I’m a middle school teacher, and a couple of days ago one of my students told me that what I teach isn’t important. Now, you may cringe to hear someone say something like this, especially to my face. You may think that this shows a real lack of appreciation on the part of this student.
I disagree. The fact is that this student greatly appreciates my class. He thinks it’s really fun.
But he doesn’t value it.
We appreciate things we like. When you’re sick and someone brings you flowers, you appreciate them. But you probably wouldn’t have gotten them for yourself. On the other hand, you’ll get medicine for yourself, assuming the price is right. You value the medicine. You know what it’s worth to you.
We in the arts community get a lot of appreciation from parents, administrators, even politicians. People are always asking musicians and artists to create things for them. They just don’t want to pay for them. This is because they appreciate them, but they have no sense of their value.
They value math. They value science. They used to value PE, but now that so few people do physical things for a living, they can only appreciate it as something we ought to have more of. Until we teach people the value of what we do, and by that I mean concrete value, what you get for it, they won’t be able to compare music, art, or even PE to math or writing.
Now I appreciate you as a listening audience. Isn’t that nice? But I value your time. So without going over my five minutes I’m going to explain the value of what we do.
Recently on This American Life, economist James Heckman discussed a fascinating study. He wondered: if a student can graduate with a GED that is supposedly the exact equivalent to a diploma, why would anybody bother going through four years of high-school? So he followed students who didn’t finish high-school but got their GED, and he compared them with students who completed high-school.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that the students who only completed the GED did not do nearly as well in life as those who spent four years in High School. Despite the fact that their cognitive skills are measurably as good as any high-school graduate’s, they went on to experience much more failure in college, in the military, even in marriage. By skipping high-school, they failed to acquire certain interpersonal skills, failed to learn how to persevere, to delay gratification, even to assess their own abilities.
In order for a math-challenged student to succeed in math class, they must persevere, stick with it. But where do they get the skills to persevere? The odds are they will get these skills much more effectively working on a piece of music with a chorus. The environment is more conducive to learning perseverance. They’re working with other people, so individual failure isn’t catastrophic. In fact, in chorus there’s no such thing as total success. You strive for the best performance you can get while tolerating your mistakes, every single day. What’s it worth to you to have your child know how to do that?
What’s it worth to you when they get a job, and they persevere after they discover they can’t do it perfectly, when they find that they have to keep growing and improving, even for years? Another year’s salary, because they didn’t quit or lose their job? Five years of health-care coverage for their family?
The arts, PE, language studies, all of these have concrete value. If you’re an employer, how much do you value your employee’s ability to work cooperatively with other people? Would that affect the salary you offer them? If so, wouldn’t you say that the child’s value is increasing as they improve in their ability to cooperate in a game or a sport?
Which contractor would you pay more for? The one who has to be told exactly what to do to fix your house, or the one who has a good internal sense of quality workmanship? If I told you a child was learning that internal sense in art class, would you be able to value it?
Do you value knowing that the Related Arts have concrete benefits that may be as powerful as an ability to do math or write clearly? How much do you value it? Now that you value it, what are you going to do?
(c) 2012 Adam Cole