Creating a Whole New World

Using arts education (and American pop culture) to produce successful global citizens by Paul D. Houston

One of my favorite songs is “Amazing Grace.” I love it for its meaning but also for the idea that grace is amazing and makes such a sweet sound. It is a song that provides forgiveness, hope and possibility: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

As I look at America, I see us blindly abandoning those things that made us great as a nation. We are living with a blindness today that could cost us our future. Our blind spots center on what we value as a nation and how we are approaching education and the place of the arts in American society. We are in need of some amazing grace.

Our culture is shaped by our language, our images, what we pay attention to and those people whom we raise to iconic status. The real contaminant in our culture today is what we choose to value and adore. Today’s American icons are business titans like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, sports stars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods or pop idols like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Our values seem to be built around wealth accumulation, sports excellence (which leads to wealth accumulation) or fame (which also seems to make one wealthy). We might remember that Tiger Woods signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Nike before he had played one round as a professional and Michael Jordan’s endorsements dwarfed his playing contracts.

The Bible says that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. America has come to treasure treasure, and therein lies the problem.

We are a nation fixated on people who are famous for being famous. And most often money is the bottom line. It has been reported that last year Paris Hilton made over $7 million just for being Paris.

Cultural Influence
Education is not immune from the influence of a culture run amok. At the policy level, it is now widely reported that Bill Gates is the most influential person in education reform. Is this because of his broad knowledge and experience in education? No, it is because his foundation gives millions of dollars away to influence what happens in education.

At the child level, what our children are taught to value comes largely from the popular culture and what our schools emphasize tends to be shaped by the economic culture of our country. The result is that we have collectively raised a generation of children that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We are reforming schools — not around the ideas that would create a more vibrant culture but around economic imperatives, and that could exact a great price on our future.

Over the past several decades, schools have become the “farm system” for corporate America and the holistic aspect of education has been overrun by concerns for America’s place in the global marketplace. This has led to a distortion of understanding about what is true and what is important about education and how it is delivered.

At times over the last half century, schools have been criticized for limiting America’s ability to compete in the global marketplace. In the late 1950s, America’s falling behind in the space race was largely blamed on our schools. There were panicked stories in the popular media about “what Ivan knows that Johnny doesn’t,” and there was a flurry of activity to improve America’s educational standing. Money poured into schools for new programs in science and for teacher preparation.

When a mere decade later America landed men on the moon, the schools were not given much credit for this achievement. And they probably shouldn’t have received credit. They were no more responsible for John Glenn and Neil Armstrong’s accomplishments than they had been at fault for Russia’s launching of a satellite before the United States had done so. Their space flights were the result of American ingenuity and know-how and a government that was focused on a successful outcome.

In the 1980s, America was rocked by “A Nation at Risk,” which pointed out the failings of American education. The report argued that our lowered economic standing against Japan and Germany was a result of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in our schools. The report suggested we had unilaterally disarmed ourselves educationally and called for improved rigor.

Again, less than a decade later, America had vanquished the economies of Japan and Germany, prevailed in the Cold War with Russia and was once again standing astride the globe as the pre-eminent economic and military power in the world. Again, the schools were not credited with making this so, and they should not have been. The education system has always been a player in the nation’s economic success by producing what was asked of it. In the 1950s it was workers for the factories of the industrial revolution, and in the 1980s it was more high-tech workers for the emerging information age.

Global Anxieties
Today there is rising angst about the emergence of China and India as world economies and once again there are fears the United States is falling behind these economic behemoths. Schools again are targeted as the culprits of our supposed failure to compete. And, as usual, the pundits have it all wrong. It’s not the schools, it’s the culture.

The vast majority of children being educated in China and India are receiving a substandard education. Yet China and India are turning out large numbers of young people who are disciplined and excellent at linear, sequential work. America continues to turn out students who are individualistic. In fact, the schools that turn out rather rambunctious and sometimes rebellious children who have a mind of their own and speak it at every opportunity may well be creating conditions for America’s continued dominance on the world stage. But this will be true only if America pulls back from its current efforts at school reform and re-examines what makes America what it has always been.

Today’s threats do not come from India and China but from our own myopic and insular view of our own culture. A real danger exists in trying to compete head-to-head with China and India numerically — or to do so from an income standpoint. Put more simply, because those two countries account for about three billion people, only about 10 percent would have to be engineers and scientists to create a scientific work-force that would match the entire population of the United States.

Further, given the relative size of those countries compared to our own, they would only need to educate 10 to 15 percent of their population to high standards to engulf us in skilled workers. Our entire work-force cannot match this reality. In addition, their workers work for a fraction of American wages, so the future of head-to-head competition with these countries does not look bright.

