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Of Satellites and Sonatas

By Rod Sims — January 28, 2004 4 min read
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Are cuts in school arts programs destroying the soul of education?

Officials at my old high school recently announced they will no longer offer music on campus. A music education program that once gave students a valuable outlet for creative expression—and won the school critical acclaim over many decades—is now gone. But the recollection of a flourishing music program on campus is more than a fond memory from a former student. It is food for thought.

Too often, educators follow the path of least resistance. My high school, once a bastion of well-rounded students, has decided to shed its eclectic past in favor of a narrow bandwidth of interest in science and technology. We live in a technological world to be sure, but the exclusion of the arts is too large a price to pay for the binary code that runs computers or the stench of formaldehyde.

The arts offer people in society hope and promise, as well as the opportunity to dream of vistas not yet painted, sculpted, written, performed, or even imagined in the cold, hard world of data-driven logic. The beauty and power of artistic expression lie in its ability to transport the self beyond present circumstances to imagine what has not yet come to pass. Inspiration, hope, and promise are all part of a complex mix of emotions that can’t be placed on a scale and weighed, or burned off as a byproduct in a chemistry lab.

I am not arguing in favor of the arts over science, but rather of the need for both. Data-driven scientific discovery certainly offers the promise of objectivity, but the solution lacks a soul. Not in the sense of spirituality, but in terms of a recognition that scientific discovery comes from all of life’s experience. The idea for television, for example, came from observing the furrowed soil on rural farmland. Only after that experience, the inventor says, was he able to imagine that a video screen might carry an image created with similar lines of resolution. Inspiration for scientific discovery comes from all around us, and the arts surely are no exception.

I worry about a world where we have gifted scientists building better audio systems with higher fidelity, but fewer artists with the opportunity to perform, record, and otherwise share their artistry. The best stereo speakers aren’t worth very much without the best musicians, composers, and arrangers.

This debate should not be framed as art vs. science. There is, after all, artistry in the spatial relationships of molecules and chemical bonding. What I am arguing for is a world where there is broader recognition of the link between science and soul. The need for self-expression should not be eclipsed by the quest for scientific discovery, nor should music students lack an understanding of acoustics, harmonics, dissonance, wave theory, or other scientific principles that affect musicality.

While the “geek speak” of file-transfer protocols and TCP/IP networks dominates our lives at work and at home, my concern is one of content. In the future, will the desire to download information about Beethoven and Rodin be eclipsed by their anonymity—a mere footnote to a bygone culture in which the arts once mattered?

Satellites, computer technology, pharmacology, and other scientific pursuits have no doubt improved the quality of life, as well as its length. But while scientific breakthroughs cure our ills, the arts enrich our lives. What I worry about is a world that no longer recognizes the need for artistic pursuit or appreciates its relation to scientific inquiry.

I don't believe educators, parents, or students should ever have to argue the value or importance of one subject over another.

Higher math scores shouldn’t be the primary reason for studying music, yet music’s beneficial effect on neurological functioning is well-documented. Still, we probably can’t look to parents for support for the arts. Many of them are standing in line to enroll their kids in high-tech programs and moving within the district boundaries of schools they think will ensure a scientific and technological future for their kids. For many parents, arts are fanciful and science is focused.

Budget priorities often dictate educational programs. As a math teacher, I have seen many remedial students perform poorly in class, only to see them shine during school-sponsored band concerts and drama productions. They couldn’t solve an algebraic equation, but they certainly knew how to play the trombone or steal the show with a well- delivered character role on stage. Many students like those now lack the one positive outlet that might keep them from exhibiting depressive symptoms or dropping out of school. And that is a loss too large to calculate.

As K-12 music programs fall by the wayside in favor of pet programs in math and science, the downward spiral of cultural decline has another victim: college music programs. If the present trend continues, music schools at many higher education institutions will soon find a dearth of students. Without orchestras, jazz ensembles, concert bands, and other musical groups, the dance and theater programs will begin to suffer from anemia, too.

There is no solid argument in favor of curtailing or eliminating music and accompanying arts programs from our public high schools. Pigeonholing students in math and science at the ripe old age of 14 to 18 years is disastrous. Young people’s interests continue to evolve dramatically even after entering college, which might explain why the average college student changes his or her major several times before settling on one.

I don’t believe educators, parents, or students should ever have to argue the value or importance of one subject over another. Each should have its place in a vibrant, questing society. Something to consider the next time you want to attend a Broadway show, or an art exhibit, or a concert.

Rod Sims is an advertising executive in Fullerton, Calif., who also teaches college coursework and speaks frequently on issues in K-12 education. He is the author of Middle School Mathematics: A Survival Guide to Improved Instruction (amazon.com), and can be reached at rsims@regency-group.net.

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Of Satellites and Sonatas

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