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The Amazing Power of a Plain Old Arts Education

A family who was friendly with ours when our children were young teenagers worried about their daughter, when she was entering high school. She was bright and verbal and (we all thought) loveable—but socially awkward and lacked confidence. 

She played oboe in the band, however, and went to band camp the week before her freshman year, an opportunity to become part of something bigger than herself, and to make friends with some upperclassmen. On the first day of school, carrying her lunch tray uncertainly, she was waved over by some students in the percussion section. This is the table where the band sits, they told her.

Her dad, who carried his own scars of social awkwardness, told me he doubted whether his daughter would pursue the oboe past high school, but the lessons she learned and supports she enjoyed as a "bandie" were alone worth the cost of the instrument. The musical literacy she cultivated—the knowledge and skills—was just gravy.

What's the purpose of an arts education? Is it soaking up that specific knowledge and polishing technical skills? Or are there other, more subtle benefits to studying the arts? Shouldn't everyone be loading up on the math and science if they want premier career opportunities, unless they're an artistic prodigy? Well, maybe not.

Harvard's new curriculum for music lets students come in to study music without the traditional preparation—years of lessons, competitive ensembles, and theory training. And they've reorganized the usual Western music history/theory curricular threads to include more eclectic musical studies.


The traditional music history sequence is two courses, "Thinking About Music" and "Critical Listening." One question that's often asked when history sequences are changed is what happens if students never learn about Schubert? Or if they never learn about Beethoven?


REPLY from Harvard Faculty:  I had an excellent but conventional musical education at the undergraduate and at the graduate levels, and I never learned anything about Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk, not to mention popular music. We've always had gaps in our education. It's possible to start at a different place, and then gain fluency and gain proficiency.

So what should we be aiming for in K-12 arts programs? The skills and knowledge that prepare children (a select percentage of children, anyway) to be performers and artists, to attend highly selective college programs? Or is there value in simple exposure and experience, learning broadly across artistic disciplines? What should students take away?

People don't talk much about what constitutes a useful arts program these days—they're just glad if their school offers one.

My opinion? Arts programs that are open to everyone, allowing full access to students who don't appear to be particularly talented, can pay off when those students graduate into college or the workplace, and reap the benefits of having stood on stage playing a very different character. Or tinkered with a line of poetry—or found beauty in a lump of clay.

A few of the things a (plain old) arts education does:

And those teams can become a de facto school family for kids who aren't athletes or already good-looking and popular, an advantage of immeasurable worth. You don't need to be planning a career in the symphony to appreciate the fun and camaraderie involved in Jazz Band or Concert Choir. And there will always be a place for you at the drama geeks' table.

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