Podcast 09: Let’s Get Rid of Art Education – a modest proposal

I wrote this essay two years ago and lots of people hated it, so like a mangy dog licking a suppurating wound, I have returned to gnaw on it further in this week’s podcast.

Please listen and let me know what you think. And please subscribe on your favorite podcast app so I may gall you further in the weeks ahead.


Episode transcript:

[Music]

Hello, welcome to art for all, the sketchbook Skool podcast.  I’m your host Danny Gregory and each week I bring you  a story, a conversation, an idea to keep you stimulated while you work on your own creative project.  

At Sketchbook Skool, we don’t just teach people to draw and paint.  We teach them how to be creative. To think in new and different ways.  To have confidence in their creative abilities, To see like artists. To support other creative people in a sprawling community of artists.  Not just to draw but to love to draw and create. To change their lives.

It happens every day and to tens of thousands of folks all over the world.  We teach art by asking working artists to teach it. And different artists every week. A different experience,  a different way of seeing.

If this sort of experience sounds intriguing, please take a free sample kourse.  You can sign up at our website, sketchbook dot school. We’d love to have you join our community and share your own ideas with us.

This purpose and approach has inspired what I want talk about in  this week’s episode. It’s about education and creativity and risk taking. I hope it stimulates some thoughts while you create.

[Music]

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about art education on my blog that got a fair amount of response.  I think it’s a very important subject to discuss, whether you’re a child, a parent, or just a member of society thinking about the future of mankind.  I’d like to share the piece with you and then talk about how to take the discussion even further.

I wrote the essay after being invited to do brief art residencies in various international schools.  I worked with art teachers and their students, children from the ages of three to eighteen, pre-K to 12th grade in New York, Basel, Prague, Qatar, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Vietnam, and other places around the world. I spent a lot of time in the classroom, experiencing how they feel about studying and making art. I combined those observations with what I was thinking about the changes in the adult world, changes in business, in technology, in creativity, and I added a few of my own memories from school, way back in the 20th century.

The piece is called “Let’s Get Rid of Art Education — a modest proposal.”  It’s a shocking title, as intended, and the subtitle is a reference to social satirists like Jonathan Swift who advocated that the Irish poor eat their own children to offset famine. By satirizing an extreme position, I hoped to make people think again about some time-honored conventions.

Here’s the piece I wrote:

Art, they say, is great for kids. Art and music programs help keep them in school, make them more committed, enhance collaboration, strengthen ties to the community and to peers, improve motor and spatial and language skills. A study by the College Board showed that students who took four years of art scored 91 points better on the SAT exams. At-risk students who take art are significantly more likely to stay in school and ultimately to get college degrees.

Awesome.

Nonetheless, arts education has been gutted in American public schools. A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind and Common Core programs prioritized science and math over other subjects. In LA County alone, one-third of the arts teachers were let go between 2008 and 2012 and, for half of K-5 students, art was cut all together.

After the recession of 2008, 80% of schools had their budget cut further. Arts programs were the first victims. And, predictably, lower-income and minority students were the most likely to lose their art programs. Only 26.2% of African-American students have access to art classes. As the economy improved, there was some discussion about reversing some of these cuts. But it is not enough.

I’m no expert on education but I have spent a lot of time in school art programs over the past year, watching how children create. In the lower grades, kids just have fun drawing and painting. They don’t really need much encouragement or instruction. In middle school, the majority start to lose their passion for making stuff and instead learn the price of making mistakes. Art class is all too often a gut, an opportunity for adolescents to screw around. By high school, they have been divided into a handful who are ‘artsy’ and may go onto art school and a vast majority who have no interest in art at all.

In short, every child starts out with a natural interest in art which is slowly drained — until all that’s left is a handful of teens in eyeliner and black clothing whose parents worry they’ll never move out of the basement.

Here’s a modest proposal: Let’s take the “art” out of “art education.”

“Art” is not respected in this country. It’s seen as frivolity, an indulgence, a way to keep kids busy with scissors and paste. “Art” is viewed as an elitist luxury that hard-nosed bureaucrats know they can cut with impunity. And so they do, making math and science the priority to fill the  ranks of future bean-counters and pencil pushers.

So I propose we get rid of art education and replace it with something that is crucial to the future of our world: creativity.

We need to all be creative in ways that we never could be before. We have so many wonderful tools that put the power of creation in our hands and we use them every day. Solving problems, using tools, collaborating, expressing our ideas clearly, being entrepreneurial and resourceful, these are the skills that will matter in the 21-century, post-corporate, labor market. Instead of being defensive about art, instead of talking about culture and self-expression, we have to focus on the power of creativity and the skills required to develop it. A great artist is also a problem solver, a presenter, an entrepreneur, a fabricator, and more.

