At each conference recently, I’ve found myself discussing the same quandary: how do we implement curriculum so that the arts occupy a central, not ancillary, position?
Particularly in the realm of Classical education, we extol the value of the arts as a component of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Yet each of us lives in a world where music, dance, theater, and visual art are seen as frills, or, at best, electives. This diminished labeling exists even within some of the finest Classical curricula.
What do we do about this? One answer comes from remembering the central position the arts held within a serious education in centuries past. A well-educated person attained at least basic skills in several of the Fine Arts, such as dance, drawing, recitation of poetry, or music. The goal wasn’t professional mastery, but the ability minimally to execute, or at least appreciate, the arts. No one questioned this emphasis, just as no one questioned a young man’s training in fencing or a girl’s study of needlepoint.
But to learn and master the execution of the arts, or to gain appreciation or historical understanding of the arts, they must be studied as a core component of daily education. They can’t be pasted on in the manner of an elective (although, admittedly “some” knowledge is better than none).
Let me give you a funny example. A few years ago, while crossing the Atlantic on a large cruise ship where I served as a Smithsonian speaker, I enrolled in an art class. Ships at sea have many such classes, and they are often quite good.
The first class dealt with collage (you should have seen my fabulous construction-paper collage of a coffee mug stuffed with colored pencils). “I can do this,” I thought!
But then we had our first drawing class. Okay, first class isn’t quite the right word, because “first” implies a step-by-step introduction to a skill, right? As it turns out, these people could draw already, or at least understood line and perspective. Everyone but me.
We went up to the 16th deck (yes, the ship was that big) and spread out across the Astro Turf. “Let’s sketch this chair,” the teacher said, pointing to a wood-slatted deck chair. They all dove in, quickly sketching it at several angles. I sat there thinking. “Okay, I have no idea what to do . . . but, hey, no one is going to notice I cannot do this, so I’ll just wiggle my pencil and look thoughtful until it’s over.”
Except the teacher did notice. He smiled as if I were a child. “You’ve never done this before, have you?” Well that was apparent.
He put his hand over mine and started sketching the outlines of the chair in the proper proportions. “Here. See if you can take it from there.” He had essentially eliminated my need to have any skill and brought me to a point where I could, at least, decorate my chair with squiggles.
I’ve often reflected back upon that experience. I wish I had more skill at art, but the fact is that I trained my hands at an early age to play music, not to draw. Yet, knowing music helps me to appreciate art. Music provides me an historical and aesthetic frame through which I can weave knowledge from virtually every discipline.
The arts don’t just beautify or inspire us. They develop us. They take our primitive physical and intellectual abilities and make them more exacting, flexible, and effective. They hone our creative and analytic abilities, challenging every aspect of our being (and not just a right or left brain lobe).
I like to use another example: George Washington was renown as one of his era’s best social dancers. His ability to negotiate the subtleties of minuets, allemandes, and jigs (gigues) with exceptional virtuosity was not unrelated to his ability to strategize a military campaign.
In fact, if you look historically, a person’s aptitude in court dance was recognized throughout Europe as a way to assess that person’s cognitive and physical abilities. It was all there on display: memory, coordination, flexibility, fortitude, and grace. A mistake on the dance floor in the French Baroque courts was called a faux pas (false step). This term did not mean “picking up the wrong fork.” It meant making an obvious error in something that should have been learned and mastered.
We can’t approach the Fine Arts as an occasional add-on and expect to develop any proficiency or love for the subjects. Insofar as the performing arts, obviously an early start is desirable; but abilities can be developed at any age (witness the proliferation of classes one finds in senior centers).
Developing the arts as a central column in the curriculum, from the youngest possible age, allows the student’s mind to be shaped in a critical way, whether in terms of creating art or appreciating art. As long as we treat it as an elective, a frill, or a specialization suitable for only a few, we deprive students of enormous, life-long benefits.
And so, as we struggle in our modern world (whether in brick and mortar buildings or in a homeschool) to provide a traditional, and necessary, study of the arts, let us take one concern out of the mix: toss that sense of guilt when focusing on the arts. We are not wasting time, amusing ourselves with easy things, or diverting our students from the “truly important” work. We are, instead, pursing what the Ancients considered a cornerstone of true education.