It would be instructive to look back to Sputnik and to study our response. Russia succeeded early on by building bigger rockets. It was planning its moon expedition around the assumption it needed a huge rocket to launch its “moon lander” and almost as huge a rocket to return. America created Apollo from the concept of three ships: one relatively larger ship to escape Earth’s gravity, a smaller ship to orbit the moon and return the astronauts to Earth, and a lander that would be left on the moon with a very small rocket to take the astronauts to the circling orbiter. It was a creative and innovative approach designed by NASA scientists that allowed America to skip many of the steps Russia had to take. Innovation and creativity trumped brute size.

So our inability to compete with China and India on size alone might not matter. If the flattening Earth described by Thomas Friedman in The World Is Flat is part of the problem, the conceptual economy described by Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind may well be the solution.

Friedman brilliantly describes the challenge of a world where jobs can be done anywhere in the world by people with the right skills. Pink describes a world where that is true but less important because the nature of work is changing. Pink points out that the jobs that can be done anywhere involve the skills of sequential linear thinking — skills that characterized leaders in the industrial age and workers in the information age. He suggests if your job can be done elsewhere cheaper or by a machine (computers are great at linear, sequential acts), then you are in trouble. But if your work involves creative, innovative thinking such as story telling, design or empathy, then you are in good shape because your job can’t easily be outsourced. He suggests we are moving into a conceptual world where these creative skills are most important.

Creative Acumen
The last century was called by many the “American Century” because of our domination in military and economic terms. But as author Ben Wattenberg described it in The First Universal Nation, our domination and the making of the first universal nation may well have had more to do with our popular culture than anything else. He pointed out it wasn’t the electronic boxes that were being produced in the Far East that were important, it was the software, the movies and the music that went into them that created culture.

This point has been brought home to me as I have seen children in the remote Amazon rain forest wearing Michael Jordan’s number 23 T-shirt, and I once had a lively discussion with a group of Maori children in New Zealand about the plot lines on the evening soap opera “Melrose Place.” The universal images the world watches and the sounds they listen to most often emanate from American shores. Yes, in World War II our military might have liberated Paris, but it may be Paris Hilton who is winning the current war for world influence. For better or worse, American popular culture trumps all others.

America’s real power is not in our engineering but in our “imagineering,” a phrase created by the folks at Disney. Disney also gave us the song “A Whole New World” from the movie “Aladdin.” The reality is that America has been producing the world anew for some time through our popular culture and our economic power. It is now time to recognize our future economic power will come from the culture we create, and that will come from what our schools produce. Our success is much less dependent upon the skills our children have than on our children’s ability to see the world through fresh eyes. The future will be shaped by those who see through new eyes and who can imagine new things. For that to happen, schools will need to be freed up from the coercive policies that have been promoted, in part, by big business so that students can find their own voices and visions.

One of the many ironies of our current discussions about education is that money is not seen to have anything to do with the quality of education, even though education is seen as the path to more money for individuals and a stronger economy for the nation. When it is brought up, educators are told that “money doesn’t matter”— this in a culture where money is the only thing that matters, where brilliance is equated with checkbook size and where iconic status is achieved through the power of the purse. It is also ironic that the current fears of our education quality are framed through economics — we can’t compete globally without better-educated workers. So it would appear the only place money is not important is in the education of our young.

This shows up in international competition. While the United States has cut taxes that go to support education both at the state level and nationally, other countries in the world are increasing their investments in education. For example, China has increased spending on colleges and universities tenfold in the past decade. We also have slowed our investment in research and development at the very time other countries have accelerated theirs. We currently rank seventh in the world in percentage of gross domestic product devoted to research. But money isn’t the only issue.

In a piece written for Newsweek magazine, Fareed Zakaria interviewed the minister of education of Singapore. Zakaria pointed out that while the students in Singapore outperform the students in the United States on tests, years later the American students are much more successful in the world of work, particularly as inventors and entrepreneurs. The minister explained that both countries have meritocracies — in Singapore, it is based on testing and in the United States, it is based on talent. He conceded what behaviors make a student successful — creativity, curiosity and a sense of adventure — are not covered on tests. This is where America has an edge. The minister went on to mention that Singapore must learn from America’s culture of learning, which challenges conventional wisdom, even to the point of challenging authority.

While Singapore is trying to copy what we do best, we are trying to copy Singapore in the one place that will not give us an economic edge — the culture of testing. Where we might want to copy Singapore is in their treatment of teachers. In Singapore, beginning teachers make more than beginning doctors, lawyers and engineers. When I questioned this on a visit there, I was reminded you would not have doctors, lawyers or engineers without teachers. And yet, any chance we might have to compete internationally in education hinges on our teachers’ ability to educate our children effectively and creatively.

