The Arts Are Not Just Works of Frivolity

by Chua Han Au

I am appealing to all the esteemed individuals, government officials and people who work in the education field. We are in dire straits. We have people losing interest in the humanities, the Arts. Their untapped potential is not cultivated but discouraged. We need to cultivate a people who appreciate the Arts. Let’s take Mathematics and Science as an entity itself. Society today needs to have a balance of both Mathematics and Science and the Arts, not just more of the former. The Arts are a necessity, not a luxury. Ken Robinson said, “Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects: at the top are Mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the Arts”. I concur.

I am living in Singapore and our education system is doing great, but more has to be done. Our people need to realise that the Arts are just as equally important as Math and Science.

We need more writers. We need more photographers. We need more dancers. We need more artists. We need more people who can write poetry, prose and drama. We need nonconformists to break the conventional school of thought and start pursuing what they are truly passionate about, not merely subscribing to conventions.

We don’t just need a hundred students to do know how to carry out an experiment.

“Do well in Math and Science, don’t do Geography!”

I remember once when I was in a food court and I witnessed a mother desperately convincing her daughter that the apple she has drawn should not have a worm emerging out of it. I was appalled. Not at the fact that there was a worm popping out of the apple, but by how the mother was inadvertently hampering her child’s creativity. According to Ken Robinson, it is at ages 3 to 5 when when a child beings to think divergently — their brains are at a most pristine stage. Yet sadly, with the exponential increase in the emphasis on Math and Science, the mantra of how these two subjects have maintained importance over seemingly unimportant subjects have been engrained into the minds of many children globally (in many education systems).

She’s not the only parent who unintentionally restricts her child’s creativity — she’s not to blame. Schools are. To quote from Elliot W. Eisner, Professor of Art and Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, “[the Arts] are simply not well taught in school. Most elementary teachers know little about the Arts and often trivialize them in their classrooms.”

Ergo, when creativity is restricted at a young age, young children gradually lose their creative juices — which is an integral element in the Arts. We begin to be philistine creatures, having little or no appreciation for the Arts and think that they are utterly impractical.

We think that way because individuals are not encouraged to take up the Arts from young. I used to attend Music lessons in secondary school. But what the teacher did was: distribute scores and guitars to each individual student and he starts strumming the guitar. He teaches, but not in detail. I felt as though the entire lesson was a session of force-feeding information down our throats. It was a session of watching him play, instead of us learning how to. It was clear to me that he knows his stuff, but for every subsequent Music lesson that I attended, I dreaded more than the one before. Is this then what Music is all about? Of course, one might say that I was unfortunate and that this does not happen in every school. But then again — my friends — the people in the room who were so foreign to guitars had their initial experience marred. Music then becomes something that is unfathomable; something that is elusive; something that they wouldn’t want to pick up ever again. These were my exact sentiments, my peers’ too.

Hitherto, I am not a music student. Yet, I am still writing this because I love language. My language is not perfect. But I want to bring across that the Arts — Music, Writing, Dance — is not a topping that you place on top of your cake, it is the ingredient that is imperative in creating the most beautiful outcome; a holistic society.

The Arts are more than just aesthetics or trying to write a 9 page critical appreciation of an artistic masterpiece.

It stimulates the intellect and triggers appreciation for life and all beauty. In the fast-paced modern society that we live in today, the Arts provide an avenue for aesthetic pleasure. Furthermore, living in a multi-racial society, the more we need the Arts for it reflects cultural values and beliefs.

Why then are we still not inviting the relevant expertises to teach and advocate the Arts? In order for our people to appreciate the Arts, there has to be an audience. And it is now that we start building one.

Allow me to provide personal insights to this pressing issue.

Firstly, we need to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity for him to nurture and display his talents. We shouldn’t just assess a primary school student based on Math, Sciences and languages only. As much as we need Math and Science, the Arts are likewise imperative — never mutually exclusive. Music, for instance, is a perfect marriage of both the Arts and Mathematics. The obvious flaw in our education system is that we have Math in every school, but not every school provides Music, Art or Literature for that matter. Indeed, the government needs to democratise the Arts. According to an article posted on Today Online by Jake Goh, the government is indeed intending to include other subjects in their assessment criteria — such as Music, Sports and Arts. That is a good start. Of course, we wouldn’t want students to feel like failures just because they aren’t linguistically, scientifically or mathematically inclined, would we? That being said, it was also stated in the article that this was only a consideration. It’s time we introduced the Arts and inaugurate it as an examinable subject. We wouldn’t want to build a community of people who are strong in Math and Science, only to condemn, mock or despise those who have a flair for the Arts, would we? You see, children these days feel compelled to be good in Math and Science and put away their sketches. It’s alarming and this has to be changed. And so, we need to build a community of people who are brave enough to pursue what they want without being scorned. And I believe Singapore can do that.

Secondly, there has to be a variety of Arts subjects for an individual. Include poetry writing, pottery making, creative writing in our academic curriculum. I mean, why not? One shouldn’t be able to read these only in University — the foundation has to be built, and it starts from young.

Of course, I am not saying that we should diminish the emphasis on Math and Sciences. That emphasis can still be there. Instead, I am saying that there has to be an increased emphasis for the Arts. Once again, our education system needs to democratise the Arts.

We should not condemn a dancer and tell him or her to focus on Math or Science instead of choreographing. We have to realise that we now need people who are innovative, creative, brave, different.

It’s time we harness their potential and not silence these tenacious souls.