The Paradox of Appreciation

Jay Greene’s recent post, “Want More Art Ed?  Decentralize School Control,” makes some really excellent points about the current paucity of arts education in public schools, among them:

Even if distant bureaucrats valued the arts as much as many parents and communities do, bureaucrats cannot give priority to the arts because that is not the basis by which the success or failure of their distant management is judged.

It got me thinking about a passage from C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Parthenon and the Optative,” quoted at length in Tracy Lee Simmons’s elegant apologia for classical education, Climbing Parnassus:

Tell a boy to “mug up” a book and then set questions to find out whether he as done so.  At best, he may have learned (and, best of all, unconsciously) to enjoy a great poem.  A second best he has done and honest piece of work and exercised his memory and reason.  At worst, we have done him no harm: have not pawed and dabbled in his soul, have not taught him to be a prig or a hypocrite. But an elementary examination which attempts to assess ‘the adventure of the soul among books’ is a dangerous thing.  What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very stage when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.

The very nature of the arts poses a challenge to measurement.  Will the standard be that all students can read sheet music?  Play a ditty on a recorder?  Draw a still life?

Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantelpiece, Picasso, courtesy of the MET
The Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantlepiece, Pablo Picasso, 1915.  Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s unlikely that consensus could be reached at scale on such a prescribed program; instead, arts standards are far more likely to be of the species Lewis warns us about — an exercise in creating a generation of art critics, and not in creating artists.

Teaching students to “understand” or “appreciate” a subject before giving them worthy examples to imitate or an inkling of its elements can lead to deep frustration (for some) and a false sense of confidence (for others).   Lewis reminds us that appreciation cannot really be aimed for directly.  It is a byproduct of having put in some work on the front end.  Most worthy things are like that.

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