Practical Training Prepares Our Future Creative Workforce

by Janet Eilber

October 01, 2007

“The MFA is the new MBA.” This phrase has started cropping up in recent months in the articles we review for Arts Education in the News, evidence of the growing popularity of one defense for strengthening arts education in the schools. This argument, clearly laid out in the Wall Street Journal article “Not By Geeks Alone,” posits that study leading to a Masters of Fine Arts degree equips the workforce of tomorrow with the skill that will be most highly valued and sought after in the future: creativity.

Because the argument connects arts educa­tion, American ingenuity and success in the world economy, advocates believe it will speak to those who may consider the benefits of arts learning to be vague and impractical. Arts education supporters deem that it is a strong argument to use with that sector of education policy makers who champion the drilling of the tangible academic basics, reading and math, to the exclusion of just about every other subject.

And we need strong arguments. It’s not just the arts that have been pushed aside in education (although they were undoubtedly first to go); there is a grow­ing outcry about the loss of other subjects, including foreign languages, physical education, social studies, civics and science.

But what do all this positioning and tactical trumpeting actually mean to the “workforce of the future”—today’s teenagers? It’s just beginning to dawn on most of them that they are about to be launched into that workforce. The letters MBA and MFA—if they are even on a teen’s radar—are probably understood as some new texting shorthand.

Fortunately, while advocates are jumping on the bandwagon and beating the theoretical drum, another more practical side of the economic value of arts learning is emerging: Teens are discovering what it means to have a job.

More and more arts educators are addressing the inevitable teen concern about the future by embedding job training into rigorous programs. Sure, the creativity of the youth is being spurred by this learning so that we can remain competitive with China, but while the creative engagement gives them arts skills and keeps them involved and eager to participate, they are also learning basic responsibilities of employment.

Several articles in this issue highlight various career paths provided by the arts. Certainly the most rarified is the one featured in the Guardian article “Chávez Pours Millions More into Pioneering Music Scheme.” This music education program for children began 32 years ago in the slums of Caracas and has expanded across the country. One of its alumni, Gustavo Dudamel, has just been appointed to a new job: conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

For us mere mortals, “Where the Game is Just a Warm-up for the Band” in the New York Times touches on the career trajectories of alumni of the Marching Storm, Prairie View A&M University’s marching band. “Texas is now full of Marching Storm alumni who direct high school bands,” the article states. “A lot of old-heads, or upperclassmen, in the Marching Storm say they want to teach music or become band directors themselves.” Other practical aspects of youth involve­ment in this program are cited, such as the band scholarships that on average cover one-third of a semester’s tuition, or the incentive to keep a 2.0 or higher grade average in order to travel with the band.

“Shakespearean Will Power” on focuses on the expansion of the teen arts training program Will Power to Youth, built almost 15 years ago on the idea of jobs for youth. The success of this program lies in treating high quality arts involvement for what it is: hard work. Chris Anthony, the director of youth and education for Shakespeare Festival/LA, the organization that created the program, says, “Students are employed as working artists, so they do all the things that employees do: they fill out time sheets, they get job evaluations, they are responsible.”

I’m not dismissing the high-level discussion about the creative economy as it relates to the health of arts education. I hope it’s effective and convincing. But let’s also pay close attention to the voices of the students themselves. When asked about the inspiration for the Will Power to Youth program, Anthony says, “We went out to young people and said, ‘What do you want? ... and the general answer, no matter who was asked, was ‘We want teachers who care about us and what they’re teaching, and we want jobs.’”

Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, serves as advisor for Arts Education in the News.