The Arts Are Essential for a Good Education

For several years now, starting in the late 1990s and escalating since the last recession, arts programs have been cut throughout the country. This is especially true with drama and dance, but is also true with music and visual arts. The cuts are even more severe in schools serving mostly poor and minority children. This is extremely shortsighted. For many children, the arts provide a doorway into learning and the motivation needed to graduate. It elevates school to a place where students can come alive and see their concerns and interests reflected in the curriculum. It provides a vehicle for developing creativity and imagination. Reports show that schools with “arts-rich learning environments outperform their peers in arts deficient schools.”


The arts provide a more direct entrance into understanding and caring about others than any other discipline. They provide unique lessons about personal identity and the power to affect others. A play or a novel, for example, takes the reader inside the mind of the characters. As such, the arts provide one of the best ways to embed compassion into the curriculum.


The arts, whether it be the ancient dramas of the Greeks or modern movies, teach us how to understand our world. The ancient Athenians recognized this clearly. They led a life amazingly social and public. Unlike us, who view our emotions as individual, personal and essentially hidden, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that for the Greeks, “moods were public and shared.” Emotions were visitations by the gods of the community. Being so social, they needed a way to purge those emotions (other than going to war). They lived in a violent time. So, at the height of the Athenian democracy, citizens were paid to go to the theatre. ‘Catharsis’ comes from the Greek ‘katharis’ meaning purification or cleansing. According to Thomas Cahill, in earlier times in Greece, drama developed from a choral performance to staged action. There were only two parts in a play: the soloist, often in a costume and sometimes with a mask, who stepped onto the stage to tell a story, and the chorus itself, which would comment on the story and play the role of the community. The audience would listen reverently to the soloist but join in the choral responses, which they often memorized. It was a ritual. ‘Liturgy’ (‘leitourgia’ means the “work of the public”) was the Greek word for this interaction. Through feeling emotions evoked through the play, the audience was educated about how to live; stored up collective emotions were purged and social tensions relieved.


In an earlier blog, I talked about the mirror neuron systems and how communication is not just about expressing ourselves but connecting with others. A conversation takes at least two people; to speak with another person, you have to imagine or feel who the other person is or you can’t speak to them. When you try to speak and only hear your own voice, you are hearing the voice of disconnection, and the hunger for connection. A conversation without empathy is a monologue. The Greeks joined with others in liturgy. Today, you need to find your own way to make this connection.


Every fall, my school would produce a series of short or one act plays. The show was a greatly anticipated community event that lasted only one night and was coordinated with a fundraising spaghetti dinner. The theatre would often be full, standing room only. Student MCs would develop their own routines to introduce each play and whip up the enthusiasm of the audience. Especially in the earlier years, students would often write or improvise their own short plays. To the degree that the actors would feel and speak the part, the audience would live the story along with them. The energy was heightened for the audience by the fact that many were family or friends of the cast. I remember one night in particular. One of the actors was an extremely shy student who in ordinary life hardly ever spoke up. Yet here he was, striding boldly across the stage, a smile on his face. With every step that he took, the audience could feel him breaking free of his psychological inhibitions. They cheered him on, taking joy in his achievement. That was connection.


Keith Oatley takes this analysis a step further. Art allows us to not only feel what others feel, but feel without a layer of self-interest. When we watch a drama or movie or read a novel, we can identify with the protagonist, feel her feelings, yet also, in a more developed work of art, also feel for the antagonist. We can be interested yet impartial and thus have the opportunity to study the affects and moral dimensions of our emotions. In this way, the arts are a school for citizenship where we refine and enhance our capacity for empathy. Cut the arts and you cut one of our greatest tools for teaching students how to be moral, responsible, hopefully compassionate members of a community.


How do you teach the arts so empathy and compassion are emphasized?


[This is an updated version of an older blog.]


*The art is from Akrotiri, a 4,000 year old city on what is now Santorini, Greece.

Did You Hear the Education News?

This week I was concerned by two news reports. The first concerns the new New York State standardized tests. Our children are taking the tests as I write this. But several people think the tests are different but not much better than the dysfunctional tests of the last few years and may be taking up an illegal amount of school time. See the press release from the NYS Allies for Public Education.


