‘This hour, and that one’: The importance of the arts in education

March 26, 2018
By Julian Day

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes that, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” I first read this as a young adult and felt a creeping sense of dread. When our days are given to work, or dealing with the small crises of the everyday, it becomes easy to consider the current moment as everything; to wonder if what we are doing immediately now is meaningful and worthwhile.

However, between those moments is the time we make for ourselves and what we do with this time, as much as our careers and our families, shapes who we are.

Growing up I developed an interest in the arts, specifically in writing and music. Elementary school introduced me to choir, the recorder, the ukulele, and band. When I started high school, I continued with band switching from flute to horn and started to develop a serious interest in writing short stories and poetry. This was nurtured by a series of creative writing classes as part of the editorial staff of my high school literary magazine and attending readings by local writers organized by our teacher.

The skills I developed while practicing these subjects are considerable. Besides the most immediate, such as how to construct an image or a stanza, I also learned the importance of communication and ruthless editing–that I should own my work, believe praise, accept and learn from criticism. External to the music classes were lessons around practice and discipline; how to be mindful, reflective, honest and understand how to work with others toward a shared set of goals.

In retrospect, I was extremely fortunate to not only be given the chance to explore and pursue my artistic interests, but to also work with specialist teachers who provided me with the structure, feedback and guidance I needed to grow. Years later, what felt like small decisions at the time, turned out to have lasting consequences. My high school switch to the horn led to playing in my university wind orchestra where I met my wife and later, began teaching first year band students the rudiments of the instrument every fall. In my twenties, I took up the guitar and in my thirties, the viola. My wife and I provided the music for a friend’s wedding and over the last year, I’ve found success as a writer with the publication of my first poems in newspapers and literary magazines.

But the conditions that led to my opportunities are not guaranteed today. As budgets become tighter and more challenging, and as education ministries focus on trends such as literacy and numeracy, the arts come under attack and are forced to justify their inclusion and funding. “Inapplicable”, it is inevitably said. “Hard to measure”, the saying goes. It’s true; most students who go through band won’t go on to become band teachers or professional trumpeters. With every graduating class, the number of professional writers, actors or artists is exceptionally slim. So too is the number of chemists or mathematicians.

This is only a problem if we consider the ultimate outcome of education to be immediate work placement rather than preparation for the rest of our lives. It is also a problem if the process of education is meant to create a cadre of students with an identical set of interests and skills rather than a means by which students discover and create who they are. People make choices based on their experience and environment, and open access to the arts in education introduces students to subjects they may not be exposed to otherwise. An arts education is an enabler across interests and income levels and introduces students to a variety of subjects–from music and drama, to writing and woodworking. Ultimately, it supplies possibilities and skills beyond the classroom and into the years beyond.

Just as much, and just as importantly, it is an enricher. It is a focus for our interests and provides a framework by which we can live our lives. Though I am neither a professional musician nor a writer, I fill my evenings with music and my weekends with poetry. Outside the twin pressures of work and money, a second life emerges. Through the arts, I’ve come to an understanding of who I am and suddenly, wonderfully, I no longer fear “this hour, and that one.”