To every parent who has watched helplessly as strapped school boards have dismissed art, music, or dance teachers, with the words "we can barely pay for the basics!" a new ally is in the wings. Business, usually perceived as leading the back-to-basics charge, is stepping into the breach.
American companies, increasingly long on new technology and modes of commerce, are finding themselves short on trained workers to deliver in the brave new present, let alone future.
In response, a tiny but tenacious chorus of voices is rising to say that, in fact, an arts education may be the fourth R, as basic to workers of the future as the three R's were to the past. And momentum is building for national standards that spell out what constitutes an arts education.
"Capital and technology flow across borders, natural resources can be shipped, so skilled people are the only corporate advantage left," says James Houghton, retired chairman and CEO of Corning Inc. as well as chairman of the National Skills Standards Board. "Business needs the knowledge worker, who can think, solve problems, learn new skills," he says, affirming that a well-integrated arts education teaches these very things.
Beyond that, he points out, "Art classes are the only ones where students do their personal best, not just enough for a passing grade." Mr. Houghton says this will be invaluable in the highly competitive workplace of the next century where quality performance will give business the edge it needs.
Lest anyone doubt that big business hasn't caught on, Houghton points to the recruiting practices of the two computer giants, Intuit and IBM. "Intuit looks for teamworkers who have a background in the arts, and IBM, for philosophy majors."
Indeed, the creative high-tech companies leading the way to the future are some of the hardest hit by the lack of qualified American workers.
John Hughes, whose company gave computerized life to the animal characters in the 1995 Oscar-nominated film "Babe," says he has had to hire from overseas because there are not enough Americans with the sophisticated arts background his company needs. More than half of his 75 digital artists are foreign. Mr. Hughes blames the schools. "Our schools aren't teaching the arts," he says simply. "And all businesses are going to need that more and more, not just entertainment companies."
The animated-feature division at Warner Bros. recently opened a studio in London after discovering there was not enough home-grown talent to fill its needs. Dave Master, manager of artist development and training at Warner, points out that "entertainment is the largest US export; it's important to the work force and economy. Why aren't the schools preparing kids for that?"
This lack of visual and creative problem-solving skills is acute and apparent in the entertainment industry. But arts advocates such as Leilani Lattin Duke of the Getty Education Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles say in order to achieve a widespread commitment to the arts in public education, it is critical to expand the definition of an arts education beyond learning to draw or do a pirouette.
"The arts teach you how to put all the disciplines together, how to integrate math, science, history. They teach us how to live the full, human experience," says Ms. Duke.
A decade ago, the Getty helped pioneer the concept of a discipline-based arts education that integrated art history, criticism, production, and aesthetics with other subjects such as math, science, and English.
Now, says Duke, that concept has had time to take root in teacher-training across the country, so when arts advocates come before their local school boards to make the case for arts education, "They can make it clear they're not always talking about hiring new teachers, which means more money. What they're talking about is support for integrating the arts into existing instruction."
This, of course, requires teacher training, but frequently this costs much less than another instructor, points out Duke. More important for the larger picture, it returns the arts to their rightful place as an integrated part of a well-rounded life.
Businessmen such as Corning's Houghton say the private sector has an advantage over schools when it comes to seeing the need to change direction. "Going broke is a wake-up call. The educational system can go on for a long time, not knowing that it's broken," he adds with a wry smile and a story.
A decade ago, his company was "losing market share, fast." He had no options but to make radical changes to achieve the high-performance workplace necessary for the 21st century.
To the ongoing tune of millions of dollars, Corning established company-wide training, including the use of computer, graphics, design (and even, to Houghton's chagrin, remedial training required by "fully a third of our work force").
Today, several of his manufacturing sites are a model for the high-performance worker and workplace of the future. At a Virginia plant that makes ceramic automotive pollution-control parts, teams of workers may do anything from run a forklift to retool new designs using a sophisticated computer system. And in the start-up phase, instead of losing a projected $2 million, the plant generated a $2 million profit.
"There's no such thing as just a muscle man anymore. They've got to have brains, too," laughs Houghton, adding that the best way to get that is a well-rounded education, including the arts. He believes in a compact between the public and private sector. "I say [to the schools], you deliver them educated, we'll train 'em for the job."
This emphasis on the well-rounded training may sound like the old liberal-arts motto resurrected, and it may well be, but with a modern urgency. Today's technology changes so swiftly, says Don Butler, president and chief executive officer of The Employers Group, that schools have no choice but to return to the time-honored tradition of teaching people how to learn, rather than specific trades.
Recently, the Getty Education Institute for the Arts sponsored a national conference, entitled "Educating for the Workplace Through the Arts." One of the refrains repeated throughout the conference was the need for national standards on what constitutes an arts education.
Dick Deasy is director of the Goals 2000 Arts Education Partnership, a group formed in 1995 of more than 150 national organizations committed to promoting arts education in primary and secondary schools nationwide. He says small but important steps of progress are being made. For instance, President Clinton's 1993 "Goals 2000: Educate America Act" included for the first time a national policy framework embracing the need for arts education.
In addition, Deasy says, "There's an increasing inclusion of arts in the standards being set by states, and there's an academics-standards movement in virtually every state."
But, he cautions, "There's nothing inexorable about the growth of support for the arts." He points to the national support math received in the wake of Sputnik's success. "Only when there's a national consensus will the resources begin to flow."
Abilities Honed By an Arts Education
Elliot Eisner of Stanford University recently asked an audience at the Getty Education Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles, "What is it that the arts teach, when well taught?" In summary, here is his seven-point answer:
* One of the first things that work in the arts develops is a sense of relationship, that nothing stands alone.... Whether in music, theater, pottery, or painting, every aspect of the work affects every other aspect.... Attention to relationships is a fundamental mode of thinking that the arts require, not only invite.
* Second, the ability to translate creation into observation requires youngsters to use a language that is not literal, that employs metaphor, illusion, and innuendo....
* A third contribution that the arts make is to help youngsters recognize that problems can have multiple solutions, questions can have multiple answers....
* A fourth ability the arts can foster is the development of the ability to shift aims in the process, which John Dewey called flexible purposing....
* A fifth requirement in the arts has to do with the ability to make judgments in the absence of a rule....
* Next, the arts teach the ability to engage the imagination as a source of content.... The cultivation of the imagination is one of our most precious human resources.
* Last, the arts enable youngsters to frame the world from an aesthetic perspective ... to see that there are many ways in which the world can be viewed.
"Do the arts contribute to the world of work?" Dr. Eisner continues. "That's for you to decide. But for me, they are among the most powerful ways we become human, and that is reason enough to earn them a place in our schools."