Reading, WRiting, ARithmetic and ARt

By Alexandra York

This speech was originally given on November 3, 1992, at Hillsdale College
and reprinted in ART Ideas, Vol. 4 No. 3, 1997.
It was also reprinted in  Vital Speeches of the Day, February, 1998,
and in Imprimus, June, 1998. 
It was later delivered at an Arts in Education conference in Oklahoma City sponsored by the Foundation for
Academic Excellence, October of 1999.

Included in the book:
and Other Essays on Art and Excellence


I want to tell you a story.  Early one morning, a man was  walking along a bluff overlooking the ocean when he noticed a barefoot woman walking along the beach clearly engrossed in a strange activity:  she was picking up star fish that had been washed ashore by the tide, and one by one, throwing them back into the sea.  Intrigued, he scrambled down the bank of the cliff and approached her.  “What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m saving star fish,” she answered, gently tossing another into the water.

The man let his eyes drift over the endless shoreline in wonder.  “But,” he stammered, “there are thousands of star fish stranded on this beach.  You can’t save them all!”

“I know,” the woman smiled.  She picked up another star fish and returned it to the ocean.  “But I’m saving this one.”  She continued undaunted.  “And this one.  And this one.”

Dear friends, colleagues, teachers and students, those star fish languishing on the barren sand are the youth of America.  And they have been swept up onto the beachhead of ignorance and sloth by the tide of our failed progressive educational system.  It falls to us now, those of us who do understand the deep purposes of education, to save the future of our country.  We can do this by returning our children, one by one, back to the sea of structured creativity, where each individual child—by nature of being a child—can be taught to swim smartly, successfully, and joyfully toward the promise of adulthood.  To accomplish this task, I propose that we incorporate art education into the mandatory school curricula.  I propose art instruction because only art educates the whole person as an integrated individual: it educates the senses, it educates the mind, and it educates the emotions.  It educates the soul.

Before we set to exploring this proposal, however, I wish to say “Thank you” to Hillsdale College for inviting me to share my thoughts on “Art and the Moral Imagination” with you during this five day conference.  And I thank you for coming this evening to share both the art and the ideas expressed in THE LEGACY LIVES art exhibit.  It was on this very stage where, five years ago, I announced the formation of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century arts foundation.  I marvel at the good distance we have come since that day in 1992, and I am grateful to all those who have helped in our many achievements, including this exhibit.  Our mission of promoting a rebirth of beauty and life-affirming values in all of the fine arts is, of course, not only for the purpose of improving the arts but also for the purpose of elevating our culture as a whole.  It is an ambitious mission and the challenges are great.

These challenges take many forms.  Not just in the arena of the fine arts, but even more fundamentally, in the arena of ideas—especially in our educational system.  Let us remember that the three old fashioned “Rs” of education—readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmetic—were not instituted in schools to help the populace read the daily papers, write letters home to Mom, and pay bills owed the general store.  These primary skills were and should be taught for the larger purpose of instructing young people to think and to function in the real world for the rest of their lives in a rational, efficacious, self-sufficient and self-satisfying manner.  School should prepare young people for life.

Reading (literature and history in particular) teaches the ability to comprehend the world and man’s place in it; writing is the means of any serious communication and teaches the ability to crystallize thoughts and communicate them objectively; arithmetic (meaning the whole category of math) teaches the ability to measure attributes of entities in reality, thereby bringing all of the universe into perceptual grasp.  These are the basics.  In better schools, science is included, and in many schools, physical education usually rounds out the mandatory program, which is good except where—too often!—soccer dominates syntax.  Too often, too, a serious education in the three basics is not really mandatory anymore, meaning that the courses are regularly adulterated for political correctness, diluted of solid grounding in rudimentary skills, and short-shrifted as subjects for prolonged study, all of which in turn defeat the purpose of required subjects.

