At the Face to Face conference last March, Russell Granet urged me to draft an elevator speech – a quick and cogent argument for why the arts matter. Russell noted that this is something the arts education world has not done very effectively. We can explain how the arts support the curriculum or list the many many reasons the arts matter. But we rarely offer a memorable, convincing, two-sentence explanation of why the arts are important in and of themselves.
Neil Gaiman’s recent address for the Reading Agency in London offers the best elevator speech I’ve heard. Granted, he was talking about fiction, not “the arts”. But fiction writing, like poetry and creative non-fiction (although often left out of our list of art subjects, and co-opted by Language Arts classes where it becomes a dry, testable subject) is an art, and Gaiman’s ideas are broadly applicable. Here are two of my favorite passages from this speech:
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.
Research shows that in-depth, meaningful engagement with the arts helps students with intellectual skills such as decision-making, physical skills such as dexterity, and academic skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. Extended arts instruction is highly correlated with academic achievement and the ability to innovate and collaborate. And arts education is enjoyable, motivating participating in students who might otherwise not attend school regularly.
And replace it with something that dares to offer the arts as an essential endeavor, rather than a potential support for our current (broken) educational system? When is an elevator speech useful, and how can we bring powerful arguments such as Gaiman’s to the forefront of arts education advocacy?