Measuring the Impact of This Painting on Education

In the course of describing a fascinating empirical study he’s spearheading on how field trips to art museums affect educational outcomes, Jay Greene eloquently argues that we need to widen our views of the purpose of education. Or rather, that the professional class of education policy people needs to widen its views:

The problem is that a good number of  policymakers, pundits, and others who control the education system seem to think that the almost-exclusive purpose of education is to impart economically useful skills.  Math and reading seem to these folks to be directly connected to economic utility, while art seems at best a frill.  If resources are tight or students are struggling, they are inclined to cut the arts and focus more on math and reading because those subjects are really useful while art is not.

This economic utility view of education is mistaken in almost every way.  Most of what students learn in math and reading also has no economic utility.  Relatively few students will ever use algebra, let alone calculus, in their jobs.  Even fewer students will use literature or poetry in the workplace.  When will students “use” history?  We don’t teach those subjects because they provide work-related skills.  We teach algebra, calculus, literature, poetry, and history for the same reasons we should be teaching art — they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in.  We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.  We teach them because civilized people should know them.

I’m with him on the main point, but I’m planning to cause some trouble in the comments. I’m not sure it’s true that math and reading aren’t as fundamentally economic as art. At a more basic level, I don’t think you can separate economic from “civilizing” motives that easily. As I wrote a while back:

These days, if a child asks why he should care about doing well in school, what kind of answer does he get? He gets the same answer from every source: from parents, teachers, and school administrators; from movies and TV shows; from public service announcements, social service programs, and do-gooder philanthropies; from celebrities, athletes, and actors; from supporters and opponents of education reform; from everybody.

The answer is always some version of: you need to do well in school in order to have prosperity later in life.

Well, if you scrape away the sanctimony, what is this but a “bribe” on a colossal scale? …

Now, as it happens, I would prefer that the cash motive not be the only reason we offer kids to do well in school. I think our culture has been remiss in emphasizing education as an opportunity to become a better person, both morally (through character formation, a concern that the government school system seems to have largely dropped or subordinated, though private schools make it a top concern) and developmentally (because those who learn more and develop their capacities more fully have richer, more blessed lives).

But I also think that denying the presence of a strong financial motive in education is a fool’s errand. Kids will always care about how their education impacts their material well-being. And so they should — looking after one’s own material well-being is a good and natural concern.

Moreover, kids aren’t fully able to appreciate the moral and developmental motives for education until well after their education is complete. The 30-year-old, looking back, may well say, “If I hadn’t worked hard in school and had such great teachers, my personal character and my capacity for a fully human life would have been infinitely poorer.” But try explaining that to a ten-year-old.

To train students at all, you need to motivate them primarily with something that they understand. That means either “bribes” or punishments for failure. Bribes are the more humane option.

What do you think?