My mother and father were the typical cautious parents: they encouraged me to have a backup plan in case music didn’t work out, the backup plan being a career that would undoubtably pay well in an entry-level position. And as everyone knows, music doesn’t pay well. Unfortunately, as my guitar-playing-professional- musician ex-boyfriend once told me, the problem with backup plans is that they become a distraction to the plan you actually wanted to set out for. The backup plan inevitably becomes the plan because it’s safer, more secure, and the earning potential looks more and more attractive the more time you’ve spent living hand to mouth. Everyone, including our parents, will agree that we need entrepreneurs and innovators to provide jobs and to keep the human race moving forward, but these paths involve great risk. So we let someone else’s kid take the risk: they’re not our problem.
It’s easy for us to encourage young minds to do what’s safe, because we want them to be happy, self-sufficient, and independent. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are almost always guaranteed a high paying salary, no matter the state of the economy. It’s a very safe career investment. This thinking makes sense: our modern-day success is attributed to socialism, which in turn allowed any person of any background virtually unlimited access to a real education. Industrialism shaped the curriculum, with the idea that if you wanted a job, you might not want to spend so much time learning drums. Skills that relied on left-brain thinking, that is, a skill that could be broken down into a set of rules and repetition, were the ones that rewarded society and the individuals who pocessed them. And yet, as Daniel H. Pink, author of “A Whole New Mind” argues, left-brain jobs are doing three things that are contributing to the rise in demand of the right-brain skills: 1) Left-brain jobs have created an abundance of functional items that no longer stand out from each other ie that $12 toilet brush will clean toilets just as well as that $7 toilet brush 2)Their jobs are being outsourced to Asia where workers can do the same skilled job for $15,000 per year and 3) Computers can do it all better, faster, and cheaper. At this rate, when will we keep needing human doctors, lawyers, or engineers?
Just who were the risk-takers who created a business to employ them in the first place (and sometimes making millions in the process)? It was people who had allowed their imagination to be creative. People who came up with an idea that was marketable and profitable. People who had the audacity to think outside the box, to invent something cool, like the iPhone, that everyone would love and suddenly realize they needed. Steve Jobs employed engineers of varying types to whom he delegated technical design to. But without Steve Jobs to create an idea, and build upon it with like-minded “crazy people,” we would never have been blessed with this revolution in technology.
It all seems so normal now. Today we take computers, cellphones, and DVDs for granted. Still, by the time our children hit the first grade, they will begin the process of being molded into a very narrow idea of what we think they should be in order to benefit society. As the grades get larger, less emphasis is put into drawing, something that is so instinctual to young children, and more on subjects that will aid them – and us – in becoming useful tools of society, working for someone else, but at least getting paid well. They might even build a new bridge for us in the process.
In North America, this is what is valued above all else. If it’s obvious to us just how beneficial something is to a lot of people, then we are more likely to fund it, give it grants, sponsor it, fundraise for it. A new bridge is so obviously helpful, as we witness people using it everyday in order to get from A to B. When we see out dentist, we pay him to fix our teeth so that they will keep working for years to come.
It’s when the benefits are subtle or still unknown that we are quicker to dismiss them. Money is valuable, and risky investments are always a gamble. We want proof and a good track record before we fund projects, experiments, preservation of species. It’s human nature to be careful with where we put our investments so we don’t get hurt. Why should we protect the Ecuadorean tree frog? If it vanished from the face of the earth tomorrow, we would tsk-tsk, shake our heads, mutter what a shame, and then carry on our merry little lives as if nothing happened. No impact would be felt. Except it would indeed be a great shame, because what we do know is that this tree frog yields a pain-killer 200 times more powerful than morphine. The Golden Poison Dart frog yields one that is 600 times as powerful. Both are non-addictive without side effects. 1 Some crazy person had to go into the jungle and start playing around with these frogs just to figure that part out. Today we only now are starting to respect the music therapy field as a valid medical profession. Many patients who have lost their ability to speak have not lost their ability to sing. Singing is used as a tool to rehabilitate patients into speaking again. But the music therapist, in order to help, had to have had experience with improvisation, noodling around and encouragement to just be plain creative, honing her skills over a matter of years. And yet, why do we, as a culture, downplay this crucial learning period as frivolous, just like the tree frog?
