Photo by E. Briel

Photo by E. Briel

In early 2014, President Barack Obama addressed workers at a General Electric gas engine plant. “A lot of young people don’t see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” he said,  “but I promise you, folks can make a lot more… with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

That simple remark sent arts advocates into a letter-writing and tweeting tizzy. When the president apologized a few weeks later, via a hand-written note to an art history professor, the gesture was hailed by arts ed advocates as a victory that acknowledged “the untapped potential of [arts] industries in helping to improve the economic growth, jobs creation, and trade surplus of the United States.”

But the apology, while well-intentioned, didn’t reflect a change of heart. In the letter, Obama admitted that the arts were a source of joy in his life, but explained he was trying to “mak[e] a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history.” According to him, it’s not that art history doesn’t have value; it’s just that its value has more to do with joy than dollars – or practical skills.

Obama, like most high-profile leaders in education, frequently trumpets the need to cultivate an “innovative” workforce. While the definition of “innovation” has long been squishy, the president’s earlier statements suggest he sees an innovative workforce as one with “makers of things, not just consumers of things.” One would think the link between arts education and workforce development would be easier for him to grasp, particularly with reports on the impact of “creative economies” popping up left and right. Yet the link may seem more tenuous than arts educators would like to believe. Take, for example, the 2013 Otis Report on the Creative Economy. Released annually since 2007, and focused on the Southern California region, the report attempts to quantify the economic impact of “creative professions and enterprises that take powerful, original ideas and transform them into practical and often beautiful goods or inspire us with their artistry.” Not surprisingly, the report shows that those professions and enterprises are a big, and lucrative, deal in the region.

Arts education advocates hail these findings as evidence of a huge market for the skills taught in arts classes. Yet it seems that the very for-profit leaders who hire for such creative economy jobs are skeptical of the relevance of arts education. According to “LA Creates: Supporting the Creative Economy in Los Angeles,” which was released as an addendum to the 2013 Otis Report and features a synthesis of interviews with leaders from the creative industries,

While public and nonprofit sector participants were in near unanimous agreement on its importance, private sector participants expressed a fuller range of skepticism about the benefits of seeking solutions through support of arts education, and often didn’t see arts education as a priority among a hypothetical set of specific strategies that would improve the ability of creative businesses to expand and thrive.

What’s going on here? For-profit CEOs rank creativity at the top of their lists of important leadership qualities; arts education advocates have been arguing that their work provides a direct pipeline to the “creative economy” for years. Why, then, does the link between arts education and workforce development seem so difficult for people – even those working in the “creative industries” – to grasp?

One explanation may lie in the disconnect between arts educators’ rhetorical embrace of creativity and the constraints they, and all educators, face in traditional K-12 classrooms. Arts educators have fought hard for inclusion and respect within the public school system, and have dutifully adopted many trappings of that system along the way. The most obvious example is content standards, such as the Common Core, which outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The standards movement started in the 1980s and continues to the present day, when forty-five forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have established them in the visual and performing arts. While arts educators variously embrace or chafe against those standards, they’re widely accepted as best practice, in large part because they allow the arts to demonstrate parity with other disciplines.

But does “demonstrating parity with other disciplines” at the K-12 level foster the best environment to nurture 21st-century skills like creativity? After all, “creative studies” programs in higher education– both bricks-and-mortar and virtual offerings of which are growing in number – are designed around the idea that creativity is not content-specific:

Traditional academic disciplines still matter, but as content knowledge evolves at lightning speed, educators are talking more and more about “process skills,” strategies to reframe challenges and extrapolate and transform information, and to accept and deal with ambiguity… “The new people who will be creative will sit at the juxtaposition of two or more fields,” [the director of a creativity center] says. When ideas from different fields collide… fresh ones are generated.

Meanwhile, most K-12 classrooms are still structured with each discipline, be it math, reading, or dance, in its own bubble. Despite efforts by the writers of the Common Core and the soon-to-be-released national arts standards to provide more flexibility across disciplines, advocates in all content areas are pushing for students to receive a minimum amount of guaranteed instruction in whichever discipline they support.

This raises some questions for arts educators. If the economy of the future will require that students demonstrate more applied problem-solving than content-specific knowledge, our hope that schools address discrete, and traditional, arts disciplines during the school day may not the most obvious choice for our future “innovative workforce” – if cultivating that workforce is indeed what we hope to do. Is teaching the arts a more effective means of teaching 21st-century skills than a framework like the Buck Institute’s Project Based Learning, which puts a heavy emphasis on hands-on, interdisciplinary problem-solving but doesn’t yet have a strong arts focus? If our top priority is “cultivating a 21st-century workforce,” should we be arguing that every student should have, for example, forty-five minutes of violin instruction per week? Are we missing a broader opportunity to get ahead of what may be a long-term shift toward a more interdisciplinary approach in education?

Some arts educators are embracing the interdisciplinary approach via the “STEM to STEAM movement,” a promising offshoot of our renewed focus on workforce development. While broad STEAM rhetoric is as muddled as it is popular, certain STEAM school models, particularly those at the high school level, are pretty friggin’ fantastic. Current interest in STEAM from government and certain business leaders provides an opportunity to investigate research on creativity and problem-solving in a deeper way, expanding our understanding of how creative people work and enabling openness to how “creativity” is taught in non-arts contexts.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the arts do not have a monopoly on 21st-century skills. Nor should those skills have a monopoly on our arguments for why arts education is important.  Perhaps the more willing we are to examine the link between the two, the more likely we are to uncover what the full impact of arts education can be.