Narrowed Curriculum
The greatest irony is that at a time when America needs its creativity and ingenuity the most to compete with the enormous scale of our competitors, we have chosen to, as “A Nation at Risk” warned us against 25 years ago, unilaterally disarm ourselves. We are reshaping our educational system to look more like Singapore, with more emphasis on a culture of testing and less on a culture of culture.

The very things that make America uniquely American — our innovative spirit and our creative expression — are being pushed out of our schools in favor of a narrowed curriculum built around norm-referenced, high-stakes tests. Schools now are rewarded and mostly punished for their performance on multiple-choice tests, the least creative and innovative activities found in schools. And because the stakes are so high (schools that don’t meet testing standards risk being labeled as “failing” and risk losing control of resources and students), other activities are being shed. So courses such as art, music and creative writing are less valued and less taught.

America is caught up in a frenzy of test-based reform, designed ostensibly to benefit those who have been left behind by our culture. The problem is that the authoritarian model, which emphasizes the achievement of the left brain, is doomed to fail with many children. And the failure will not be because they do not test well, for there is every indication that when emphasis is put on tests, the scores rise. Just ask Singapore.

The “test and tremble” model of school reform that is the current craze, which values a narrow measure over broader success, is unlikely to move us toward a more conceptual, creative society. Cognitive scientists remind us that fear inhibits cognitive processes, and yet we are trying to make children and schools smarter by threatening them and scaring them to death. And we are not likely to capture the imagination or the talents of those who have been left behind if we stay on the present course.

There is no question that a significant portion of America’s children are not performing to world-class standards. This is mostly because America is not performing to world-class standards in dealing with the social issues that plague many children and their families. Children who were born to mothers who lacked adequate prenatal care, who received inadequate medical preventive attention and who received no or substandard preschool programs come to school already left behind. It is difficult for the school to catch them up, particularly when the school itself is located in a community that cannot raise adequate resources to compete with other schools in middle-class neighborhoods.

American educational practice revolves around a deficit model where students’ shortcomings are identified and remediated. Since motivation is a critical part of the educational process, it is difficult to use a deficit approach to motivate.

Personal Probing
The poor children in America bring many assets to school with them every day. And these assets are often in areas that would bring greater success to America in the global marketplace. If you look at one of the creative cultural gifts America has given the world, such as music, you would identify genres such as jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, rock, R&B and hip-hop.

What do all these forms have in common? They all came from a part of our society that had been left behind. The children on the Native American reservations in the Southwest may not perform at grade level, but if they are tasked with assignments to “design” (one of Pink’s basic skills in the conceptual world) they are highly proficient. Basketball players in the ghettos of our inner cities might not know what the concept of systems thinking is, but if put on a basketball court they know where 10 people are moving through time and space and can anticipate their movements and create elegant responses to them — the essence of a systems thinking approach.

Classrooms full of immigrant children might have trouble meeting the goal of adequate yearly progress set by No Child Left Behind, but those same children culture shift and language shift multiple times during the day — something most middle-class Americans cannot do in this increasingly diverse global world.

Creativity is often found at the margins of a society, where ideas and imaginations are free to roam. We need to spend less time on identifying what children do not know and more time celebrating what they do know. We need to find ways to build upon these strengths to help them learn what else they may need to be successful in their own lives and productive citizens for the world.

When I was growing up, I was one of those students who hated math and science. I would not fit well into the flat world. And the truth is, I wasn’t that much happier about social studies and literature. It was only years later, when I became superintendent of schools in Princeton, N.J., which is a hothouse for theoretical mathematics and quantum physics, that I learned that what I had learned in school in math and science had the same relationship to real math and science as a log has to a blueberry.

Math isn’t about mastering rules and memorizing times tables. It is about finding the elegance in a well-stated problem. And science isn’t about learning periodic tables and formulas. It is about exploring the mysteries of the universe. And social studies isn’t about trying to remember when, where and who. It is about better understanding the human condition. And literature is not about probing plot lines or grammatical niceties. It is really about understanding ourselves.

Learning must be about elegance, mystery and probing our inner universe. And the best way to approach a lot of this is through the arts.

The great cellist Pablo Casals once remarked that “each second we live is a new and unique moment in the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four and that Paris is the capital of France. We should also teach them what they are.” He reminds us that each child is unique and capable of anything, of becoming another Beethoven, Michelangelo or Shakespeare. That they are all marvels and it is our task is to make the world worthy of its children.

Paul Houston is executive director of AASA. The article is based on a presentation he delivered at an invitational meeting of Americans for the Arts at the Sundance Institute.