Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary By from the Freeman Courier Creativity � what does it mean? Where do you get it? How do you learn it? And if it is, indeed, the currency of the 21st century … are we broke?

I believe we're about to find ourselves on the corner asking that very humbling question, "hey brother, can you spare a dime?"

And it has everything to do with education.

For two centuries, America got what it wanted from schools; people suited to work in factories, or more commonly in our area, people suited to work the land. Over the past two decades, however, business has changed drastically from an industrial to an information oriented with fierce global competition. Today, a skilled creative work force is key to competitive success. What the business community of the 21st century (in the information age; the "virtual" age) needs for success and what the arts have to offer in educating the work force are, at minimum, these five components:

Imagination. Teamwork. Flexibility. Communication. Excellence.

Imagination: The arts teach students to create something from nothing … to visualize situations and consider possibilities and solutions. The cultivation of imagination is one of the most precious human resources but it is not the agenda of the American education reform movement. It is not on the agenda for the South Dakota education reform movement. It ought to be the center of our educational goals.

Teamwork: The arts help students to recognize that nothing stands alone. The craft of forming something … in music, words or any other art discipline … helps students understand how elements within a work influence each other and interact. In other words, exactly how the parts make up the whole. An important attribute for any executive or manager.

Flexibility: The arts foster an awareness that problems can have multiple solutions … that good things can be done in different ways. Schools often emphasize rule-governed learning focused upon a single correct answer. In business, government and in our social relationship multiple answers are often desirable. In fact, they are often necessary.

Communication: The arts teach students that there are many forms of communication other than the spoken and written word. This is critical in the information age (the "virtual" age) where we are bombarded with 15 second sound bits at every turn. The arts teach us that the effectiveness of what we communicate depends on how we communicate it.

Excellence: All art disciplines challenge students to seek a level of excellence. In the areas of math, science, social studies or history, if you make a mistake or two, you get a "B" or "C". In the arts of music and theatre, if you make a mistake or two it can mean a disaster, a flawed performance, an embarrassing moment. You cannot miss your exact cue on stage. And so students rehearse over and over to get it right. An attribute that every employer can appreciate.

Brain research tells us that children who study music at an early age have a greater understanding of spatial relationships … the kind of thinking skills used in advanced math and physics. A study done at the University of California at Irvine, took 3-year-olds and divided them into three groups. One group did nothing, one group used the computer and keyboard and one group took piano lessons. The group that studied the piano (not just listened to music) scored highest in spatial relationship skills.

Statistics tell us that schools with art based curriculum have higher test scores and better attendance. The College Board tells us that in 1996, SAT scores for students who studied the arts more than four years were 59 points higher on the verbal and 44 points higher on the math portion than students with no course work or experience in the visual or performing arts.

All this research material is wonderful. It substantiates what those of us who are parents or who work with children knew already: We know that toddlers are curious, creative and uninhibited. They sing, they dance, they draw, they sculpt, they write, they compose.

Then they go to school.

Before five, the arts are a major part of their life. In elementary school, we take away, for the most part, all the visual, sensorial audio and movement aspects of how children learn, and we ask them to learn through the linear intellegences of linguistics and logical mathematics. In other words, we take the fun out of it all. We ask them not to create but to recreate. We ask them not to imagine but to recite.

At middle school into high school, we provide bands, choruses, theatre productions, debate, declam, creative writing courses. Our schools have become product-driven in the arts which makes us extremely short sighted. We have fine programs in high school for talented students but very little sequential study to encourage the participation in the arts until middle school.

What can we do? We start by getting involved in arts education. We start by speaking out as parents and business advocates for sequential arts curriculum and creative learning in our schools. We make heroes of our student writers, musicians, painters, playwrights, actors, debaters, oral interpreters, dancers and composers just as we make heroes of our athletes.

If creativity is the currency of the 21st century, are we broke? Will we, in South Dakota, be asking other states, other countries to borrow a dime? Let's not wait to find out. We may just have to be creative. We may just have to use our imaginations.

Janet Brown

Editors note: These comments are taken from a presentation by Janet Brown to the South Dakota Newspaper Association on May 7, 1999. Brown is executive director of South Dakotans for the Arts. Local residents may be interested to know she is married to singer Gordy Pratt, who performs here tonight (July 9).

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