Friday, December 7, 2012

Trying to Teach the Fine Arts: pursuing heartbreak?

Unlike non-fine arts fields, such as math or chemistry for example, the value of music, dance, painting, literature and the other arts is heavily intrinsic. In and of themselves they are intensely worthwhile, but are less so as means to other ends.

Non-artistic fields, such as mathematics or engineering have intrinsic value too. 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 readily serve as a means to other ends. Even if one has no intrinsic interest in algebra, for instance, it is still useful for solving a variety of problems. So are chemistry, physics or auto mechanics.

Clearly, students taking non-fine arts subjects have two reasons to learn:
the subject is intrinsically interesting; or

the skills learned offer practical advantages.
Those teaching any of the fine arts cannot rely on extrinsic practical advantages for motivation. That's why teaching them can become an all or nothing affair. Let's say one is teaching the Magic Flute. What practical advantages, what leverage, does it offer if one remains unmoved by its intrinsic beauty?

This situation can prove deadly for the teacher. Imagine, for example, a musician whofinds the only way she can make a reasonable living and stick to what she loves is to become a music teacher. After investing in a Ph.D., she lands a teaching job at St. Mediocritus College teaching Music Appreciation 101. Semester after semester, year after year, she tries to share what she loves with sections of horny frat boys and preening coeds whose only reason for enrolling in her course is that fine arts is required for graduation.

She tries and tries to engage their intrinsic interest by playing particularly glorious music. In spite of the music's wondrous beauty, however, most of the class remains unmoved. Some are even annoyed because of the earnestness of the teacher's efforts. About all she can get out of them is, “Will this stuff be on the test?”

Finally our teacher gives up trying to convey the majesty and wonder that makes her love music. To spare herself the pain and fury that accompanies casting pearls before swine she starts just going through the motions. The students, knowing this drill, cooperate by pretending to learn. When the semester ends and the Chair reviews our defeated professor'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

-- GKC