In fact, in light of today’s permissive educational environment, we might need to remind ourselves of why certain studies should be mandatory in the first place.  It used to be a truism—and it is still true—that students do not yet know enough to know what they don’t know; therefore, adults specializing in the teaching of knowledge, along with parents, should set the principal standards of their education.  Once again, this presumes that a certain level of knowledge and ability in basic subjects is necessary to pursue an informed life on an independent basis after graduation from school and separation from family homes.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I propose the addition of art education to the three basics.  I should clarify, here, that I mean art education founded in the established Western art forms.  The reason for focusing on art forms evolving from our Western heritage is that the forms themselves (the physical presentations) are the most malleable, with the richest aesthetic vocabulary for expressing the most complex ideas.  This kind of art—begun with the Greeks and carried on through the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, sadly skipping most of the twentieth but resurfacing with vigor as we approach the millennium—can be defined as an intelligible representation of the world and humankind that manifests an artist’s conceptual visions in perceptual, aesthetic form.

The primary arts, as we all know, are painting, sculpture, poetry, literature, drama, music and architecture, the last of which is unique because it combines its art form with functional use.  A modicum of working knowledge in all of the arts will facilitate an appreciation of them, but protracted study in the visual arts (drawing, painting and sculpture), creative writing (poetry, drama and short story) and music (instrument and music appreciation) are critical for advanced perceptual and conceptual development, so these may best constitute the base triad for art education.

Why should the teaching of this art become the fourth “R”?  Because to teach art is to teach life.  Each lifetime, in its own way, has a “theme,” an ever unfolding personal destiny, self-scripted by each individual depending on how they decide to approach and fill the hours of their days.  Every (good) work of art does the same:  first, it is an idea in the mind of the artist—a mental abstraction, a vision seen through the mind’s “eye,” an imaginative summation of the images and ideas wished to be expressed.  Then it goes through the aesthetic process of transformation from that mental vision into a physical object (or in the case of the literary arts and music, a finite time experience) that can be perceived through the senses and the intellect of others, that can be understood.  Finally, it takes on a life of its own to be enjoyed and considered as an individual entity—an end in itself—just like every human being.  Because humans have free will, they choose their values by a process of selection; this is why character development and the development of art are so similar—they are both self created.  Thus learning a demanding art form promotes both a curiosity and confidence that can be transferred to real life situations.

How does it do this?  Let’s take the benefits of art education one at a time:  Sensory education, using the visual arts (painting) as our example; mental education, using creative writing as our example; and emotional education, using music as our example.  These examples should not be construed as being exclusive of one another.  Happily, each art form augments the lessons learned in all the others to educate the whole person.  Each has its own aesthetic vocabulary, each appealing primarily to a different sense organ:  painting and sculpture to sight (with sculpture adding the tangible sense of touch), music to hearing, and the most complex arts such as fiction appealing to all of the combined senses through imagination.  Equally important, every art form is rooted in a discipline of craft, and learning the techniques of any craft teaches purpose, structure, observation, selectivity of essentials, and judgment of execution with verifiable outcome.  In other words, the proficiency of means employed as well as the end result can be assessed via objective criteria.  Furthermore, disciplined but ductile art forms can be endlessly manipulated and stylized to provide aesthetic emphasis as well as to dramatize ideational content.

To take our first example: we can readily grasp how creating what seems to be the simplest of paintings requires knowledge of drawing, color, shape, composition and perspective—knowledge derived not only from technical training but also from close observation of reality.  Once a student has learned to render the three dimensional world of nature in this two dimensional form, enjoyment and appreciation of the real world automatically become enriched with ever keener observations.  In order to paint a single tree, we really have to look at it.  How a young person’s sense of seeing will be improved!  What nuances of the color green alone will he notice in the future because of these acute observations, not just in nature but in man-made objects as common as clothing, cars and tableware?  What varieties of textures, edges and shapes gleaned from scrutinizing fragile, scalloped leaf formations will enhance his everyday experience of the patterns made by interlacing shadows, the woven surfaces of fabrics, or the eyelashes of a newborn infant?  Even to imitate nature we must observe her; each student of painting—one by one, remember?—will gain life awareness by these observations.

