Are the Creative Arts on the Verge of Extinction?
Originally published on Writing in Darkness, May 2018
Extinction is the dying out or termination of a species. It can occur from diminished environmental forces or evolutionary changes in its members. Extinction is irreversible.
When I was seven years old, I wrote a story about a polar bear. It was a simple story of a bear and the ice. Page after page I described the bear searching for something; sniffing the wind, digging through snow, or merely gazing up at the sky. As a newly forming writer, I had yet to discover the importance of plot. And so, I simply allowed a melody of words to string pages together, with no beginning and no end.
If I’m being truthful, I wasn’t entirely sure what my young polar bear was looking for. Only that he was destined to wander the ice searching for “it” forever.
It would be years later before I would discover that I myself was the polar bear. I too was destined to wander through life searching. This is the curse of the creative spirit, always on a quest for something more. Not a tangible thing or a temporary feeling – but the more that lies hidden in the act of dreaming, of creating, of bringing something into existence.
Through my polar bear, my creative spirit ran free. It would continue running through the many years of my education. I would go on to write several more stories, win contests, learn about the many forms of poetry, analyze literature, and recognize the ever present cadence that beats in every word, every line, every story.
While I was born with a creative spirit, I was lucky enough to grow up in a time of the arts. The 1980’s were where elementary education blended with imagination. Our teachers told us stories of giants and talking animals, not because they were informative, but because they were engaging. They encouraged us to write our own stories. Stories without purpose. Stories for the sake of stories. My fourth grade teacher taught us geology and the many layers of the earth through multi-colored cupcakes. She probably had us read textbooks and worksheets on the subject, but twenty-five years later, I still remember the four layers of the earth because of those cupcakes. I was taught knowledge for the sake of knowledge, not for the goal of higher student achievement. There was no end point. No final result where a teacher measured my success for “career-readiness” claiming, “she has now learned all she needs to know to perform a specific function in society.” Music class, sing-a-long assemblies, school plays, story competitions were all regarded as essential to our education, not simply extracurricular. Because of this, there was in a sense, always the potential for magic moments within the classroom.
My reading instruction was designed to first teach me how to read fluently, and then inspire my desire to continue with a rich variety of texts. Fiction, fantasy, creative non-fiction, fables, anything and everything was encouraged within those four elementary walls. My teachers were given the creative license to teach to each individual student, building on our own strengths. I grew into a strong reader and writer not through skill, but because they provided my mind with the critical equipment needed to understand, analyze and expand beyond the text. To expand beyond myself.
Naturally, I used my higher education to major in the liberal arts. As an English major, I wanted to drown myself in the works of Tony Morrison, Tolstoy, and Chinua Achebe. I wanted to better my craft, master the written word and expand my thinking to new heights. My craft may have blossomed in college, but it is only because of the strong roots I was given in my earlier years.
As a mother, I find myself walking through the world of elementary education once again.
Only today, my creative spirit is breaking. Because I can feel it. The shift in the winds. The shadow over the schools. The cage being pulled around every creative spirit born to this next generation. A STEM colored, Common Core labeled cage.
In 2009, President Obama announced the Race to the Top program, a new initiative to pressure states to adopt “college and career ready standards” for their students. This wasn’t the first attempt to reform the United States public school system. We were still picking up the pieces from No Child Left Behind in the Bush era where we saw a massive increase in required standardized tests. But this new Race to the Top promised to jump start public education. To finally compete with our rivals across the ocean who were beating us to the punch in economic gains. So, to entice states into competing for $4.35 billion in federal grant money, the government offered rewards to schools that developed more classes focusing on science, technology, engineering and math. Knowledge in the STEM fields, as President Obama stated, “were the skills employers are looking for to fill jobs in the future (2).” Making all federal aid competitive and judging teacher and student performance on high-stake test scores, a new curriculum was born: Common Core.
Fast forward nine years, Common Core is the curriculum now adopted by 41 of the 50 states. It’s high-academic standards focuses on mathematics and English language arts/literacy. According to the Core Standards website, their goal is to “create students prepared for entry-level careers, introductory college courses and workplace training programs (7).” Another goal was to create a standard of education across the United States for every child, regardless of demographics. Until this, each state set their own standards and as a result some states were indeed falling behind and failing many of their students. So the admiral mission to hold all states to the same standards for the sake of the student seemed like a good idea. Except for the fact that Common Core standards rely heavily on tests, not in-class learning. And social scientists have long known that standardized tests are best at measuring family income not child knowledge. But Common Core promised to change all that. So states, whether bullied or not, adopted Common Core, and eagerly awaited the results to increase the educational gains of their students. Nearly a decade later, the results are in. Not only do the racial and economic gaps persist, but student test scores have decreased for the first time since the early 1990’s (8). It appears Common Core is not only failing to deliver on their promise, but they are cheating a whole generation of students out of a quality education.
Common Core is the love child of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Despite having no experience in public education, or higher education for that matter, Bill Gates funneled millions of dollars into creating a curriculum that he assured would solve our education crisis. So, without being tested for success or evaluated by experienced educators, Gates convinced the federal government to force feed Common Core to every state in America.
There has been massive push back from educators and parents over the new Common Core curriculum. The curriculum purposely uses text above grade level to “force students to understand complex material beyond their understanding.” Second grade math problems have gone viral for their complicated wording and strange pictures required to obtain full points. And now thanks to the high-stakes testing and intense lessons, the creative arts have been cut out of most elementary classrooms. This is nothing new. The arts have always been the first to undergo budget cuts. But now, thanks to a looming end of the year test, the teachers that continued the arts despite budget restraints no longer have the time to make lessons creative.
