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Championing 'arts for their own sake'

Scientists at the University of California at Irvine recently proved that music trains the brain for higher forms of thinking. Their findings, based on two years of experiments with pre-schoolers, show that music training--specifically piano instruction--is dramatically superior to computer instruction for enhancing children's abstract reasoning skills.

The California research, published in the February issue of Neurological Research, follows hard on a report in Nature, published last May, announcing that researchers had found that the study of music and art significantly advances students' skills in both reading and mathematics.

These studies have caused jubilation among arts educators. The arts are not a luxury. Everyone who cares now has data to oppose cost-cutting school boards that claim the arts are merely a frill--or worse. The California study, for example, showed that children who received piano/keyboard training performed 34 percent higher than others on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability. Scientific research has just proven the necessity for arts in the K-12 curriculum.

This jubilation is problematic. These arguments justify arts education, even the practice of art itself, only in terms of how it serves something else.

Utilitarian arguments in support of the arts are understandable in these difficult, distrustful times. They serve as weapons in the political and ideological battles raging in the school districts of America, but they ultimately subvert the very meaning of art. In the end, that could prove even more dangerous than loss of funding. The uncomfortable and difficult truth is that the arts are necessary, but they are not directly useful in material ways.

We can note, for instance, how easily we accept the statement that "music trains the brain for higher forms of thinking," which simply assumes that music itself is not a higher form of thinking


Working in the arts at MIT, I have been struck by how directly this problem parallels those of the scientist engaged in pure research. As one Nobel Prize-winning physicist describes it, the soul of science lies in the act of inquiry itself, not in its application. Its basic impulse springs only from the need to know. Its processes are elegant, rigorous testaments to the human capacity for reason, creativity and unexpected flashes of insight. Its immediate results may be only wonder and awe.

This characterization of scientific research is not the most persuasive strategy for raising funds from governments or industry. Time and again, my colleague found himself facing the same dilemma as the artist, having to sell his utterly disinterested enterprise to deeply self-interested funders. He had to weigh the consequences--personal, moral and ethical--of representing the value of his work as having immediate utilitarian prospects. In so doing, he ran the risk of limiting the very range and freedom of inquiry that had led him to the project in the first place.

We cannot expect to keep the arts in the current curriculum with arguments about integrity and autonomy any more than the pure researcher can expect to have projects funded on the basis of the will to know, the exercise of reason, and certainly not wonder and awe. Arguments that can serve up the arts as a teaching tool or a source of revenue are tempting expedients. But if we depend on those, we may one day find ourselves making and teaching something that is not art at all, only something that helps students read and count--or someone else to get rich. The very thing we were hoping to protect will be once again held in contempt.

If, on the other hand, we refind our voices and our faith in the necessity of artistic practice, if we are able once more to celebrate the lasting value of the journey into the human heart and imagination, then perhaps one day we will hear the news that researchers have shown how the study of reading and mathematics can make us all better artists.

(This piece originally appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe's Focus section on March 30.)

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 1997.

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