Thursday, October 6, 2022

TEACHING THE FINE ARTS: a road to heartbreak

It's especially hard to teach the fine arts. In fact, 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 other fine arts is almost exclusively intrinsic. In and of themselves the arts are intensely worthwhile, but much less so as a 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 Van Gogh painting. But that is not the only reason, perhaps not even the principle reason, these subjects 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, getting into college and making a living. So are chemistry, physics, and so forth.

So, when students take such subjects they have at least two reasons to learn:

• the subject can be intrinsically interesting,

• the skills learned offer practical advantage.

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 images of Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. What practical advantages, what vocational leverage, does knowing about it offer? Very little. So, should the students remain unmoved by the beauty and breathtaking craftsmanship of this sculpture, what is the teacher to do? They have led the horse to water, but ....

Student indifference can suffocate 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 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 both of whose only reason for enrolling in her course is that it is required for graduation.

She tries and tries to engage their interest using this method and that. But in spite of the music's wondrous beauty and her various tactics, 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 what makes her love music. To spare herself pain and fury she starts just going through the motions and handing out work sheets. The students, being dutiful Catholics, fill them out and pretend 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


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