Forget STEM: “To the dreadful summit of the cliff”*

Mark Bauerlein has a wonderfully refreshing piece in the new Education Next, “Advocating for Arts in the Classroom.It is especially welcome to  those beleaguered liberal arts and humanities folks among us who feel so un-21st century.

But I hope that even die-hard periodic tablists among you would be impressed by Bauerlein’s subtle skewering of the current head of the National Endowment of the Arts, Rocco Landesman, quoting from a recent Wall Street Journal profile:

When [Landesman] starts talking about his ideas for integrating the arts in education, his rhetoric becomes less bipartisan: “We’re going to try to move forward all the kids who were left behind by ‘No Child Left Behind’—the kids who have talent or a passion or an idiosyncratic perspective. Those kids are important too and they should have a place in society. It’s very often the arts that catches them.”

This is just subtle enough for Bauerlein to pounce with some effect: “[T]he emphasis falls on the unusual student, the difficult kid, not on the arts as a subject for study.”


To quote another famous passage from great literature, “In the beginning was the Word.”  It wasn’t algebra or chemistry or bridge-building or robotics that made us who we are.  It was “the word”! — and a lot of stuff that flowed from it.   We may debate that one for long time, as Bill Clinton parsed “is,” but as a history major who has watched in horror the degradation of the arts and humanities in our reform revolution (“what gets tested is what gets taught”), I can only applaud Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, for taking the fight directly to the STEM fraternity.  (For those who haven’t paid attention, that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.)

Bauerlein does not go milque-toast here. He points out that the arts-saves-kids theme crops up frequently near the centers of political power. “I heard it repeated time and again while working on arts education policy at the Arts Endowment from 2003 to 2005,” he says. And it is wonderful that he first tackles the question of the sly marketers and cheap patrons of the poor – as Bauerlein writes, time and again we see the arts used as an instrument of “salvation” for the poor rather than as a discipline that has value to civilization itself.

Mark Slouka offered a similarly provocative story in Harper’s last September (no link, sorry: subscription required)and also dared take on the STEM People. Titled “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school,” Slouka says,

You admire the skill with which we’ve been outmaneuvered: there’s something almost chess-like in the way the other side has narrowed the filed, neutralized lines of attack, co-opted the terms of battles.

Indeed, we’ve been outfoxed. But the larger point is that the country has pivoted into an anti-intellectual ludditism that will, in the end, prove just as crippling as our failure to do science, technology, engineering, and math right.  In fact, Bauerlein warned against this myopic literalism in a wonderful prelude essay to his current piece in a blog entry on the Ed Next site last June. Called “The Mimetic Classroom,” he took out after George Lucas’ odd Edutopia project (see the story by Robert Pondiscio) and its “What Works in Education” mantra.  Summed up by a former Lucas associate, it goes like this: “School life should resemble real life,” which sounds like a rather innocuous statement until you get into the trenches and watch educators try to duplicate factory lines and nursing stations – or whatever they think is “real life.”

Aside from the simple question of Why a classroom should be like real life, we need to address the problem, says Bauerlein that “the real life of teenagers includes conspicuous consumption, peer pressure, puerile songs, movies, videos, and TV shows, 3,000 text messages per month purveying gossip, bad jokes, and hourly updates on trivial movements and happenings, financial hardships, and sexual confusions.”

So we should teach that?

This is not exactly the point of the arts and humanities story, but as Bauerlein points out in his blog essay “a big assumption here” is that “the best way to learn to write business correspondence at age 30 is by writing lots of business correspondence at age 17.”

True or false?

Think of it as sports analogy, suggests Bauerlein.  What sport is mastered simply by playing the sport?  None of them.  To improve in football or baseball or tennis or soccer, you lift weights and stretch daily, even though weightlifting and stretching are not practiced on the playing field.  The principle is simple: at least part of the training involves exercises not repeated in the game.  One doesn’t hear football players in the weight room complaining, “Man, why do we have to do any more curls–this isn’t football!”

So, the argument for the arts and humanities is the same as the weight-room argument for football. If you know some literature and the value of a Frederick Church landscape, you might be a better mathematician – or plumber.  And Bauerlein seems to be the sort who is not afraid to argue that a Shakespeare-quoting plumber is a good thing.

Finally, he offers a wonderful description of Dana Gioia’s efforts at the Arts Endowment to introduce art content into the schools.  When he got there, in 2003, Gioia announced his preference for the Core Knowledge curriculum and commenced an effort to bulk up content standards for federal grants in the arts.  As Bauerlein notes, this was a pretty radical shift for grantees used to evaluating programs by handing out questionnaires to students at the end of the program “that measured their attitudes and enjoyment” and not “learning outcomes.”

I’m feelin’ good.

*The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 1, Scene 4. By William Shakespeare.

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