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Education and the arts

Is it the job of our schools to create an appreciative audience for higher culture?

September 11, 2008

Sung to the central theme of Franz Schubert's 8th Symphony: "This is the symphony / That Schubert wrote and never finished." That mnemonic ditty was a mainstay of music appreciation classes 75 years ago, an easy way for children to identify the so-called Unfinished Symphony. (Schubert) To some extent, such classes worked. Along with the wider availability of recorded music and public museums, music and art appreciation expanded the reach of the arts beyond a wealthy, educated elite.

Today, the arts are everywhere, but the audience for them has dwindled, especially among younger people. A new Rand study concludes that schools must expand arts education to build a new audience, which raises the question: Is it the job of schools to create market demand for arts or any other endeavor?

Ever since public education became compulsory, its goal has shifted from producing literate citizens to well-rounded citizens (thus the focus on arts appreciation) to science-oriented, physically fit citizens and then to intellectually able thinkers. In this era of the globalization of employment, the overriding though officially unacknowledged goal is to produce workers who can compete for jobs. Necessary as this is, it often means the diminishment of the arts, physical education and other areas of instruction.

Our expectations for public education reflect our closely held values. If the arts are among them, schools must produce an audience for the arts, not just artists. But if our society is placing less value on classical arts, is it proper for schools to try to change a cultural trend? If the popularity of video games miraculously plummets, few would want schools to create a market for the genre. The advent of the Internet calls into question even the future of literacy as we know it, a shift that mightily concerns newspapers across the nation.

It has been a long time since our society has articulated a set of values for itself and its schools, beyond higher test scores and better-paying jobs. The discussion is necessary; society is evolving, with or without our direction.

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