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What The Arts Teach Us About Business and Life

There is a lot of talk these days about education, but there is never, ever any talk about the arts.

There is a lot of talk these days about education, what we should be teaching our children so they will be successful. A consensus seems to have arisen that math and science should be more rigorously taught and that the United States stands to lose its business leadership role as a result. There is never, ever any talk about the arts – music, the visual arts, drama, writing – and what their place is in the education of our youth. Maybe that’s because knowledge of and prowess in the arts are not included in any of the plethora of standardized tests that schools administer.

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As a result, most people have tacitly accepted that if it’s not tested, it’s not taught or taught very little and never at the expense of another, “academic” subject. In the schools where the arts are a component of a well-rounded education, they tend to be worth only a small fraction of the credits that accumulate toward graduation, relegated to extra-curricular activities, take second-place to other curricula or are delivered privately, paid for by parents, if they can afford it.

According to Elliott W. Eisner, Professor of Education at Stanford, this presents a problem for business:

“The problems of life are much more like the problems encountered in the arts. They are problems that seldom have a single correct solution; they are problems that are often subtle, occasionally ambiguous, and sometimes dilemma-like. One would think that schools that wanted to prepare students for life would employ tasks and problems similar to those found outside of schools. This is hardly the case. Life outside of school is seldom like school assignments–and hardly ever like a multiple-choice test.”*

Eisner cautions that the ways schools teach today robs students of their innate ability to think and solve problems creatively and flexibly, something arts education excels at.

“Creative thinking abhors routine. Routines may be good for the assembly line, where surprise is the last thing you want.”*

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Perhaps most importantly, the arts teach that qualitative evaluations can be as valid as quantitative evaluations. Questions such as: Is the work good? How do you know if there are no rules for judging it, or “correct” answers? are easily addressed by artists. Arts also teach about teamwork (think choral singing, band, orchestra, drama and other forms of group performing) and appreciating the different talents and strengths that others bring.

The arts provide opportunities for us to express ourselves through our feelings in media other than words or numbers. And it is such opportunity for expression that plays such a compelling part in our communication. Eisner says

“Neither words nor numbers define the limits of our cognition; we know more than we can tell. There are many experiences and a multitude of occasions in which we need art forms to say what literal language cannot say. When we marry and when we bury, we appeal to the arts to express what numbers and literal language cannot. Reflect on 9/11 and recall the shrines that were created by those who lost their loved ones — and those who didn’t. The arts can provide forms of communication that convey to others what is ineffable.”*

Most importantly, I think, the arts teach us how to play and thus, are about expressing joy. At work, we want to be around other people who can express their joy or at least their happiness or contentment.

But what kind of a message does it send when a company gives a standardized test to potential new hires, as if a test can give a company a full or even fair picture of a candidate? It’s the same message the schools send when they test and teach certain subjects to the exclusion of others: that no matter how accomplished or talented you may be, some pursuits are not worthwhile, meaningless in life and in the world of business where only hard facts and the bottom line matter. Thus, you need not apply.

Is this the kind of world we want?

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*Eisner, Elliot W. “Three Rs Are Essential, but Don’t Forget the A — the Arts” Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2005 Commentary

Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates, LLC • Greenwich, CT • www.ruthsherman.com

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About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World.

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