Arts education is being cut in school districts throughout the country. This is extremely shortsighted. For many children, the arts provide a doorway into learning itself and the motivation needed to graduate. It makes school something more than mere work, but a place where students can come alive and see their lives reflected in the curriculum.
The arts provide a more direct entrance into understanding and caring about the experience of others than any other discipline. The arts provide unique lessons about personal identity and the power to affect others. 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 our movies today, teach us about facing our world. For the ancient Athenians, the role of the arts, particularly drama, was clearly recognized. 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. In fact, according to Thomas Cahill, in earlier times in Greece, when drama was developing 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. ‘Leitourgia’ (meaning “work of the public”) was the ancient Greek word for this audience-choral interaction and the origin of our modern word ‘liturgy.’ Through feeling the emotions evoked through the play, the audience was educated about how to live, and stored up collective emotions were purged and social tensions relieved.
In an earlier blog I talked about how communication is not just about expressing ourselves but connecting with others. A conversation takes at least two; to speak with another person, I have to imagine or feel who the other person is or I can’t speak to them. When we try to speak and only hear our own voice, we are hearing the voice of disconnection, and the hunger for connection. The Greeks joined with others in liturgy. Today, we have different practices.
In my school, in the fall, we always did a series of short or one act plays. The show became 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. 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 knew the cast members personally. I remember one night. One actor was an extremely shy student who in ordinary life hardly ever spoke up. During the show he seemed to break free from some inner restraint and fully inhabited his role. He strode boldly across the stage and the audience cheered on each step that he took. 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.