In 2011, two years after the creation of Common Core, Gates openly admitted his disregard for the creative arts, stating “we need to spend our limited education budget on disciplines that produce the most jobs. A liberal arts education would hold back college graduates in the modern economy.” Never mind the fact that Gates’ himself isn’t a college graduate. Neither was his rival Steve Jobs, both pioneers in the world of STEM.
Gates attended Lakeside School in Seattle. The same school his children attend now. On the home page of the Lakeside website, their mission begins “The mission of Lakeside school is to develop in intellectually capable young people the creative minds, healthy bodies, and ethical spirits needed to contribute wisdom, compassion, and leadership to a global society (9).” No mention of “career-readiness.” No highlights of the rigorous Common Core curriculum that will ensure each child at Lakeside graduates with the skills of a finely tuned robot. If Gates truly believes Common Core is imperative for America’s children, then why isn’t it good enough for his own children?
According to Sandra Stotsky’s, a Professor in the Department for Education Reform, “Common Core ELA college readiness will likely decrease when the secondary English curriculum prioritizes literary nonfiction or informational reading and reduces the study of complex literary texts and literary traditions (2).” This is to say that it is critical to not only understand rich text such as fictional literature, but also know how to contextualize it against other information and subject matter in your world. Currently, elementary age children have to read a 50/50 split of fiction and non-fiction text. This decreases with age, and by high school level, teenagers are reading 70 percent non-fiction and 30 percent fiction. This slight change in academics may lead to irreversible evolutionary changes in the next generation. The ability to get meaning from the printed page through abstract thinking and critical awareness is the building blocks to innovation, creativity, and individualization. Without it, the arts and those who carry a creative spirit are in danger of extinction.
But extinction is patient. It isn’t rushed or momentary. It’s calculated; an immortal thief in the night. Like the many creatures who have gone before us, extinction has crept behind the arts in the shadows. It began its slow dance early. It’s weapon of choice: standardized testing. The first standardized test was created in 1914 by Frederick J. Kelly as a way to decrease subjective judgement among teachers (11). The first multiple choice tests, it became known as the “assembly line” model of testing. Until then, tests were given in essay form where students either knew the answer or they didn’t. Even then, educators tried to reject the standardized test, claiming the “test focused more on lower-order thinking and ignored complex, rational, and logical thinking entirely” (11). Essay tests allowed for creativity, individual style and rhetorical debate. The new standardized test offered only non-judgmental grading and did not accurately measure a child’s knowledge. Nevertheless, the new test persisted all the way up until present day, virtually unchanged. Yet, before Kelly died, he came to despise the very test he created, seeing it for the cold machine that it was, stating “These tests are too crude to be used and should be abandoned” (11).
Seven years after declaring an attack on the creative arts, Gates’ is recanting his statement, arguing that “based on recent research into artificial intelligence, Microsoft’s current stance is that liberal arts will be critical to unleashing the full potential of AI (5).” Meaning only when the benefits of creativity could be measured for the gain of a STEM related use does Gates’ recognize the value it has on society. He has also changed his view on Common Core, announcing this year that his Common Core pet project was a failure and he will be pivoting his millions of dollars in fund money to another education strategy. He recently wrote on his blog, “If there is one thing I have learned, it is that no matter how enthusiastic we might be about one approach or another, the decision to go from pilot to wide-scale usage is ultimately and always something that has to be decided by you and others in the field (10).” If only he realized this before he began experimenting with a whole generation of children. For nearly a decade, Common Core has stomped out creative thinking in America’s students. A massive threat to our society in a time where innovation reigns supreme. The Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation has no plans to reverse the damage Common Core has done. Like a true innovator, Gates is merely abandoning a failed project and moving on to a shinier venture.
The purpose of education has gotten lost in our Race to the Top. Education has never been about “getting a job.” Education at its core is recognized of having three broad purposes: personal, economic, and civic. On a personal level, “schools help students discover and cultivate individual interests and talents, form good habits, and develop an understanding of how to lead a good life (4).” On the basis of economic purpose, school can prepare students to contribute to society through the pursuit of a profession or vocation. And schools have an obligation to achieve civic goals though equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary to be good citizens (4). The creative arts tend to the purpose of education in the way that it allows for children to discover the world and their place in it. Through creative expression children have the ability to manipulate a small piece of their universe. To discover communication in all its forms. The arts have always been an outstretched hand in an often lonely world.
I didn’t go to a liberal arts charter school. My elementary school was an average public school in southern California. No extra funds, no private donations. While I continued my career in the creative arts, many of my classmates went on to be engineers, small business owners, app creators, web developers and productive members of this tech driven society. And none of them were force fed STEM for breakfast, lunch and dinner growing up. What we all have in common is we were given the freedom to choose our own creative expression. It is through creative expression that we are able to hold on to our humanity. To take the ugliness of the world and construct something beautiful. To practice empathy in the face of ruins. The arts, the living breathing spirit of this world, the very thing that makes life, life, is in danger of extinction.
Scientists now believe polar bears will go extinct in our lifetime. They will no longer search for life beyond the cold, adrift in their own existence. They will fade from this earth like the ice beneath them, until they are nothing but a memory in a child’s bedtime story. Until they are nothing more than my own storied polar bear.
The University of Wisconsin recently announced plans to drop more than a dozen majors from its humanities and social science departments. Among them were majors in Art, English, and Music Literature (3). Like the crumbling of the ice that once held magnificently spirited creatures, it’s only a matter of time before more institutions follow.
It seems the extinction has already begun.
Originally published on Writing in Darkness, May 2018