New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia seems not to get it. She says that opting out of the tests is not an answer. She says tests “help educators plan for the coming school year and develop individual learning for students. The tests are the only objective measures we have to compare student progress between schools and districts.” But, I question this. Standardized tests have been shown to sometimes be anything but objective. And claiming that it’s common for teachers to use them to plan classes is also questionable.


Test taking is its own sort of skill. In fact, some students have told me they like and do well on tests. That’s great. It means that as you proceed through the educational system, you will hopefully find success. Some forms of testing can be helpful when combined with a variety of assessment approaches. But whether doing well on standardized tests means you have more than a decontextualized knowledge of facts, or that you can apply the facts to solve problems or think critically, or do well on a job or real world situation, is another matter.


Opting out of tests is both a way to keep your children free from the testing mania and also is a way to make a political and social statement. So contrary to what Commissioner Elia states, I think it is a positive move to take.


Secondly, The Alliance for Quality Education in New York says that the “recently enacted New York State budget allows Resorts World Casino to withdraw $40 million annually from a fund that is supposed to be set aside to fund public schools.” Please read their whole press release. This is outrageous.


So, is the state of education in New York or the rest of the US improving? Certainly, more and more people are becoming aware of the problems with standardized testing and evaluating teachers based on those tests. Wonderful alternative methods of teaching are gaining traction (such as SEL, inquiry and project based learning, mindfulness instruction). But freeing public education from attacks by corporate or other interests, and establishing a more equitable, compassionate, proficient and engaging educational system has not shown much progress.


And: NY Assembly members Amy Paulin and Todd Kaminsky have proposed legislation to address some of these ills. Please read more about the proposed legislation.

Why Not Practice Mindfulness?

I just read a great article on how teaching mindfulness and social-emotional awareness to students improves the atmosphere and learning in a classroom or a whole school. There is also an interesting website (WKCD- What Kids Can Do) that the founding principal of my former school, Dr. Dave Lehman, recommended, which provides student views on how social-emotional learning greatly impacted their lives. I recommend both resources. I also recommend the practice of mindfulness.


In discussing “why practice mindfulness” with people, I frequently say, “Why not?” Most people I know sincerely want to do something positive with their lives, want to help their students or fellow workers and friends. So, why not do it?


“It’s too hard,” some people say. Or “I don’t have the time. How can I fit it in?” It is difficult to rearrange your schedule. That’s often true. But I also know that the times I doubt myself, feel in emotional pain, get lost in worry and anxiety, can take way too much time. Would it be worth putting five minutes into mindfulness so you spend five minutes less worrying?


And five minutes is all you need to get started. After you get up in the morning and stretch, or after you take a shower but before you eat. Or when you get home from work, and need quiet time for your self to let go of or process the events of the day. For five minutes, do nothing but a little mindfulness.


Then some people say, “Mindfulness is just a way to forget pain, forget the oppression in the world, to be selfish.” Acting to reduce oppression, inequity, injustice is important work. But what happens if you can’t recognize how hate, fear, or the desire for revenge affects your thinking? Do you want to have people leading a movement who have no insight into what drives them and little ability to control their emotion? Emotion can be a motivator for action, but it needs to be observed with some clarity and focus so your thinking can be clear and focused. When you do compassion practices, you don’t just develop compassion for yourself. You are readied to act for the well-being of others.


“I don’t know how to do it. You had a background in meditation; I don’t.” It’s true. I meditated for many years before I used it in classes, or used it regularly in classes. However, how many times do you use a technique at work or in a class that you were taught to use but had little experience with? Or you read about but hadn’t tried more than a few times? So, why not do the same with mindfulness and emotional awareness?


One important point with mindfulness is that you practice it on your own, before, during, and after you do it with your students. It’s important that you don’t pretend to be other than who you are. If you are just learning, share that with students. But you need to also open yourself to continuous learning. You take classes. You read books. You find an experienced teacher. And you listen to your students or fellow workers and learn from them how to teach them.


Also, encourage your students to⎼ and do this yourself⎼ study how they respond to different practices so they find ones that develop a clarity of mind and a sense of comfort and autonomy in their body. Instead of pressuring students, invite them to join in however they can. Allow them to sit silently or write in a journal if they don’t feel comfortable with a practice.


