I am completely convinced of the necessity of arts appreciation in a college education.
This comes, firstly, out of the relentless joy that the arts have provided in my life—in primary school where I thought of myself as the-best-drawer-ever, to early high school when I was absolutely sure that creative writing would be my life, to the profound peace and wholeness that I experience after going to an art museum or reading poetry and literature.
And the flute.
But the arts don’t need to be a spiritually fulfilling experience to be necessary in a complete education. We don’t talk about the sciences that way, or critical thinking skills, or civics—and no education is really complete without these, either. The restorative nature of the arts is an added (and welcome!) bonus to the arts for me when I think about their role in education.
I think of college as laying the foundation for successful citizenry: contributing to society. Here I’m not thinking of being a wealth-generating peon but as being able to identify the range of roles that a robust, healthy, broad society needs; finding one’s place in it; loving one’s place in it; and valuing the places that others occupy.
There are two related, somewhat circular, reasons why I affirm the necessity of the arts in education and their undergirding of good citizenry.
There is no arts appreciation without empathy for other human beings
I start every semester of my music appreciation courses with a series of in-class, online, and writing projects that ask my students to explore, describe, and understand what they hear when listening to music (meaning not just the physical sensation of hearing but also what they remember, experience, and think about while listening). The takeaway from these assignments is that no one hears anything exactly the way anyone else does. The next step is why—understanding others’ perspectives, past experiences, interests—so that they can themselves hear even more in the music and so that they can understand what it feels like to be someone else.
This peer-to-peer eye-opening lays the groundwork for the survey of music history we take in the remainder of the term: it gives my students the critical thinking foundation to piece together historical data, economic factors, social structure, and biographical quirks to understand why someone would make a piece of music, or talk about it in a certain way, or what historical figures might have expected or wanted out of music. Empathy turns the idea of “a person” into a fully-fleshed human being and makes history come alive.
When I ask my students to imagine the hypothetical situation of being a prisoner of war, watching their homeland being ravaged and fearing not only for their own lives but also the lives of everyone they care about, and then, in that mindset, describe the kind of music they would write if given the opportunity—that’s how they come to understand the profundity of Olivier Messaien’s sense of inner strength that he derived from his faith.
Empathetic historical listening is how they grapple with Wagner’s egoism or Brahms’s trepidation or William Grant Still’s pride when each man thought about themselves in relation to Beethoven’s symphonic legacy. It’s the lens through which they approach Schubert’s, or Mozart’s, or Drake’s portrayal of women in song. It shapes the way that they return to their lives and find deeper meaning (or sometimes uncomfortable implications) in the music they already love, the music that’s ubiquitously shoved in their ears by consumerism, and the music their parents, grandparents, and caregivers sing at night.
Arts appreciation flexes, strengthens, and tones the muscles of active empathy. This kind of social-emotional fitness can then transfer into day-to-day life—looking for the broader factors that influence others’ behaviors, picking up on the nuance of others’ style, being sensitive to another’s concerns. People who approach life in this way are the people I want to share this world with.
If you can empathize, then you can appreciate any art
The second tenet of my thinking about arts appreciation is its democratic nature. Anyone can do it, because everyone has the ability to be empathetic. That isn’t to say that everyone wants to do it (“It’s just a class I have to take for my degree”) or that it comes naturally to everyone (“I don’t know what it sounds like”), but everyone has the ability, and that makes the arts a welcome forum for people of all backgrounds, perspectives, and identities.
In the long term, that means that the myriad benefits of engaging in arts appreciation, active listening, critical thinking, and aural wonderment are available to everyone. And as one engages in this kind of activity, one gets better at it by further developing one’s skills of empathy—nuance, sensitivity, awareness—and then in turn appreciating more art, and then becoming more empathetic, and then…
If anyone can appreciate art—because everyone has the ability to empathize—and if the act of art appreciation enhances the behaviors that make us better neighbors and co-citizens of the world—because it induces a greater sense of empathy, creates three-dimensionality in one’s understanding of what human society entails, and also makes us more receptive and aware of what drives, motivates, frightens, and inspires the people around us—then it is obvious why there is great benefit in the arts as an educational component.
These benefits are crucial in college, at a point when many students are becoming self-aware and asserting their identities (emotionally, professionally, globally) and at a moment when they are absorbing philosophies that will (subconsciously) shape their decisions for years to come. This isn’t to say that college is a unique “magic window” in which arts appreciation has potency—it has great value and effect at any age—but I think we as educators, as stewards of the future that these students will inherit, would be irresponsible not to provide them with all the tools to shape that future for the best.
Arts appreciation isn’t a magic pill
The cause-effect line between arts appreciation and civic engagement, becoming conscientious neighbors, or world peace is not a pathway etched in stone: “Just listen to this Chopin Nocturne and you’ll be a better person *POOF*”—that’s overly simplistic and doesn’t do justice to the process of arts engagement.
But I feel—and will continue to argue—that if you appreciate the arts, meaning that if you engage with a work and actively unpack what it entails (how it was made, why it was made, the details it contains and how they relate to not only each other but also the details of other works, the skills involved in creating it, the desires of the people who viewed it, the social structures that made the work possible or even necessary, how it makes you feel and what you bring to the experience), then there is no way to come away from an artistic encounter without feeling a sense of kinship with the humanity of those involved in its existence—the artist(s), the other viewers/listeners, the world in which you live. And in that process—fulfilling in and of itself, because art!—is where the value lies.