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All Arts, Created Equal

April 23, 2015

As a high schooler, I'm painfully aware of one of the many academic buzzwords we have in the United States education system called the Core Subjects*. The "Core" subjects include mathematics, science, social studies, and literature to a basic, standardized level that ensures, essentially, that anyone who has passed those Core classes can be a functional citizen. In fact, according to the official requirements for the Indiana's standard "Core 40" diploma, graduating high school requires in-depth education in these exact courses -- literature, math, sciences, and social studies -- along with an amalgam of other categories, including "directed electives" (which include the fine arts and technical courses), health and physical education, and a handful of other electives. Maybe I'm getting the wrong message, so anyone correct me if I'm indeed wrong, but apparently, literature is more important than any other form of the arts according to the creators of Indiana's education standards. And I would be entirely unsurprised to see that this was the case in almost every school district in the country. I don't think this kind of discrimination in the arts benefits anyone.

I think the arts deserve a much more prominent place in our education standards that the status quo.

There's nothing inherently wrong with delegating the arts to a lower position in the "requirements" than science or mathematics. I agree (somewhat, barely) that knowing how to add and subtract, knowing how genes take part in inheritance, and understanding mortgages is more important in making a functional citizen than the ability to enjoy the arts. (That is, if the only purpose of being a human being and getting an education is to be a digit on the national census.) However,, I absolutely do not agree that English and literature are both delegated to be on the top priority list of education while the rest of the creative arts -- including the entirety of dance, theater, music, film, photography, and the visual arts -- are left inside the terribly-named subcategory of "fine arts", under the umbrella of "directed electives", which is even more vaguely defined. In other words, after looking at the way arts education is structured in the overwhelming majority of US schools, I'm left to wonder why English literature is considered somehow higher-priority in education than, say, music education or theater.

Literature is just as important of an art form as the visual arts, theater, film, and music, because they all exist for the same purpose.

The priority of English literature over other arts makes a lot more sense in elementary grades and possibly middle school, when English classes are primarily learning how to spell words, practice correct grammar, and understand complex sentences. This, of course, makes sense because the ability to correctly and effectively communicate with the rest of the English-speaking society (also known as the United States) is one of the most important skills throughout any citizen's life. At this point, the things you learn in "English" -- spelling, grammar, and vocabulary -- are less "art" and more "skills". Elementary-grade-level "English" is something like mathematics through high school -- mechanical, well-defined, and single-purposed, rather than creative, artful, and expressive. During these years, having English as a core class makes complete sense. But move on to high school, and the prioritization is still unchanged. In contrast, what we learn in "English classes" changes in high school. Classes focus less on the mechanics of communication and more on the artistry of writing and performing literature. At this point, the classes, now better called "literature", are less like math classes and more like music classes -- students learn to interpret, analyze, and perform works of art, literary or otherwise, and understand creative works in context of history and the human experience. Yet, when there is literally no difference in the way literary arts and other arts are taught, literature is somehow prioritized over all others in schools.

The purpose of art, if there ever were one, is to question our senses, challenge our preconceptions, and help us understand and improve our realities as they are. They help us ask and examine complex topics like discrimination and guilt. They help us critically view current issues like war and politics. And they help us understand ourselves by leading us to ask questions about who we are as a society and as individuals. And in that way, literature is just as important of an art form as the visual arts, theater, film, and music, because they all exist for the same purpose. If you ask me, being a functional and experienced human being not only requires the ability to enjoy and understand literature, but also to understand music of different styles, critically view films, and analyze works of art drawn on canvas rather than printed on sheets of paper. In other words, the art of literature and written words is no more valuable than any other form of art, and we as a society seem to be under a misconception that that's not the case.

If you ask me, being a functional and experienced human being not only requires the ability to enjoy and understand literature, but also to understand music of different styles, critically view films, and analyze works of art drawn on canvas rather than printed on sheets of paper.

If the purpose of education is to fashion functional, utilitarian human-robots that could read and comprehend information and synthesize new pieces of data, then English skills would be more important -- who would have a use for creativity or art? But fortunately, the reality is that the human experience is not just made richer with artistry -- sharing human experiences through media other than a nicely arranged combination of 26 different symbols is, I think, what makes the rest of our mechanical, modern lives worth the trouble. From that perspective, All forms of art -- whether visual, musical, or physical -- should be held to the same standard of importance as literature, on top of the list of what makes a good education.

What are your thoughts? Does English deserve more importance in schools than, say, theater or music? Why? I'd love to continue the conversation in the comments!


* The precise definitions of Core Subjects differ by school districts and states, so I'm just going with the one provided on the Indiana Department of Education's guidelines for diplomas.