Moving up one level, to interpret nature through painting, consciously creating (let’s say) a mood will benefit students even more because it requires developing a process of selection in order to fulfill a larger intention, that of endowing the work with significance.  Subject matter is then employed indirectly to express... something more.  Now, questions arise as to which observations are most relevant to that deeper intention.  Those graceful veins in the leaves, are they important enough to delineate or should she just suggest them?  What of the bark sheathing the trunk?  Since she wants a serene feeling, should she apply the paint thinly with light brushstrokes to de-emphasize the rough surface?  In order to create an atmosphere that stresses the mysteries of nature, should she push the blue of the sky toward violet?  Because this next level of art teaches how to formulate a hierarchy in the selection of essentials, entailing judgment at every turn, it prompts questions and demands problem solving, sensitizing powers of discrimination and increasing attention span for contemplation of the relative importance of all things in life, large and small.

Thus we see that inherent within the process of exercising their sense perceptions, students must by necessity also exercise their minds.  And beyond this first horizon of sense-mind interplay lies the limitless vista of the imagination.  Meaningful art is not just mimesis of life as it is or even an expressive rearrangement; it is an inquiry into the human condition, of man’s desires and dreams, fears and fantasies.  Important art is important because it is multi-layered, stimulating our senses, touching our hearts and awakening our minds to verities and possibilities.  Aesthetics, then, become the means to art’s supreme end:  content.  Content is inseparable from the underlying theme(s) of a work; it is that, but it is so much, much more:  Ultimately, it is the human spirit incarnate—the shimmering breath of light streaming from a thoughtful artist’s mind and hands and soul that, through meticulous crafting, becomes a theme illuminating itself.  It resides within and emanates from the art as a pure result of the artist’s most purposeful and personal imbuing of it with intelligent meaning, with ideas.  It is great art’s anima:  both source and sum, it is the substantive realization of an artist’s deepest values, true or false, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.  And here is where the moral imagination enters fully into the creative process, for even a novice approach to this highest level of art educates the mind philosophically.

Let’s use creative writing as an example.  Because literature is a conceptual transmission from the mind of a writer to the mind of a reader it becomes, whether via a wide avenue or a narrow labyrinth, an enchanting passage to the imagination—a journey of ideas not to what is but to what could and might be.  Good fiction compels us to weave a theme through the events of a story and the actions of the characters.  Assuming craft, the more universal and fundamental the theme, the greater the fiction.  Assuming theme—unfortunately, most fiction today, as most art in general, lacks theme—but assuming theme, we imagine interlocking scenes in our imagination first, and then heightened visions of all that is possible in the world are activated in our minds as we write.  Gradually, as we learn to distill our thoughts and communicate through the techniques of narrative, description, dialogue, metaphor and dramatization, our imaginations are freed to create whatever we can dream up!  New questions arise:  Is this idea true?  How is truth determined?  Is it relevant to all human beings or just a few?  Or only me?  Are my characters understandable?  Are they behaving morally or immorally, and why?  Are their actions motivated by their value system?

Because the written arts are conceptual in form, students have an opportunity (even in creating a nursery rhyme, a dramatic skit or a fairytale) to explore the moral imagination directly.  An artist’s value system is consciously or unconsciously inherent in every work of art.  This is so precisely because, as we have seen, the process of creating art requires constant choices of everything from subject matter to size.  But creative writing requires the student to pay special attention to the internal lives of fictional, “made-up” individuals.  How do we make up fictional human beings so as to render them believable?  By infusing their thoughts, utterances and actions with values.  As readers we understand that we come to “know” fictional people largely the same way we learn to know real-life people:  we discern their underlying “character” by observing and listening to them.  A rational person selects his or her values through the use of reason and logic, making sure that the values are consonant with nature and human nature.  If they are, they will be life-serving values.  If they are life-serving values, they will be moral.  If a person (or a character) acts only on rational values, their actions will be moral.  If their actions are moral, they will be moral.  If we wish to present an immoral character, we will create a fictional person who acts consciously against sound values.  And just think of all the inbetweens, the conflicted characters!  By learning writing skills, students can play out real life conflicts in an imaginative setting with imagined people.  Talk about a chance to explore ideas, issues, behavior and psychology in a safe environment!

