Saturday, July 27, 2013

Historical Example: How Valuable are the Arts Really?

Today, while continuing my frustrated lament of our modern educational system, I was thinking back to my undergraduate classes in world music. During those days I completed a number of PowerPoint presentations regarding Chinese stringed musical instruments and their history. I was surprised to discover that musical proficiency was not necessarily attained in order to pursue a career as a performer, but rather one of the main components that made up a learned person.  Colloquially, the important skills were known as “The Four Arts.”

The Four Arts of the Chinese gentlemen-scholars were thought to be: playing the Guqin (a seven stringed zither), playing the game of Qi (a chess-like board game), calligraphy, and painting.  In reading this during research I was surprised by the fact that three of the four “Arts” are actually fine arts – more specifically: music, literature, and visual art. Needless to say it’s quite a contrast from the subjects emphasized in our modern education where STEM (science, technology, English, and mathematics) are seen as the core “worthwhile” topics.

During the time that the “Four Arts” notion was popular (the Tang Dynasty, roughly 7th – 10th centuries) China enjoyed a thriving economy that included maritime trade as well as land trade with countries as far away as Greece and Egypt. They made significant contributions in medicine and philosophy and their civil engineering was the envy of the world.  China’s poetry, music, and theater influenced all of its neighbors including Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and India – and those influences are still seen today in the modern art of all these countries. China was a world leader in every sense of the word, including education. And when it came to their own education it is interesting to note that what they valued were things we might think of as “elective subjects.”

So, if history is any indication of what the future will look like – I would ask the question: “how valuable are the arts really?”

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