselves from further attack, and use every arrow in our quiver in that defense. It’s entirely possible we made a huge tactical error sometime ago in relying our the argument that the arts are good for the economy, or the arts prepare one for a good job - or whatever. But that’s spilt milk now to a large extent. And while we can and probably should shift the emphasis back to the values that only the arts can provide, I don’t think it wise in making that shift to now abandon any other tactic. The reality is that people do value the arts (for whatever reason) - just not as much as we believe they should. How do we change that mindset?

  3. One of the issues I see is that it can be problematic to argue for the arts on instrumental grounds, and that this tendency in arts advocacy itself has perhaps unintentionally brought us to this crossroads. I recently posted an essay that was a comment I left on Artsblog a few weeks ago and it outlines what I'm thinking. You can read it here:

    As I was reading your essay I thought to myself that a revealing follow up question for that survey might be to ask "If Science, Reading and Math all have the same influence on a student's communication skills and capacity for teamwork as things like art and music (the Arts), is it important to support them equally in schools or are some fields better worth supporting than others?" My suspicion is that the lack of appreciation (even dislike) for the arts in school starts prior to any connection with things like communication skills and teamwork. In other words, that no matter how well we made the case for the importance of the arts in doing these things it would not be enough to change people's minds. And that's the problem with instrumental arguments: If you don't already value the arts in their own right then no amount of instrumental worth will convince you otherwise.

    Imagine we were talking about food and health. Imagine we were trying to convince people that eating right led to better health. Say people even made that connection. Not only would we still see people eat fatty foods at fast food restaurants and eat far too many sweets, but sometimes you'd even get the argument that as long as you ate a handful of vitamins you didn't need to worry about the nutrition of food. Maybe exercise will be enough to counteract eating poorly. Do you see what I'm saying? You can't just argue that decent food is good for your health because too few people think that connection even matters. But if you had a survey asking the importance of health you'd still get a pretty universal approval for it, I'd wager. That just shows you the disconnect between things being related instrumentally.

    Or take smoking cigarettes and the connection to heart disease and lung cancer. You can know that something is true without it being enough to change patterns of behavior. Its the same losing argument that we see in promoting things like a clean environment and sustainable natural resources. You can't just argue that they are good (or bad) for some other end, you need to make the case that they are good (or bad) in themselves.....

    My impression is that we've spent too much time trying to argue for the arts on instrumental grounds. I'm not saying that we give it up, just that it can't be our primary argument and it can't be the gambit that we wager all our stakes on. With that hand we are destined to only win small pots, if at all....

    Enough of me blathering. What do you think? Is it worth continuing to invest in the instrumental argument despite its repeated failures? Those failures seemed hardwired into the argument itself. But maybe you have a different insight. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

    All the best!


    1. Thank Carter. Please see my comment to Peter above.