Imagine if Creativity became a part of our core education…

Instead of teaching kids to paint bowls of fruit with tempera, we’d show them how to communicate a concept through a sketch, how to explore the world in a sketchbook, how to generate ideas, how to solve real problems. Theatre would be all about collaboration, presentation and problem solving. Music classes would emphasize creative habit, teamwork, honing skills, composition, improvisation.

We’d teach creative process, how to come up with ideas, how to find inspiration, how to steal from the greats. We’d teach kids to work effectively with others to improve and test their ideas. We’d teach them how to realize their ideas, get them executed through a supply chain, how to present and market and share them.

We’d also emphasize digital creativity, focussing on cutting edge (and cheap) technology, removing the artificial divide between arts and science, showing how engineering and sculpture are related, how drawing and User Experience (UX) Design are facets of the same sort of skills, how music and math mirror each other. We’d teach kids how to use Photoshop to communicate concepts, to shoot and cut videos, to design presentations, to use social media intelligently, to write clearly because it is key to survival. We’d give kids destined for minimum wage jobs a chance to be entrepreneurial, to create true economic power for themselves, by developing their creativity and seeing opportunity in a  whole new way.

Yes, I know that there are high-school video classes and art computer labs, but they need to be turned into engines for creativity and usefulness, not abstract, high falutin’ artsiness based on some 1970s concepts of self-expression. Don’t make black and white films about leaves reflected in puddles, make a video to promote adoption at the local animal shelter. Don’t do laborious charcoal drawings of pop stars, generate ideas on paper. Fill 100 post-its with 100 doodles of ways to raise consciousness about the environment or income inequality or saving water. Stop making pinch pots and build a 3-D printer and turn out artificial hands for homeless amputees.

(And, by the way,  if we teach kids loads of math and science but don’t encourage their creativity, they aren’t going to grow up to be great engineers and scientists and inventors and discoverers — just drones and dorks.)

Creativity is not a ghetto, not a clique, not something to be exercised alone in a garret. It’s also not a freak show of self-indulgent divas and losers.

Creativity is about helping to solve the world’s many problems. We need to make sure that the kids of today (who will need to be the creative problem solvers of tomorrow) realize their creative potential and have the tools to use them. That matters far more than football teams and standardized test scores.

What do you think?

[Music]

Tens of thousands of people read this essay, and hundreds posted comments on it.  A magazine asked permission to reprint it in their next issue. Some readers congratulated me on the piece, many told me I was an evil monster for having written it.  Some of them were art teachers, just about my favorite people in the world. They do a hard and essential job, and they do it, all too often, without proper acknowledgment and support. I also heard from a lot of schoolchildren who love art and many of them disagreed with me, often quite passionately.  

It was sort of an odd place for me to find myself. I love art too and I hadn’t intended my piece to do anything but advance the cause of art and creativity rather than cause real controversy.

Let me begin to respond by answering my own question by telling you what I think — about what I thought.

Firstly I think I was a little reductionist and insulting in the name of satire. When I feel strongly about something, I unfortunately tend to do that. It’s an unattractive quality and it’s presumably what set off the people who wrote to me to say I was an idiot or worse. I’ll accept that.

But I still believe my thesis has merit.

If pinheaded bureaucrats have a problem with “art” and insist on slashing budgets, then let’s not call it that. If they think that art classes are just self-indulgent waste of resources, there’s no point in arguing anymore about culture and civilization.  Even though it’s been clearly proven to improve young minds, when you talk about artists, narrow-minded people who probably didn’t take enough art classes themselves, see red, see some sort of communist, Godless, elitist conspiracy and the discussion ends quickly to the sounds of checkbooks slamming closed.  So, maybe changing team uniforms wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

And secondly if “creativity” is a huge buzzword in business circles, couldn’t we hop on the bandwagon?  The fact is “creativity” is just another way of talking about problem solving and in a changing world, full of new problems, any smart CEO wants idea people.

When I graduated and began working, the path was from college to the mailroom or a training program and then the inexorable climb up the corporate ladder.  That was just what you did to get ahead in the 20th century.   But there aren’t mailrooms any more and training programs have been shelved and no smart 22-year-old expects to start at the bottom of a big corporation and patiently climb their way up to a pension after forty years. Them days are long gone.

The ever-changing world that technology has wrought means that there are no guarantees, no safety, just whatever you make of the opportunities that pop up.  You need to keep your eyes open, you need to be resourceful, you need to adapt to change, you need to collaborate, you need to think fresh thoughts, and you need to accept that education doesn’t end with a cap and gown. It’s a lifelong pursuit for anyone with an interest in surviving.

