Arts in the Curriculum Revisited

This is a follow up to my post about the current Michigan bill that would profoundly alter the Michigan high school curriculum and eliminate the fine arts requirement entirely.

My father took my advice and wrote to his state congressman. In his handwritten response, the congressman makes two arguments that I have to address.

1. That it enables more choice, which is good because “Since each kid is different and with different strengths, they should be able to focus on education to develop their skills.”

If that is the argument you are leading with, then I argue the legislation should be to completely eliminate the Michigan Merit Curriculum. I’ve watched too many gifted musicians struggle through math classes, too many fabulous linguists who couldn’t keep their history straight, too many future physicists who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. If you really feel that students should be able to focus on their strengths, then my conclusion is that you are viewing high school as trade school and students don’t need any general education beyond their particular strengths and passions.

2. “Under this, a student with an arts focus can actually do more!”

That’s already the case – a focused student can take online classes, summer classes, and comp exams to clear up their schedule. But the “doing more” in this case would come at the expense of any foreign language training or other skills-based classwork.

But more importantly, I am less interested in enabling passionate artists to do more (extracurriculars, private study, community opportunities are vast) and more interested in making sure that every graduating student recognizes art. In all forms. An eighteen-year-old should be able to at least know something about Beethoven and Mozart, Gershwin and Sondheim, Picasso and Monet, da Vinci and Calder, Frost and Neruda, Balanchine and Graham, just as she is expected to know something about Steinbeck, Whitman, Shakespeare and Homer.

Being a member of our society should mean having experienced the arts in all their glory. Watering down the state curriculum with the misguided intent of giving students more choice is a bit like putting the inmates in charge of the asylum. We won’t see positive results.

I don’t care if my elected representatives are practicing musicians, painters, or dancers. I do care that they have experienced the arts and that an appreciation of artistic expression informs their decision-making.