The Arts of Living


photo courtesy of Stagestruck Plays

“Some students who don’t excel academically, they’re more engaged, because it gives them a different way to learn,”
~ Tiffany Thompson

In Junior high, the school counselor asked us to think about what kind of future work we expected for ourselves. We had taken some proficiency tests to help inform our thinking and my test results suggested that I would be suited for a career in trash collection, law, medicine or engineering.

At dinner one night, my older brother said he planned to go into the law, our father’s profession. When I was asked, I told my folks that I might want to be a mechanic — to fix things. My mother, always supportive, immediately responded that there was NO WAY I would be a mechanic — I would go to college and get a degree! (I did go to college and got a degree in engineering, sanitary engineering in fact. That presumably satisfied both my mother and my junior high counselor.)

Through high school and college, I was funneled towards classes with a technical focus — math, chemistry, physics, etc. There wasn’t much time for anything beyond that and the required English, literature and social studies/history classes, much less anything ‘artsy’. Prior to that time, I remember fondly my elementary school art and music classes, and even the square dance classes we took. My cursive writing was a disaster, but my art was ‘creative’ and satisfying, if not intelligible. As the biggest kid in sixth grade, I was a soprano in the music class, much to my chagrin. As an older student and then an adult, though, the only ‘artsy’ education I got came through my own reading, some movies or TV, travel and the people I associated with.

Education is changing. Mark Barnum, reporting the results of a recent Houston Education Resource Consortium study regarding the addition of arts topics into school curricula, quoted the researchers’ conclusion: “Arts learning experiences benefit students in terms of social, emotional, and academic outcomes.

Participating “… schools were encouraged to provide some exposure to theater, dance, music, and visual arts, and that took the form of on-campus performances, field trips, artists in residence, and other programs outside of school hours.” The study confirmed earlier work’s conclusions “that giving students more access to the arts offers measurable benefits. And adding time for dance, theater, or visual arts isn’t at odds with traditional measures of academic success.”

“Other recent studies on field trips to the theater and museums have also found encouraging results, boosting students’ political tolerance, interest in the arts, critical examination of art, and, in one case, math and reading test scores. And since low-income children are less likely than their wealthier peers to access things like plays and art galleries over the summer, schools are critical providers of those cultural experiences and the accompanying benefits.”

My cousin was an aspiring opera singer (my grandmother taught music in their small Texas town) and as teens, we were taken to hear many of her recitals and see the operas put on by the small community college. I can definitively say that the experience profoundly impacted any desire I had to see more opera.

However, my son’s experience with theater was wonderful. “A child’s fascination with new and delicious language, her craving for out-of-the-box creativity, his instinct to live comfortably in a land somewhere between myth and reality … kids are born to wander, explore and taste any parts of life that remain a mystery. Capable of deep thinking and complex questions, they are bored with curricula that hold them down when they want to fly.” (

I played sports in school and it was hard not to be typecast as a jock. I always worked hard not to be seen as just a hunk of meat, but to get a broader, and more intellectual education. As an adult, my work put me into technical organizations with lots of techie and engineer types, stereotyped just as badly as jocks. Truth be told, I have experienced many coworkers whose narrow focus and limited background made them less enjoyable socially, and sometimes less effective in their jobs.

Effective teams require effective communication, and I have seldom encountered an engineering problem that wasn’t better resolved by improved communication. I took an elective course in graduate school about communicating innovation, and that was one of the most helpful to my later work. Communicating with coworkers, bosses, clients and the public is a huge part of the success of any project, particularly technical ones.

I have played video games with my son, and continue to do so now that he is an adult, too. One of the interesting things about most of the games is their sensitivity to a broad range of approaches to problems. In the better games, challenges are only successfully met by a combination of skills, and seldom by a ‘hack and slash approach’. Team work and creativity are rewarded, along with memory, the ability to interpret clues, learning, curiosity and problem solving. Linear thinking, a lot of which I got through my technical classes, doesn’t always work. There are patterns you can follow, but “thinking outside the box” is almost always the best approach.

At work, some years ago, a mandatory ‘diversity’ class emphasized the differences among thought processes in different cultures. I learned that the linear pattern of thinking is largely Northern European, whereas other cultures may approach things in a less direct manner. I observed this effect once working with some school teachers to develop a curriculum on solid waste. The development committee included a couple of technical people and several teachers. The techies were thinking “we’ll start here (A) and then go B, C and D (done)!” The teachers were more into starting somewhere in the middle, going to the end, then doubling back to the beginning to assess things from there. Details were fleshed out intermittently, and the ending was a somewhat iterative result. It was a challenge to be certain, but we got it done and the end product was far better than it might have been if only one thinking style had been applied.

I conclude from seeing these studies and from the perspective of my seven decades of living that good education requires a balance between a narrow focus and a broad one. Just like any other aspect of life, education needs to be broad enough to span the world, and narrow enough to plumb the depths.

“Everything in Moderation. Nothing in excess.”
~ Socrates

If it was easy, we wouldn’t need teachers to do it.

Additional Information:
Matt Barnum, Extra Arts Education Boosts Students’ Writing Scores — and Their Compassion, Big New Study Finds, February 12, 2019, Chalkbeat

Stagestruck Plays, (

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