American education is in perpetual crisis.
So begins a recent Wall Street Journal article. It’s a bit like saying American journalism is in a state of perpetual hype. There’s some truth in it depending where you look.
The article in question “A Musical Fix for American Schools,” reviews a current study of positive effects of music education. But research is a fickle beast. As a colleague once put it, be careful about claiming the arts help teach math – research is liable to show that math teaches math best of all.
Ellen Winner, a researcher associated with Harvard’s Project Zero and a co-author of the study, has been particularly guarded about claims of transfer of arts learning to other subjects. “If we are going to look for effects outside of music, I would look at things like persistence and discipline, because this is what’s required to play an instrument.” But serious study of any discipline requires these attributes. What I find missing in much of this research is investigation of specifically what aspects of music or arts study help develop these capacities. I recall one study that sought to establish that it was less the content of the arts but the manner in which they are customarily taught that makes the difference.
Elliot Eisner, Professor of Art and Education at Stanford, has examined these issues extensively, looking at arts education in a wide context of psychology, cognition, emotional development, and other intersecting streams (see, for example, his 2002 book Arts and the Creation of Mind.)
Amidst the current craze for hard data and quantitative research, there is still a lot to be said for qualitative research, as in case studies. I recently did my own little case study of one exceptional woman, Verna Parino, a longtime member of the Marin Chapter of San Francisco Opera Guild. Still active well into her 90’s, she circles the globe in pursuit of Ring Cycles. I was able to catch her this summer following a trip to Bulgaria. She attributes a passion for opera that developed later in life to early involvement in the arts, both at home and in school.
We can’t always know with certainty what facets of the world are going to speak most profoundly to our children. But we do want something to abide with them during increasingly hectic lives, in ways that will motivate them in school and return to sustain them in later years.
What, besides an alarm clock or the upstairs neighbor’s kids, will continue to get you up in the morning?
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