The Arts are a Beautiful Educational Pathway

by Mr. Sheehy

My daughter is finishing her freshman year of high school and has shown some interest in and capacity for art. She is not one of those kids who draws all the time and sketches life-like portraits, but she has filled up the memory card on our camera too many times to count, has taken to careful (and tasteful!) decoration of her room, and has spent increasing quantities of time painting over canvases to try something new. Combined with the interest she has shown in working on the computer, I’ve discussed with her the world of design–graphic arts, web design, and more–and will be happy to encourage any vocational interest she shows in the field.

Knowing this, I have been planning to zip down to my colleague’s classroom in the art department to ask his advice for her high school course schedule. While my daughter has not wanted thus far to take a drawing class, for example (I won’t share her reasons, but she has some legitimate ones), I wondered if not taking one would put her at a disadvantage if she wanted to pursue design. Should she focus on developing a stronger sense of artistry through drawing, painting, or ceramics? Will those courses push her in the ‘grammar’ of art she will need if she wants to use design and art in a vocational endeavor?

I mention my conundrum because it flies in the face of how many view education and what its focus should be. Our school district is developing pathways to help students grasp what their education is for. The intention is to lend purpose to school and help students see where their education could take them. I understand the idea and am generally ambivalent about it (that is, I know education has problems and am open to this solving some of them), but I find it interesting how none of the initial pathways we are constructing clearly involve the arts (including music, theatre, or art), writing, journalism, or even law and government (to name a few that come to mind immediately).

Now, everyone who is pursuing a field wants to see their field featured prominently, so of course I’d be sensitive to journalism and writing being downgraded or subsumed in other categories. Is journalism a relevant thing to study? You’d better believe it is! Just because newspapers are struggling doesn’t mean the job opportunities are grim. I read this week at Axios, for example, that the “job of the future” is editor-in-chief.

But so far, my district’s answer to why none of the arts is a pathway is to compliment the arts, to say they’re important, but that the pathways will help steer students into realistic vocational tracks. So an artist or musician could take the business pathway and learn how to market herself and create an entrepreneurship opportunity.

But that is sad, because it assumes that business is the real path. Instead, why not create an arts path and within that path offer courses in how students could incorporate business and marketing to what they do as artists? Interestingly to me, the approach of asking arts students to tread the business pathway is the opposite approach to what I am seeking for my daughter. If she wants to pursue design, I am not concerned that she develop a sense of business but that she properly develop a sense of artistry.

But to create no pathway for fine arts is to say to her that such a path is not a legitimate use of her time. That it is a vocational dead-end. And I know many will object–that is a myth! We love the arts!–but they’ve not spoken with my students’ parents, the ones who come to me with horror at parent-teacher conferences when they learn their child is considering an English major. Why, the parents want to know, would my child want to  work at Starbucks for the rest of their lives?

To subsume the arts into obscure spurs of the pathways is to confirm these parents’ assumptions that the humanities and arts are skills of leisure, not skills of vocation. It is to reveal an assumption that arts education is a petri dish where dreams of fame and American Idol are grown. It is to declare that artists and art teachers do not grasp how hard one has to work in these fields, how much skill is required to succeed.

I’m game for the pathways coming to my school district, but I also suspect that what my daughter really needs if she wants to succeed in a career in design is not to pursue a business pathway, but to double-down on the arts. I suspect she should learn what artists can teach her and then bring that skill to the world.