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Art class won’t get you a job: Peter Shawn Taylor

Creativity overrated

(Photo: Jamie Grill/Getty)

(Photo: Jamie Grill/Getty)

Should you follow your passion? Or should you take the more practical path?

As another school year begins, artistic-minded students (and their parents) are once again wrestling with the age-old question of whether one should indulge an enthusiasm for music, literature or other fine-arts subjects at school, or instead study something more…shall we say…employable? Lately, this debate has taken on political as well as parental significance.

The Harper government leaves little doubt it thinks schools are doing a poor job preparing students for the real world. Ottawa’s efforts to narrow the “skills gap,” including its controversial Canada Jobs Grant program, is driven by a belief schools are pumping out too many drama majors and not enough welders.

In its defence, the arts community often argues artistic endeavours are vital to a creative and productive economy. Last month the Canadian high-tech lobby group Information and Communication Technology Council along with Music Canada jointly made the case for increased government support of arts education, especially music, on the basis that music students “performed better in general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, mathematics and IQ,” are more creative and have better social skills.

Similar arguments have been made elsewhere. “In the global economy, creativity is essential,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2011. “The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education.” So should we all be rubbing rhythm sticks in school?

A group of squinty-eyed researchers at the OECD recently decided to test that assertion. Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education, released this summer, carefully examines hundreds of experiments and studies on the alleged ancillary benefits of the arts. They came back empty-handed.

The notion promoted by the Canadian technology council that an arts education leads to better results in a wide range of other areas was repeatedly deflated: “There is no evidence for a link between theatre training and overall academic skill… We found no evidence that dance education improves overall academic skills or reading…There is no evidence that training in visual arts improves overall academic skills or literacy.”

Further, there’s no reliable reason to believe an arts education improves motivation, critical thinking, self-esteem or social cohesion. And “it strains credulity to think that arts instruction could have a stronger effect on an academic outcome than direct training.” To improve your math score, study math. Not music.

The researchers’ most alarming observation, however, was the lack of any reliable connection to the illusive spark of creativity: “Despite the common assumption that arts education teaches creativity, we found little evidence for this hypothesis.” There’s no reason to believe an arts student will be any more imaginative than a civil engineer when it comes to solving problems. For the most part, creativity is innate, not taught.

So what should we make of all this? Beyond kudos to the OECD for delivering an unvarnished look at the evidence, we ought to acknowledge the hard truth that many of the arguments made for studying the arts are either wrong or wholly unproven.

This doesn’t mean the arts themselves are a dead-end street. (As the parent of a first-year university student off to study tuba performance, I’m in no position to lecture anyone on practicality over passion.) There’s more to higher education than learning the difference between MIG and TIG welding. Mastery and personal growth count for something, as does the ability to interpret and define the world around us. Picking a subject that elicits a sense of ardour is unquestionably a good thing.

The real lesson is that we should be pragmatic in our expectations and honest in our reasoning. If you want to study the arts because you love it and can’t imagine doing anything else, by all means go ahead. But don’t expect it will make you more creative, rich or better in math.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues.