Arts & Humanities for Young People

As an arts and humanities teacher, I was glad to read this article, “An art-felt gesture” by 16-year-old Zulmarie Nazario, which was published about a month ago on (I received it more recently as part of an e-mail newsletter from the Arts Schools Network.) It explains in very general terms what “Fleisher” is, what going there has meant to her, and that she got to meet Michelle Obama because the Fleisher Art Memorial (its full name) had received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. The award is given to an outstanding out-of-school arts program. On its web page about receiving the award, the following explanation is given about what Fleisher does:

Each year, Fleisher Art Memorial’s Youth Arts Programs provide over 2,000 young people in Philadelphia with creative and transformative arts experiences. Fleisher engages youth ages 5-19 in free, high-quality art-making classes, workshops, and residencies that emphasize inquiry, experimentation, and appreciation, providing each student with a positive means of self-expression.

Ask any young person who has ever engaged the arts about its impact, and the story is always similar: it made a difference in their life. Nazario’s short article is no different, and I recognized a lot of the sentiments.

Working with teenagers at an arts magnet high school for the last eight-and-a-half years has given me a constant opportunities to engage young people with the arts and humanities. I teach creative writing and now, in the last two years, 12th grade English too. In my creative writing classes, I don’t use prompts, for instance, because I want the students, who range in age from 14 to 18, to pull out of themselves what they keep tucked away in there. I also almost never give anything like a “test,” and I never use objective formats like multiple choice; the closest I get are short answer questions. We read and then talk about what we read, and we write and then give feedback to each other on what we’ve written. We hold up student-written texts and published texts that have been edited, and we ask of both: what was done well here and what could have been done better? I teach the students that they aren’t wrong if they can back up their ideas with evidence from the text, and I teach them separate their likes-and-dislikes from their understanding of craft, merit and value.

However, what I find, especially among students that I teach for four years, is: the students who thrive on a vivacious kind of critical thinking love this kind of learning, and the ones who just want to memorize a few facts for a short period of time and pick the correct answer from A, B, C or D do not. We all know people who say, “Just tell me what to do so I can do it that way.” The industrialized world needs worker bees, lots of them. Yet, for those who don’t want to live that way, and moreover for young people – and I was one of these – who resent even the idea of being told how to live or what to think, an education that is rich in critical thinking about the arts and humanities is an irreplaceable in-road for showing them that life doesn’t have to be that way!

In September 2011, The Chronicle on Higher Education published the article, “Let’s Get Serious About Cultivating Creativity”, which discusses the very kinds of offerings I am describing. (Unfortunately, the option of reading it for free on the Chronicle’s website has expired.) The authors state unequivocally: “we are undermining creativity in K-12 education through relentless standardized testing and the marginalization of subjects like art and music.” Why exactly would that matter that we are “undermining creativity”? Because, as my father used to tell us, if you ain’t the lead dog the scenery never changes. Being at or near the bottom strata, which is where an inability or a refusal to think will land anyone, sucks.

Even though I teach creative writing and English, I have no delusional misconceptions that my students will go on after high school to study literature like I did. In a show-of-hands poll last year, of the 63 seniors I taught, only one was going on study English – and she was one of my creative writing students. Of the 84 seniors that I teach this year, none are planning on being English majors next year. So how do I handle that ego-crushing scenario? I employ a Writing Across the Curriculum approach to giving assignments, which roots the principles in critical thinking exercises rather than in strict literary study, and I utilize a socio-historical approach to teaching literature that has students connecting the literature to the society that produced it – the very kind of “School of Resentment” approach that would make Harold Bloom squirm in his big leather chair. Relevance, my good man, it’s called relevance. Maybe if I can help them to see that the culture produces the literature, they may well begin to think critically about the “literature” that our culture is producing. (I use the term “literature” loosely here, because the cultural artifacts that may be relevant to modern teenagers might include TV shows, movies, video games, apps, and more.)

An education – whether inside or outside of a school or a classroom – that is steeped in the arts and humanities can help to cure what Marianne Moore wrote about in her often-referenced poem, “Poetry”: “we do not admire what we cannot understand.” It really bothers me when my students can’t chuckle at the bawdiness of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” for example. For my part, I want my students to read and to think . . . and consequently to understand–- and to care enough because of that understanding that they may want to read and think about and understand even more!

Zulmarie Nazario’s expressions about her experiences at Fleisher and the ideas in that Chronicle of Higher Ed article are factors that I beg people to understand, people who don’t envision raising their children to be artists or scholars. The very noble but flawed logic tells them, I should help my child gain useful skills that will help him get a job. He can paint or play saxophone or be in a play later if he wants to. Many parents who encourage their children to play sports for the indirect benefits – learning teamwork, discipline, competitiveness and sportsmanship – cannot seem to see the indirect benefits of  engaging the arts and humanitiesproblem-solving, divergent thinking, analytical reading, self-esteem, and communication skills. There’s no way those skills could be useful in a “real job.” (cough, cough)

For all of the love that politicians and educational administrators have for data to support instructional practices, I must remark that there are some things that are worth more than numerical scores that can be plotted on graphs and in columns. Creativity is one of them, and self-esteem is another. Happiness is yet another. And all three of them have more value than any standardized test score ever will. Ask me if I would rather have a 34 on the ACT . . . or have happiness. Am I trying to say that studying the arts and humanities will lead to happiness? Maybe . . . for some young people. Yes, I believe so. It has for Zulmarie Nazario, and it also has for me.

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