As the visual arts train the senses by honing our physical perceptions of the world, so the art of writing trains the mind by demanding concept formation and a philosophical view of the world.  If students are engaged in both art forms, what they learn in one will reinforce what they learn in the other, beginning an interactive process with incalculable power to foster discreet subtleties of awareness and sensitivity (literally!) in every walk of life.  In addition, incidental but important side benefits of all art study are learning to be alone, enjoying the kairos of life by becoming involved in the act of creation to the point of forgetting time as chronos; learning to experiment uninhibitedly with various options; learning to follow curiosity not only for the purpose of inventing but also for the adventure of discovering; learning to approach effort as pleasure, work as pleasure, and challenge as pleasure.

Lastly, but perhaps first in today’s world of rampant subjectivism and temperamental indulgence, the arts educate the emotions.  Not everyone is passionate—passion is the fervent intensity of emotion one experiences only when one commits the highest level of devotion to values—but everyone has feelings, if only instinctual fear or desire.  And all feelings, whether complex or primitive, mentally inspired or physically excited, can be conveyed productively and safely through the structure of an art form.  In this way, pubescent youngsters in particular can learn to deal constructively with feelings often so strong they don’t know what to do with them; they can actually “work them out” through the creation of their art.  This doesn’t mean “express yourself” wallowing nor does it mean psychotherapy.  It means healthy emotional flowering.  It means psychological growth.

All art training nurtures this, but music is indispensable for guiding psychological development because it speaks directly to the sentient consciousness.  One might say that music is emotions, because feelings are its primary themes.  The instrument chosen to channel music’s emotional flow, whether it be piano, clarinet, violin or voice, is not important.  Learning to play the instrument is.  The discipline of serious music is exact and exacting, teaching the precision of math in a poetic realm, teaching both the exhilarating balance and the exalted integration of “reasoned harmony” (music’s form) and emotions (music’s content).  It is not often in our culture that children are taught to unite reason and emotions.  Tonal, melodic classical music does this for all of us.  So the competence to hear it, to appreciate it to a degree made possible by knowing how to play any instrument, can be a rare source of indescribable pleasure and safe emotional release for the child now and the adult later.

Like life, musical passages contain highs and lows, fast and slows, and musical vocabulary includes dissonance and resolution, tumult and sublimity, all emboldening a student in the process of making music to feel to his heart’s content within the security of a confined experience.  There is no way to fall out of control because the rhythm keeps the music going—the notes must be played on time and accurately—affording an expansive opportunity to learn to channel emotions into a finite structure with a finite time limit.  By learning to orchestrate emotional content through so rigorous a structure, the student must learn to merge reason and emotions; otherwise, the resulting music will be cold and sterile, math without the poetry.  Classical music is too mentally commanding to permit the flailing and screaming incited by rock n’ roll, thus it forces young people to control their emotional output, offering them the experience of cathexis rather than catharsis.  Also, because music deals with broad abstractions—triumph, defeat, love, loss—it allows a young person to personalize universals of the human condition, to feel on a grand scale both the hope and the hurt that necessarily accompany an individual life fully lived.  For teenagers, in particular, it unlocks gateways to mature excursions into the ecstasy and the vulnerability of love, the headiness and the hazards of risk.  Often, once young people begin to understand the value of classical music, they turn to it in moments of emotional need to help them experience deep stirrings that may not make it to the surface of consciousness by themselves.  Repressed boys, especially, can benefit immensely from music study.

So we begin to see the vital importance of art education, the invigorating and reinforcing spiral of experience inherent in learning the various art forms.  Back and forth, from real life to art, from art form to art form and back to real life, the senses, the intellect and the emotions flow together, charging each other along the way with images, sounds and ideas.  Students of art become students of life.  And this should be our goal.  Once they experience the arduous bliss of making art, some will pursue it as a profession, of course.  But the purpose of art study is not to make artists out of our young people; it is to help them become complete human beings.

Youth is forward motion.  And the arts can forever inspire this forward motion because they are open ended and can continue indefinitely to absorb our natural creative energies.  No art form can ever be entirely mastered because the techniques can always be further expanded and exploited, so skills and appreciation learned while we are still chronologically young can serve us our whole lives long.  As we grow and develop as human beings, we can continue for a lifetime stretching our capabilities through artistic expression, if only as a casual hobby or through spectator appreciation on a high level.  Our bodies will age and our physical prowess (in sports, for example) will diminish, but our minds and our imaginations need never grow old.  Practical knowledge of the arts can keep us forever active mentally, psychologically and emotionally, learning, growing, advancing...the very hallmarks of youth.

