Thursday, March 8, 2012

TEACHING THE FINE ARTS: the road to heartbreak

It's especially hard to teach the fine arts. In fact, it can suck the joy our of life. Unlike more practical fields such as math or science, for example, the value of music, dance, painting, literature and the other fine arts is almost exclusively intrinsic. In and of themselves the arts are intensely worthwhile, but much less so as means to other ends.

Of course, fields such as mathematics or engineering can have intrinsic value. For some, a well-solved equation is just as beautiful as a well-danced pas-de-du. But that is not the only reason, perhaps not even the principle reason, they have value. They serve as a means to other ends. Even if one has no intrinsic interest in algebra, for instance, it is still can be useful for solving a variety of problems and making a living. So are chemistry, physics, and so forth. For instance, these subjects are vital for entry into medical school.

So, students taking such subjects have at least two reasons to learn:

• the subject can be intrinsically interesting,

• the skills learned offer practical advantage when it comes to making a living.

Those teaching the fine arts cannot rely on extrinsic practical advantages for motivation. There is only the intrinsic joy of appreciation. Let's say one is teaching students about baroque art, for instance, and he or she shows the students Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. What practical advantages, what vocational leverage, does knowing about it offer? Very little. So should the students remains unmoved by the beauty and breathtaking craftsmanship of this sculpture, what is one to do? The teacher has led the horse to water, but ....

Student indifference can prove suffocating for the fine arts teacher. Imagine a musician who finds the only way she can make a reasonable living and still stick to what she loves is to become a music teacher.  After investing and working to earn her teaching certificate, she lands a teaching job at St. Mediocritus High School teaching Music Appreciation 101. Semester after semester, year after year, she tries vainly to share what she loves with classes dominated by pimply, horny boys and vacuous preening girls whose only reason for enrolling in her course is that it is required for graduation.

She tries and tries to engage their interest. But in spite of the music's wondrous beauty, most of the class remains comatose. Some are even annoyed because of the earnestness of her efforts. About all she can get out of them is, “Will this be on the test?” Finally our teacher gives up trying to convey the majesty and wonder that makes her love music. To spare herself pain and fury she just goes through the motions and hands out work sheets. The students cooperate by filling them out and pretending to listen. When the semester ends and the principal reviews our defeated teacher's course evaluations, he is pleased to discover that the student's think she has finally hit the mark.

It's especially hard to teach the fine arts.

For other observations concerning motivation for learning, see

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Years of dumping on teachers and blaming them for outcomes that typically are beyond their control have taken their toll. Teacher job satisfaction is the lowest it's been since the Reagan years.
The 28th annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, found that 44 percent of teachers are "very satisfied" with their jobs. That's down from 59 percent in 2009. The last time job satisfaction dipped this low was in 1989 — wich was the final year of Ronald Reagan's teacher-bashing Presidency. Worse still, 29 percent of teachers say they are likely to leave the teaching profession within the next five year. That's up from 17 percent in 2009.
Simpletons compare superior standardized test scores from nations such as Finland with weak kneed American. scores and blame the deficit on US teachers. They never bother to compare Finland's superior social environment with that of the US. Yet when this is done unhappy comparison is striking.
Another reason U.S. teachers leave the profession is that that they often are only casually committed to begin with. The entry price is so low that casually committed candidates make it all the way through. In Finland only the best and brightest are selected for training and then it takes years of graduate study to qualify. Here you're in if you can wet a hole in the snow.
For more on U.S. teacher preparation see