There is an interesting article in today’s (July 19th) Wall Street Journal (page D7). Titled “The Impoverishment of American Culture“, it’s a condensed version of the commencement speech given by Dana Gioia at Stanford University on June 17th.
Gioia notes that at the same time pop culture is narrowing (he points out that the Ed Sullivan Show used to feature classical musicians and jazz artists along with the still prevalent movie stars and pro athletes), school curriculums are shrinking. Under substantial, and apparently unending, financial pressure, schools are forced to reduce offerings and they usually start with the arts. He suggests that the result is a focus on producing graduates who are minimally competent entry level-workers and whose greatest extra-curricular experience and expertise may lie with the Xbox.
One of his concerns resulting from these trends is that in the global economic competition, the U. S. is not going to succeed through cheap labor and cheap raw materials, being the low-cost provider. Instead, he believes that our best chance is through supplying high-quality products, which require, in his words, “creativity, ingenuity, and innovation”.
The training for these abilities, he advocates, comes from those areas of our culture currently being squeezed or cut. Arts education, Gioia argues, is not about producing more artists; its purpose is to give all of our students the ability to think creatively.
He goes on to cite another benefit of arts education. Recent studies of American civic participation find that our nation is dividing into two distinctive behaviors. One group spends most of its time passively consuming electronic entertainment. The other group plays sports, volunteers in the community, and does charity work at three times the level of the first group.
The defining difference between the passive and active citizens isn’t income, geography, or education level. Instead, it depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts.
Gioia argues that “art awakens, enlarges, refines, and restores our humanity”. It also apparently builds our communities.