Thursday, October 6, 2022

TEACHING THE FINE ARTS: a road to heartbreak

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

Yes, of course, fields such as mathematics or engineering can have intrinsic value. For some, a well-solved complex equation is probably just as beautiful as a Van Gogh painting. But that is not the only reason, perhaps not even the principle reason, such subjects have value. They can and do serve as a means to other ends. So even if one has no intrinsic interest in algebra, for instance, it is still can be useful for solving a variety of problems, getting into college and even making a living. So are chemistry, physics, and so forth.

When students take such subjects they have at least two reasons to learn:

• it can be intrinsically interesting,

• it offers numerous practical advantages.

Those teaching the fine arts cannot rely on such extrinsic advantages for motivation. There often is only the joy of appreciation. Let's say a teacher is teaching students about baroque art, for instance, and he or she shows the students images of Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. What practical advantages, what vocational leverage, does knowing about that amazing sculpture offer? Very little. So, if the students remain unmoved by the beauty and breathtaking craftsmanship of this consumate work of art, what is the teacher to do? They have led the horse to water, but ....

Such student indifference frequently suffocates the joy of fine arts teachers. Imagine an enthusiastic 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 thousands of dollars and sweating to earn her teaching certificate, she lands a job at St. Mediocritus High School teaching Music Appreciation. 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 chief, perhaps only, reason for enrolling in her course is that it is required for graduation.

She tries and tries to engage their intrinsic interest using this method and that. But in spite of the music's wondrous beauty and her various inventive tactics, most of the class remains comatose. Some are even annoyed by the earnestness of her efforts. All she can get out of most of them is, “Will this be on the test?” Eventually our teacher gives up trying to convey what makes her love music. She may even start to doubt her own love of it. To spare herself pain and fury she starts just going through the motions and handing out work sheets. The students, having long since learned to go through the motions, fill them out and generally pretend to listen. 

When the semester ends and the principal reviews our deflated teacher's course evaluations, he is pleased to discover that the student's think our music teacher has finally hit the mark. Our teacher, on the other hand, has developed a new appreciation for Matthew 7:6 “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you." It's hard to teach the fine arts.

For other observations concerning motivation for learning, see


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