We’ve been hit by a massive recession, which means less money to go around, to spend on frivolous items. Survival comes first in times like these. If we spend money on something, we need it to function first and foremost. No frills please. And we reward function with money. Lots of it. And then we teach our children to want money, because having lots of it will make them happy somehow (in fact money only brings happiness to about $70,000 per year, after which happiness levels taper off). Interestingly though, even cavemen, who probably had the hardest, toughest lives to live, painted, and extraordinarily well. A people who had to struggle for food and shelter every day still used a creative escape. We also know that they invested a lot of time sharpening their skills, because their paintings are not amateurish. It would seem that having food in their bellies and a roof over their heads was not quite enough to keep them satisfied.
Sir Ken Robinson has made an interesting observation about schools that is universal all over the world: there is a hierarchy in subjects. First you have mathematics and languages at the top, followed by humanities, then you have the arts at the bottom. And even within these hierarchies, you have hierarchies: within the arts, music and art are taught as more important than dance and drama. This is a shame, and here’s why. We learn English in school, because our thoughts are only as good as our ability to write them down. We don’t need to be literate in order to survive, but as any literate person will tell you, it certainly makes life easier for everyone when we are all able to communicate our needs to a reader who may not be physically in our presence. For example, Clare is in a very important meeting, so she can’t duck out and call her husband to pick up their daughter’s dance costume from the store for the recital that night. So Clare commissions her husband by writing a quick text: “Pick up Lila costume” without interrupting the meeting. But, in this example, Clare only had a very basic understanding of literacy. Her husband doesn’t know from her message what costume to get or where, perhaps because she lacks the skills to spell the key words. Had she been more literate, a better text might’ve read like this: “Please pick up Lila’s costume from Rosey’s Dance Shop on Broadway and 5th. It’s a child’s mauve tutu, size medium. Get the one with the white trim, not the black trim.” A much better, more specific text message, conveying her exact thoughts (although perhaps she made the mistake of assuming that her husband knew what “mauve” or a “tutu” was). Obviously, learning to write the language you speak is important. So we’re taught it vigorously in school.
Specific communication put onto paper is vital for accurate results and we can see this when we’re all literate in our language. We all know this, but we are constantly commissioning designers to design our websites, without being able to effectively draw out what we want, or if we do draw it out, for most of us, it’s generally in the form of primitive stickman-like drawings. We want to live in a house with a tower, but we can’t draw the tower the way we envision it in our minds, simply because we lack the skill to do so. Instead, we end up relying on the architect to intuitively draw up something that he thinks we might be happy enough with. Imagine if we were all taught to draw from a young age, with the same encouragement as we were taught math. Imagine if we could all draw as well as we could write. We wouldn’t all be the next Michelangelo, but at least we could show that we wanted that tower to look like it had been designed by Gaudi or Frank Gehry, not Frank Lloyd Wright. Unfortunately, the current hierarchy of subjects in schools reinforces this visual illiteracy generation after generation.
It’s easy to dismiss art. It won’t save us in a drought. Engineers and their math skills will be designing a dam to conserve water. But look around you. Everything made by humans was made out of imagination, creativity, and design. The typeface of this article; the beautiful sleek computer you’re reading this on; your clothes. These things are a part of your life because someone else dared to imagine them and bring them into being 2. It’s no longer enough to have function alone. People just won’t buy a product if it doesn’t look pretty. If it doesn’t convey an aesthetic emotion beyond its conceived purpose, it won’t stand out. The iPhone performs its assigned task wonderfully, but it is also sleek and beautiful to look at. Why would I want to buy a normal condo for $200,000 when across the street is the same condo for the same price, but it has a freaking cool tower? The Colosseum isn’t famous because it’s a feat of engineering that’s stood the test of time. It’s famous because it’s a beautiful feat of engineering that’s stood the test of time.
