Education Isn’t Entirely About Economic Utility

As some of you may know, I’ve been working on a large-scale random assignment experiment of the effects of school tours of an art museum on students and their learning.  We spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on school field trips and billions more on art museums, but we have relatively little rigorous evidence on how field trips and art museums affect students.  Soon we are going to have a lot more information.

Since the world of art and museum education is new to me, I’ve been trying to learn about how people in that field think about what they are trying to accomplish and what kind of evidence they present to justify the resources required.  Some  people try to justify the place of art in education by claiming that art positively affects achievement in math and reading — subjects whose importance is a matter of broad consensus.  Unfortunately, the evidence linking art education to improved math and reading achievement is generally weak and unpersuasive.

Why do people bother trying to justify art in terms of math and reading achievement?  Math educators don’t try to frame their accomplishments in terms of reading or vice versa.  Why do people in art try to frame the benefits of their field in terms of other subjects?

The problem is that a good number of  policymakers, pundits, and others who control the education system seem to think that the almost-exclusive purpose of education is to impart economically useful skills.  Math and reading seem to these folks to be directly connected to economic utility, while art seems at best a frill.  If resources are tight or students are struggling, they are inclined to cut the arts and focus more on math and reading because those subjects are really useful while art is not.

This economic utility view of education is mistaken in almost every way.  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.  We teach them because civilized people should know them.

Most parents understand that education is not entirely about imparting economically useful skills.  Yes, they want their children to get good jobs but they also want to have their children develop good characters, appreciate the good life, and generally be civilized human beings.  Of course, different parents may want a different mix of economic and cultural education for their children and school choice would allow them to find the schools that offered the mix that suited their needs and tastes.

But policymakers, pundits, and others suffering from PLDD who control our increasingly centralized education system focus almost exclusively on economic utility as the criteria for making education policy decisions.  Math and reading test scores are the only clubs they have to beat their opponents in establishing their preferred policies.  And economic payouts are the only objective measures they can use to justify expenditures.  Parents don’t think about education this way, but they have less and less say over what happens in the rearing of their children to become what they hope will be civilized human beings.

Some policymakers, pundits, and other PLDD sufferers have noticed that not everything taught in math and reading is economically useful and want to fix that.  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.”

Of course, the logical culmination of the idea of school as job-skills provider is that we would do away with school altogether and just have apprenticeships.  I see nothing wrong with apprenticeship but it is not what I or most parents view as an “education.”

People in the art world can justify what they do by arguing for art in its own right.  They can rigorously measure art outcomes, as we are in our random-assignment field trip study.  In fact, as part of our study we had 4,000 students write short essays in response to Bo Bartlett’s painting, The Box (pictured above).  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.  The purpose of education isn’t only what the centralized authorities decide it is and bother to measure.

-Jay P. Greene

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