The Victorian poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold wrote in his essay “Culture & Anarchy”:
The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.
Culture. That’s the way “out of our present difficulties.” Though the problems of his day and ours could be compared and contrasted, Arnold’s solution is equally applicable: learn about the best ideas that human beings have had and use them to innovate, to move out of complacency, to refuse the idea that obedience is good in and of itself.
The Alabama-born literary critic Albert Murray expressed a similar idea in a 1978 speech at Howard University that was re-published as an essay titled “Academic Lead Sheet.” He closed by saying:
I submit that the greatest challenge of the good student of our time is to learn as much as you can from the documented experiential data of the past that has come down to us through the ages and then continue to look for something better.
When this kind of progressive, student-centered idea is put forward, truly valued, and reinforced through action, the best in the field of education results. Young people must be apprised that education is “equipment for living,” as Murray puts it. Only when teaching becomes lifeless doldrums, possible test questions, or sterile platitudes does it fail.
And there are no better places for true education to thrive than in the subjects covered in newsprung: writing and reading literature, and making and viewing art. These subjects, when engaged fully, remind us of our common humanity in a multitude of undeniable ways.
If you’re not convinced about the merits of arts education, you should watch the video “Uncle Henry is Wrong,” or take a look at the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). Both resources provide an excellent overview of data, gathered by university-based programs, on the long-term value of studying the arts.