Why should our passions for music and writing and sculpture that burned so brightly in adolescence go the way of toys we no longer play with?
“I have an English teacher question.” My screen glows with this text from a friend from college, my companion from Adolescent Literature class. “Could you recommend any contemporary novels for my 11th grade kids?”
I rattle off some titles from those deep recesses every teacher has in their brain, full of fantasy syllabi drafts for Classes You Hope to Teach One Day. “Are you dropping something?”
“Yeah. Macbeth.” Macbeth is his favorite.
“We’re being told that we teach too much Shakespeare,” he goes on. “We’re being told that kids don’t understand it.”
In sixth grade, after sneaking my dad’s copy of The Complete Works up to bed every night for a week, I first fell in love with “Hamlet.” To this day there sits a creased red notebook in my closet that my two best girlfriends and I used to pass around, filled with doodles of pivotal action scenes and scrawls of our favorite lines (Dead, for a ducat, dead! floats above a cartoonish rendering of Hamlet stabbing Polonius through the arras). Whenever I felt frustrated or disengaged with my classes in math and science, there had always been Shakespeare.
Arnold Weinstein, in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Don’t Turn Away from the Art of Life,” rightly pinpoints our preoccupation with STEM and standards-based education as a large part of the problem: that is, the dismissal of the humanities (Shakespeare included) as impractical, ornamental, unworthy of esteem in a competitive capitalist society. “A new technology like GPS provides us with the most efficient and direct route to a destination, but it presupposes we know where we are going,” says Weinstein. “Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another.”
It is no wonder, then, that my generation, products of the standard-based No Child Left Behind, flocked in great numbers to STEM careers, that we scoffed at our college friends who majored in philosophy or art history for choosing paths that wouldn’t guarantee hefty paychecks. Now we go to where the jobs are. We migrate to the cities, put on suits and carry briefcases, endure commutes and dream of promotions. We encourage one another to “practice self-care” when adult stresses overtake us. Indulge in that piece of chocolate cake, soak in a lavender bubble bath, splurge on a pedicure. “Treat yourself.”
Why don’t we push ourselves to incorporate the arts and humanities into our quest for wellness? Why should our passions for music and writing and sculpture that burned so brightly in adolescence go the way of toys we no longer play with?
I saw the effects of our love affair with standards-based education as early as English composition, where I asked students to write descriptive essays on a place of their choosing, preferably a place they felt deeply connected to. While discussing the differences between objective observation (“The daffodil is yellow”) and subjective observation (“The daffodil emerges as the first sign of spring, delivering thoughts of sunny days on the quad to all the students walking by”), someone would invariably speak up with, “The second one is wrong.”
“Why is the second one wrong?”
“It’s an opinion.” And they’re right, about something like a deeply-held conviction that “Politician A is going to ruin our country” without substantial evidence to support it.
But somewhere along the way, our students are learning that anything that can’t be quantified—like how a flower makes you feel—is automatically “wrong.” That there is no place in a data-driven world for free imaginative play, for creation and introspection. Even a fifteen-minute recess period is deemed a block of time better spent doing Productive Things.
The creative arts are a fundamental part of our humanity and thereby our wellbeing. Former students tell me that side activities like writing and photography help them slow down, gather their thoughts, and focus on moments of clarity. Another college classmate of mine, now an instrumental music teacher, says that one of her students “is the shyest kid you’ll ever meet, but when she gets something right, she feels good about herself and opens up…whether it’s just a smile or a story about her cat.” My cousin, a lawyer by day and actress in local plays by night, says that the performing arts are “therapy…they keep me centered and help me relieve stress when my regular job gets to be too much.”
Sometimes, we don’t realize how much we need the arts and humanities until life happens to us. One semester, in an effort to engage a very quiet literature class, I paired Tim O’ Brien’s Vietnam War story “The Things They Carried” with a writing activity. I asked students for essays on the things they carried around with them every day, both material and abstract. The result was a landslide of catharsis: In touch with their emotional intelligence, the class drew connections between material objects and personal history, working out childhood traumas and changing dynamics among family and friends through their work. For the rest of the semester, the majority of students seemed much more involved in daily discussion.
Similarly, art therapy is being used on military personnel with PTSD and brain injuries. Walter Reed Medical Center, located outside of D.C., runs a program for soldiers to express trauma through the creation of decorative masks. Art therapist Melissa Walker explains to National Geographic that “someone who has experienced trauma has a block that keeps them from verbalizing what they’ve been through.” The masks provide soldiers with another outlet for relaying their stories, which can then be interpreted by and discussed with a psychiatric professional.
Arts have their practical applications, certainly. Current movements to integrate them back into the curriculum often cite an overall student improvement in other subject areas. And though this is outstanding proof that arts integration movements are on the right track, we cannot neglect the importance of music, theatre, literature, and the fine arts as they stand apart, as they, Arnold Weinstein attests, “challenge our sense of who we are.”
Or, as Kurt Vonnegut puts it, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
The growth of the soul: unquantifiable, but well worth measuring.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.