Let us insist that our children be offered these priceless opportunities provided by art education.  Whether they want it or not.  Mandatory, remember?  My own father used to tell me it was his responsibility as a parent to “introduce” me—that meant I had to do it—to certain things in life that would help me become a worthy human being.  I began ballet at three, piano at five, acting at seven, and voice (on my own) in college—Making up stories and plays I always did on my own.  I was required to bring home one book a week from the library throughout grade school—Did you know that the girl detective Nancy Drew is still on the shelves?  My brother and I were required to taste everything set out on the dinner table.  If we weren’t fond of some particular food, we could ask our mother for a “courtesy helping,” which meant one level tablespoon.  If we made a face or said something negative, we got another tablespoon—I remember eating a whole bowl of parsnips that way one night—until we learned to acquire a taste for the flavor or at least moderate our behavior.  Today, there is not a single food I do not savor.

It is my observation, these days, that many parents and teachers are afraid of children.  You don’t need to beat children into doing what’s best for them; you can negotiate something you want for them with something they want for themselves.  You do, however, need to inculcate the habit of cooperation in them while you’re still bigger than they are!  In my early childhood I disliked piano, but if I wanted dance lessons (which I loved) I had to stick with piano as well.  When, in my mid-teens, I finally terminated music lessons, I was glad (as I am now) that I could entertain myself by playing the instrument respectably and appreciate others’ playing of it as well.

Another observation, obvious to anyone, is that parents (and even grandparents) today emulate their children instead of setting examples for them.  By dressing like kids in jeans, sneakers and message tee-shirts, wearing baseball caps during dinner, reducing their own vocabularies to mindless street jargon—“hey,” “cool,” “no problem,” “Hi guys,”—by listening incessantly to blaring primitive music, what do parents think they are offering their children regarding the refinements of adulthood?—a state of achieved maturity that they, by the way, are pathetically missing themselves.  No wonder America has become a nation of aging adolescents!

I suggest to you that the nation’s schools could not have failed, as they have, unless mothers and fathers failed first by abdicating their parental responsibility as guardians of their children’s inner development.  Now, it is past time for concerned parents to assume their obligation as parents and set the standards for the education of their own children.  Art education is crucial.  It can be taught privately, of course, but instituting it into school systems, public or otherwise, is not as formidable as you might think.  There are hundreds of prototype parent groups all over the country doing just this by forming nonprofit organizations that fundraise and contribute money to schools targeted only for the purpose of incorporating the arts into the curricula.  If anyone wants specific information on this, please contact me personally.

Finally, may I say that although Americans largely do not understand this, art is not a luxury, it is a necessity...a spiritual one.  At its apotheosis aesthetically, philosophically and psychologically, art provides a spiritual summation by integrating mind and matter—abstract values perceived by the senses.  When form and content are exquisitely unified in art to express the most universal truths via the most beautiful physical presentation in the most technically proficient manner, art offers an experience of complete concinnity, a harmoniously integrated experience of mind, body and soul—both to its maker and to its worthy beholder.  Thus it is the very souls of our emotionally abandoned, value starved youth that we can rescue through art education.  For it is art that best teaches the moral imagination everywhere apparent in the different art forms, through which the soul of the artist, young or old, professional or amateur or student, is revealed.  But, just like the star fish we can rescue them only one at a time, for every child like every adult is a precious, fragile, unrepeatable, individual being.  Shan’t we nourish each soul with the beauty, the wonder and the delight of the mind as carefully as we nourish each body with bread, milk and honey?  The thirteenth-century Persian poet Muslih-uddin Sadi counseled us thus:

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft
And from thy slender store

Two loaves alone to thee are left
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul

Yes!  It is the beauty of art and the arts of beauty that feed the human spirit by making the invisible visible and the visible more visible, affirming the value of visions, visions that bring values to life.  Art and the moral imagination?  Art is the moral imagination.

Copyright © Alexandra York. All rights reserved.