You don’t do mindfulness to forget the world. You don’t do mindfulness to improve grade scores or productivity or even to reduce anxiety. You do it just to do it. You do it because of what happens in you when your attention is focused clearly on what you are doing and nothing else. As a result, it just happens to be true that you think more clearly and deeply and you feel better about your abilities. It just so happens that you appreciate your life more.


By taking action to change your life, just doing little things, you learn how to take action in other areas. You learn you can act.


So, how do you begin? One way is to partly or fully close your eyes and just feel your breath. Or do this with your eyes open. Feel the air entering your body. Feel the sensations in your body of taking a breath in, and out. Your body makes slight adjustments with each stage of the breath. Notice those adjustments and changes. How does it feel to breathe in and out?


Or open your eyes. Look outside right now. Here, now, it is morning, and raining. When I look at the sky, I see places that look almost black, others gray and hazy. And one place where a little sunlight appears. I see drops of rain strike the window. Each drop, for barely a second, is one with the window, a tiny dome that reflects what’s around it—colors, shapes. Or put your hand on the window and just feel the window—the temperature, the texture, the hardness or softness, how your hand coheres to the window. If its raining at your home like it is at mine, hear the raindrop against the glass. Notice how you feel when you focus intently on the raindrop. How does it feel when you listen to and hear the rain hitting the window or dropping onto the street or the roof of your house?  Just calmly notice what you observe. Then return your attention to your breath.


If a thought arises, notice it like you noticed the raindrop, with open interest. Watch it, then move on to the next moment, of rain or whatever. When you do this, rain will no longer be only something to resist, an interference. Instead, it will be something to observe, appreciate and learn from. By doing this, your life will continuously be something to take in and appreciate and learn from.


That’s one way to begin.


If you’d like more resources, check out my links page and:

Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques To Develop Inner Strength in Children, by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman

A Still Quiet Place: A Mindfulness Program for Teaching Children and Adolescents to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions, by Amy Saltzman

Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community

Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, by Ira Rabois (Soon to be published.)

The Metaphor of Life as a Journey

When I was young, I had a distinct feeling that my life was to a large extent planned out for me. I knew the outline of this plan but not the details. There was a distinct schedule that I had to keep. At first, I thought the schedule was created by my parents, but it was much bigger than them.


George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in the book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, discuss how we use metaphor to structure our perceptions. One complex metaphor is of life as a journey, like a train trip with a timetable and destinations. You have expectations and assumptions. You imagine that to have a meaningful life you need goals and a plan and you need to stick to it.


And this journey is tied to a concept and identification of self as a traveler, the hero, saint or sinner on the journey. But this “self” transcends “me.” It is a cultural artifact, embedded in a cultural story in which this journey of a self comes alive. We imagine this self is who we are. Thus we might think we are the way others see us, or we think we are the persona or face we live for others. We think we are this traveler identified by cultural destinations like school, marriage, job. This self is a cultural identity as much as a personal one.


We do the same with understanding our own mind and experience. We have this cultural metaphor that mind is the same as the brain or somehow lives in the brain. Maybe we imagine the mind travels in the brain like a passenger on a train, some in first class, some in coach, and we imagine this is just the state of nature, not the state of cultural metaphor.


So when I felt the urge to rebel and couldn’t figure out how to make the transition from college to job, to support myself in a way I found ethical and meaningful, I could no longer stay on schedule. I panicked. I felt a sense of dread. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t find a way to make a living. I wasn’t just a traveler who had missed his train. My very sense of self seemed to dissolve. The underside of the life-as-a-journey metaphor was exposed. When before I was “on track” I was now “off track.” I was “lost.” I had fallen off the train. Confusion was not an acknowledged train stop.


But after falling off the train, I eventually began to see the metaphor as a metaphor. I began to see the implications. If love, success and retirement were the big destinations on the train route, then wasn’t birth the first stop and death the last? The existential shook up the cultural. There was a whole universe of moments I was missing by focusing on destinations instead of feeling the motion of the train and the colors, scents, relationships of all the beings riding along with me.


My mind is not a passenger riding my brain. It is the whole landscape of meaning in which I come alive. It is embedded not only in a body and a culture, but a universe. So, if one way to understand our lives is with metaphor, what is the metaphor we want to live? What story or poem do we want to write with our life? And we need to re-write the cultural story to include the “gap years,” time to “find yourself” or time to step off the train and ride a camel on the silk road. Time to value restructuring society instead of just fitting in.