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Cyrus Pace is Executive director of the Jefferson Center Foundation
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Just as great artists fight to stay connected to beauty and push off the mundane, it is this constant seeking that arts education instills in students. And each student is on his own journey. Some of those journeys are away from a disheartening level of parental disengagement. Some are simply trying to find a way out of poverty. And some are kids who want to find their voice. It is different for every child, and it is different for every teacher.
Creative thought happens everywhere. The truth is that creativity is no more likely to happen in the arts than other places. So why do advocates for arts education push the idea that there is something immeasurable about the impact that the arts have on a child’s life? Do teachers struggle to communicate the transformation they see in their students’ lives? Not really. They may just tire of trying to fit the millions of variables in a child’s development and the millions of kinds of learning into a quantitative box.
A great art teacher builds a world where students get to explore their own direction and their own sense of reality. And sometimes, the impact of a great art experience couldn’t possibly be more measurable than the feeling of watching a once timid kid play a Charlie Parker solo note for note in front of 150 people. I can assure you that when you feel that, supporting organizations that create truly transformative experiences for children will be less about the art itself and more about the character development that engagement in the arts does so well.
The arts encourage, indeed prod, character development in multiple ways at one time. And the point of entry is generally low as long as the parents don’t get too wrapped up in the perceived talent or lack of talent of their child. Do the arts teach discipline better than math or a writing class? Do the arts encourage work toward a common goal better than team sports? They don’t always, but they definitely do for some people. And they do it all at once. I have watched elementary art teachers engage the minds of 25 third-graders as they each worked on a painting project. There will be varying levels of achievement in these projects, but they usually leave without paint on themselves or on others . . . usually.
More than encouraging students to believe in the power of their ability to create, the arts can focus on helping them create for common good. The arts can create beauty and increase understanding of the human condition. And they do it oftentimes communally, especially in the performing arts where the performers and the audience agree to experience something together. The arts create a holding environment in which we can grapple with the most sensitive and complex parts of life and in ways that will sneak up on you. The arts are a vehicle to discovery and discussion of life. Soul and spirit and love and loss and all of the dark and light spots in between.
Some debate endlessly about whether to put up the Ten Commandments in schools. What would it look like if we refocused our energy on ensuring that our elementary schools have world-class arts teachers with world-class resources so the arts can be used every day to reflect on thousands of years of creating?
Our focus at Jefferson Center is to ensure that the children in this community get access to high-quality art and the best artists. We ensure that the same experiences that would be common in a major city are available here. And I would argue that they are infinitely more accessible here than they are anywhere else. That is possible because of people who believe that this community deserves that kind of access.
This month, we held our third annual Jazz Institute, where we connect some of this country’s best jazz musicians with local students. I am not sure if any of these students will ever put out a record or tour the country, but I can assure you that when they are given an opportunity to do something meaningful 10 years from today, they will do so with the poise and confidence they learned onstage here.
Weather Journal7 wintry scenarios for Sunday