What is life without purpose, without meaning, without emphasis? When a culture isn’t able to put emphasis on fine arts, is it comparable to the dark ages, when everyday is a struggle? Perhaps Afghanistan could be described as a modern-day dark age. A country where music and arts were almost completely banned by the Taliban, one of the most violent and unstable countries on earth. Could it be argued that a culture without a means to express itself creatively becomes so disturbed emotionally that it turns upon itself? Like a severely depressed teenager who mutilates herself as a coping mechanism? An old friend of mine used to work at Long & McQuade on Terminal Drive in Vancouver, a large department-like music store that sells almost every instrument found in western culture. He said that after the 2008 recession hit, the store had its best year in sales in many years. And while there is no proof that the recession and an increase in music sales are directly related, it does make you wonder: why that particular year? It sort of makes sense. Where do we go when times get tough and life feels out of control? We go to the movies to watch a comedy, to help us forget our worries. We listen to love songs to remind ourselves that someone else out there understands our pain. We paint our emotions, because we can only verbally vent to our friends for so long. We blog, because there’s an online community following our story and they are cheering for us! If each of us had been taught one creative skill to at least an intermediate level, we probably would’ve saved a lot of money on therapy and antidepressants.
This is all despite that year after year, cuts to school funding see arts programs limited or thrown out a little more every year. With little creative outlets left in the system, our kids are still sitting down to memorize charts and graphs, and to pass tests on how many historical dates they can remember, without ever making them set a foot outside the city to see the sights of these historical dates with their own eyes. We tell them that they need X number of hours work experience in order to graduate so that they have “real world” experience, yet no one thinks to give self-defense lessons to girls on how to protect themselves against an attacker. We tell our kids to go out and be successful, but make acting class optional, a class which is one of the best atmospheres for shy kids to role-play in a safe, non-judgemental environment where they learn how to fake it ’til they make it.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to teach math, physics, chemistry, biology, history – these are all so invaluable. I do think it’s shortsighted of our culture, our parents, our teachers, to put more emphasis on these subjects while their students are still at an age where they are vulnerable and very easily influenced. Yes, we need dentists to fix out teeth, but someone has to design them so that we won’t look like complete freaks. Yes, we need engineers to build a building that won’t collapse on us, but we need architects to design a building that will make us want to go inside. Yes, we need very serious articles written in magazines informing us of the brutality behind African diamonds, but we need the movie industry to come up with “Blood Diamonds” to attach us emotionally to the characters, then devastate us the terrifying truth (movies are incredibly effective at pissing a lot of people off at the same time in the same direction).
Now, in the mist of a recession, we are being forced to have a good look at ourselves as a civilization and ask “What is important?” We’ve hit rock bottom and yet we’re in the best situation we could possibly be in. It’s a chance to start fresh, a new beginning, to build a future that we’ve always wanted for ourselves, our family, our community, our country. Now is the time to reassess what is truly worthwhile. We’ve been forced to wipe the slate clean again. History will not judge us on our ability to pass standardized tests and live the American dream (or equivalent thereof). It will judge us on our ability to create. It will judge us on how we chose to transform ourselves after a devastating blow. This could be the second coming of the renaissance. We do this by encouraging our children to remain creative. We get them into drama, dance, art, music, karate, photography, fashion and support them in these fields with as much insistence as math, chemistry and physics. And lastly, we encourage them to be “crazy.”
1“The book of Animal ignorance” By John Mitchinson and John Lloyd p 78-79.
2“A Whole New Mind – Why Right-Briners Will Rule the World” by Daniel H. Pink p 70