Do school curricula prepare kids for that new playing field?  Again, I’m no expert so please feel free to set me straight if you’re a teacher or school administrator. But from what I have seen, the curriculum of most American schools hasn’t changed an awful lot for a while. That’s not the fault of teachers who are constantly denied the resources they’d need to revise what students are taught. So instead kids find ways to teach themselves. They pick up technology on their own. They watch YouTube videos. They make YouTube videos. They share what they learn with each other. They develop many of the tools they’ll need on their own.  Their parents and teachers can’t really help them, because they are usually several steps behind on the leading tech edge.

I’m not just talking about teaching kids tech skills.  That they can pick up or learn in college or even at work. And any technology lessons will need to refreshed every six months anyway.  What matters in’t just the information or knowledge. Instead it’s the basic human skills, the skills you need to teach yourself in a world where learning never stops. How to solve problems. How to explore the world. How to imagine and invent. How to make the new.

What I think would be interesting to explore is to teach the essentials of the creative process and make it a part of the core all kids learn, whether they are going to go on to be artists or engineers or doctors or farmers.

So next I’d like to sketch out in a bit more detail what I think some off those lessons could be.

[Music]

First of all, I ‘d encourage kids to come up with ideas.  Lots and lots of ideas. I’d say start each day by writing down a list of ten new ideas. They can be on any subject. Ten ideas for songs by your favorite band.  Ten ideas for why the Civil War happened. Ten ideas to reinvent sneaker design. Ten ideas for new video games. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad. Just write down ten every day.  The next day pick a different topic and write down ten more ideas. Do it every school day and by the end of the year you’ll have 2500 new ideas. Most will suck. 1 or 2 will certainly be gangbusters.

Next year, do it again.  There’s so much power in developing this habit of regular, self-guided, sustained creativity.

Thinking of so many ideas teaches another important lesson: that it’s perfectly okay to have bad ideas.  It’s okay to make mistakes. Every kid knows that lesson but school rarely emphasizes it. How do you get good at playing a video game? You try stuff out, you die, you get respawned and you try something else.  That’s a basic creative skill. But its light years away from the idea of final exams, pop quizzes and standardized tests . What if we encourage kids to get stuff wrong to see what happens? What would happen?  

Next, let’s actively encourage collaboration and teach the tools for doing it better.  When people work together in teams, they come up with stuff the individuals never could. But there are skills involved in collaboration.  You need to learn to work together. You need to build trust. You need to recognize and honor different skill sets, different aptitudes. What if we made those lessons explicit.  What if we studied how successful teams work and emulate them? What if we made school less about competition on the sports field, in the college application process, in grading, and instead championed working together.

[Music]

And off the top of my head, here are a few other topics it might be interesting to explore:

It ain’t all about talent. Instead let’s emphasize the pleasures and rewards of craft, skill, hard work and perseverance.

What are Creative blocks and how do you get past them?

The roles and rewards of analog and digital technology in the creative process.

How to be conscious, not self-consciousness. That’s especially helpful for teenagers.

How to take risks without being terrified of failure.

How and why to make mistakes

How to embrace the strange.

The real lives of real artists. Historical and contemporary.  What do Leonardo da Vinci and Kendrick Lamar have in common. Make it exciting and relevant.

How to have a creative career. You don’t need to starve or be a zillionaire. But you do need to learn some basic principles of entrepreneurship and self promotion

How to think creatively no matter your job. You don’t have to be a professional artist to use your imagination. What if we explored how scientists or policemen or chefs or historians use their creative abilities.

How to be an independent thinker, an individual.  And it doesn’t require a nose ring.

What the Inner critic is and how to work with it.

Specializing and not specializing. The pleasures of being a creative dilettante and of being a skilled craftsman.

Productivity yields results.  Throw stuff at the wall, the more the merrier, until something sticks.

Time management. How to find opportunities to create and produce and think, no matter how busy you are,

The legitimate and scientifically verified benefits of Staring out the window and how to get school credit for doing it

How to analyze your personal thought and creation process and recognize your strengths and weaknesses to make more better stuff.

And that’s just my list of this morning’s ideas. Young minds could certainly crank out way more.

[Music]

What if we taught students, specifically and explicitly, what the creative process is. How ideas come about. The working of the mind and the imagination.  Best practices. It’s not a huge mystery, you know.

Creativity is a messy process. Scientists call it entropy.  It comes from taking different ideas that already exist and letting them rub up against each other until they spark and meld into a new idea.  You never know quite how it will happen but there are basically three key ingredients too facilitate coming up with ideas, to developing a creative mindset.  I’ll teach them to you now.

First, you need raw materials. You need to regularly fill your well with images, ideas, experiences and let them accumulate in the giant warehouse of your mind.  You need to watch movies, listen to music, read books and newspapers, talk to people about their ideas and experiences, and just be a huge sponge. You should avoid too much prejudice and be as open-minded as you can.  Listen to medieval music, Brazilian music, your grandmothers Broadway show tune LPs, deep cuts of obscure hip hop albums, anything and everything. You should watch Korean soap operas, films noir, documentaries on fashion designers, and random YouTube tutorials.

