An Interview with Alex Hiam: If We Cut the Arts, Are We Cutting Our Throats?

School Days,

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)      Alex, as you know, these politicians are looking at cutting art, music, P.E., theatre- a number of programs that, at least in my view, contribute to the education of the total person. In your mind, what are your concerns?

First, it’s a good thing to have artists in our society; they contribute to the quality of our thinking and our culture, so the idea that we should boost our economy by training only little business-people is horrible. However, that said, there is also a lack of understanding among politicians as to how one would best go about the process of creating a new generation of successful business-people. We seem at least to all agree that we need innovators and entrepreneurs in our society, so that’s a starting point at least. Now, where do they come from? First, they are probably going to be in the middle to the high end of the creativity range, so these are today’s curious, creative, expressive children, not necessarily the ones who ace multiple-choice tests or top out on IQ scales. Second, they are going to be the kids who get cross-training in multiple disciplines and fields, because this feeds the creative process. Creativity is the fresh combination of things or ideas, and innovation is the practical application of creativity, so, simple logic here: We need people who get creativity and breadth of experience in their formative years. The arts help accomplish both these goals. Cutting the arts almost guarantees a generation that lacks innovation. I don’t think that’s really what any of the politicians want to accomplish, but it’s where their policies are taking us.

2) How is our test-driven education system draining the creative spark, enthusiasm and zest right out of our students?

How isn’t it? There’s really nothing productive about test-driven education. Testing is a secondary or tertiary educational tool at best. It isn’t the point of the education. Beyond that, I also have to point out that we are not testing for the qualities we say we need, so even if the tests do impact the education, it won’t be in the right direction. There is no testing for innovativeness, and no innovation curriculum. I’m kind of tired of pointing this out, it seems so obvious, but let’s say it once more, really clearly: If we need innovation in our society, we ought to educate innovators, not people who are drilled year after year in how to stay within the lines.

The public school curriculum provides the biggest opportunity for shaping young minds and honing young imaginations. And it’s K-12 where we can have the most impact because these are the formative years. The work I’m doing now as an instructor at the college level and a frequent contributor to employee and management trainings is, I’m afraid, remedial. We focused on a mismatched set of curriculum goals and now we’re trying to retrain people. There is an easier way…

3)      Why is art in the classroom integral to and essential for both our students’ progress and our economic progress?

Interesting but little-known fact: Most innovations are imagined visually at first. Visual thinking is actually the strongest natural suit for us humans. It’s what we are really good at, and it’s how we invented and created useful things, from stone tools and hunting implements to more modern inventions. Hand-eye coordination is about a lot more than just catching a baseball. It has far higher levels involving imagination and cognition in both critical and creative ways. So, the art classroom is a wonderful place that could become a major hub for the curriculum of the future. The idea that the art classroom is a costly extra is really terribly misguided.

Policy-makers are asking how we can cut school budgets by reducing or eliminating the arts. A far better question to ask right now is, how can we realize more of the incredible potential of art instruction?

4) Alex, I was recently in New York City, and saw the many plays and performances being offered. How can you put a price tag on this aspect of human creativity and expression?

Even people who don’t go to a Broadway show are actually still major consumers of theater. Most Americans watch stories being acted out in a TV studio and broadcast to them via TV or the Web. We are as a society totally fascinated with theater in its myriad forms and media, and that fascination is, I believe, a part of our innovative past and economic success because theater is all about story-telling and imagination, and the stories we tell are all about characters who face barriers and problems, and struggle to overcome them. Like the art studio, the school stage and/or film program could be central to an innovation curriculum. The value? Priceless!

5) Let’s talk about inspiring young minds, motivating them to write the next great play, the next American novel or the next great song or poem. What is invaluable about this?

Some people express themselves through writing, acting, music, painting, and other arts, while other people express themselves as scientists, entrepreneurs, or as policy-makers who reorganize something to achieve a breakthrough solution to a social problem. These seemingly unrelated careers are actually close cousins because they are all forms of creative expression. If we invest in innovators, we will see a blossoming of creative expression in the arts, the sciences, business, and public policy, all at the same time. It’s always that way, ask any historian. If you want another period of enlightenment with great progress in all aspects of society, then you need to look to education to create it. It won’t work to try to make great innovations happen ONLY in business — society never works that way.

6) “Oh boy. Another day of worksheets” moans one student. What could the arts and music do to enhance that child’s day?

For starters, there should be a healthy mix of worksheets (basic skill drills) and exploratory projects in every subject. Then, there should also be a healthy round of movement amongst subjects such that the students engage their minds and bodies fully, in varied ways, during their day at school. Art activities are integral to a healthy day at school because they are integral to humanity. Our ancient ancestors took time out of their subsistence-struggle to paint cave walls and invent religion. It’s hard to believe that we are so much more hurried and less human today that we are unable to take time to do some art in school!

7) What about children who, as Paul Torrance used to say, have had the creativity beat out of them by about 4th grade. Any way of resurrecting this treasure?

Oh yes! It’s not too late, not even for college students or adults, and we’ll get to our goal of a new period of rich, innovative economic and social progress far faster if we work at all levels, not just with those who won’t be leaders in our society for several more decades.

8) Alex, there is a grandeur and a splendor to the robust arts in the schools. How do we communicate that to parents, and our politicians?

Well, perhaps we need to help parents and politicians experience the grandeur and splendor of the arts. It’s been a long, gradual slide into our current state and many adults grew up without enough exposure to the arts. I think that we might have to reexamine another assumption of budget-cutters: Funding for the arts in our society as a whole. If only a fraction of a percentage of parents or politicians even go to a museum, play, or live musical or dance performance in a year, we can’t blame them for a lack of understanding of the impact of these experiences. I will also add that there is sometimes certain snobbishness in the art community, where people have a far greater depth of knowledge of the arts than the general public and where traditional or pop forms of expression may seem boring and unsophisticated. To engage a broad audience, you need to perform for them, not at them. :-)

9) Just for the record, how many books on creativity have you written about, and how many on the arts, and what is your main message?

I’ve worked face to face with thousands of people over the years, often in creative sessions aimed at everything from how to revitalize an old museum to how to create a new consumer brand or a new corporate business strategy. I also have written, oh, about a half-dozen publications on creativity and innovation with an emphasis on the practical how-tos. Beyond that, I’ve maintained a secondary career as an artist and creative writer, which has sometimes been hard because my main livelihood comes from my work with business and government, not my art exhibits. However, I’m convinced that my productivity in business has been fed by the energy and insights I get from continuing to practice as an artist.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

Gosh, I wish I knew! There’s always that one great question that produces a flash of insight, if we could just think to ask it. Maybe that’s the point, actually! We are, as a society, failing to as the right questions when we struggle with politics and policies about our economy, our arts, or our educational system. The right question is more fundamental than the ones that currently occupy us. It is, I think, this question: How can we integrate the arts, sciences, business, governance, sports, and all the other elements of a well-rounded student and a well-rounded society, so as to insure a healthy revitalization of our nation in the coming decades? If all our policy-makers could stop debating for a month or two and put their heads together to consider this question, we might really do it!

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