Absorb as much as you can but don’t be mindless.  Don’t just flip and skip through stuff. Think about it, talk about it, read about it.  Look for connections, contrasts, and what inspired the people who inspire you. There’s an endless web of links between  creative ideas and following the paths will spark new things in you. Let this process of filling your well become a lifetime habit.  You’re never too old to learn new stuff.

Now, I know that schools teach kids lots of stuff.  But that’s not quite the same as teaching them how to fill their personal  well. To understand the importance of diverse, seemingly disconnected learning and experience, to embracing the obscure and different, the weird and wild.  To encouraging and championing this search and making it a vital part of every kids education. Every kid should feel comfortable eating sushi, listening to Brahms, or squaredancing.  Kids today are more open-minded and tolerant than any generation and that bodes incredibly well for the future of creativity., I’m just not sure how much that’s apparent of the Board of Ed.

Step Two. Let all that stuff sit in the pot.  Let it bubble and combine. Let the seeds germinate.  Learn to let go. Let the ideas connect behind the scenes. It may take one night, it may take months, Learn how to quiet your mind, how to distract your inner critic from ripping the cake out of the oven before it’s baked.  This is a skill too and it needs to be taught and learned, tried and tested. Your teacher should encourage you to let your mind chill while you doodle and stare our the window, just like your football coach encourages you to get a good night’s sleep before the big game.

Then let the ideas pour out of the stew pot. Good, bad, indifferent. Some will drop in your lap perfect and ready to go.  Most will be malformed, or covered with an ugly crust or glued to a dozen dud ideas. Which brings us to the finals step.

In the third phase, you polish your diamonds in the rough.  But you need to learn the skills that make them gleam. You need to learn to edit. To let go of stuff that is obscuring your real idea. You need to learn the process of critique, to share constructive criticism that make s others ideas better and to accept critiques without feeling slighted.  You need to learn how to deal with your ego in the process. And you need to meet people who can help you make your ideas better. How do you present your ideas? How do you identify the best people to work with. How do you learn from them?

Those three steps are the basics of the creative process.   Load up with raw materials. Let your ideas incubate, Then select, edit, and polish.  

Ready.  Fire. Aim.

Of course, easier said than done. You need opportunities to really learn and live this process. To delve into each step.  To have mentors and colleagues and safe places to try and fail.

Again, I am not a school teacher.  And it’s quite possible that much of what I am proposing is already part of many school’s curricula in one way or another.  But I was never taught to embrace imagination and problem solving in school. I never saw my son bringing home idea generating homework assignments  And, even though I spent time in so many wonderful schools, I still felt like artists and creative careers were deemed risky and for a small minority of  students, despite the obvious demand from the outside world and the job market for more creative thinkers

So I’ll ask again. Should schools make creativity a focussed part of the core curriculum?  Not just an elective or an after school club but a central part of what every child is expected to learn? Should creativity be considered an essential skill rather than a god-given talent or the domain of a fringe group  of hipsters and artists? Should schools work to make sure that kids learn the history of creative thinkers, study their processes, learn from the greats ? Could we, should we, expect kids to be free thinkers, imagineers, innovators, mavericks? And if art seems such a pointless waste to those with the dollars, then fine, let’s be creative about it instead of embattled.  Should art teachers apply their creative skills not just to getting small handful of kids into art school but to securing a real seat at the table, by proving that creative skills matter to every kids future and that they can be taught just like Trigonometry, French and off-tackle running plays

[Music]

Let me tell you again something I said at the start of this episode and let’s see if it has more meaning to you now.

At Sketchbook Skool, we don’t just teach people too draw and paint,  We teach them how to be creative. To think in new and different ways.  To have confidence in their creative abilities. To see like artists. To support other creative people in a sprawling community of artists.  Not just to draw but to love to draw. To change their lives.

It happens every day.  It’s happened to tens of thousands of folks all over the world.  We teach art by asking artists to teach it. And different artists every week. A different experience,  a different way of seeing. If this sort of experience sounds intriguing, please take a free sample kourse.  You can sign up at our website, sketchbook dot school. We’d love to have you join our community and share your own ideas with us.

[Music]

Thanks for joining me again for art for all.  As always I would love to hear from you about your reaction to the podcast. Am I off base? Ill-informed? A jerk?  Just email me at Danny@sketchbookskool.com and let me know. And if you like what I have to say, please leave a review on your favorite podcast platform.  It is very helpful. If you don’t like it, well, maybe just email me and tell me how I could do better.

Till next time, this is art for all, and I’m your loyal mud-slinger, Danny Gregory. Bye!