On Education, the Arts, and Writing


First of all, let me just say how funny writing is, and the process through which any written material comes to fruition. This particular post is the result of my discussion with Julie Israel a few days ago. One thing led to another, and soon we found ourselves talking about education.

Respect the arts

Unfortunately, we live in a society where the arts—and writers, in particular—are not appreciated. First I thought that it was strictly an Asian thing. But Julie soon confirmed, “Even in the States, writers are not thought particularly high of. Certainly some are; but generally-speaking, I think, writing is not seen as prestigious work. Even when it comes to basic schooling, which has been hurting financially in recent years, the arts are usually the first thing to go.”

Why is that? It’s the country of Hemingway, for crying out loud. Of Faulkner, Melville, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Thoreau, just to name a few. Of Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou. In the face of all this greatness, why does the arts, according to Sir Ken Robinson, author of “The Element”, place at the bottom of the hierarchy?

Sir Ken Robinson. Image by Sebastiaan ter Burg

Sir Ken Robinson. Image by Sebastiaan ter Burg.

If you haven’t watched Robinson’s epic TED Talks, I encourage you to. They are not only entertaining—indeed, sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t watching stand-up comedy—but also inspiring.

I think he’s one of the most prominent figures who pushes for education reform—or as he puts it, revolution. He wants to put an end to the one-size-fits-all education system and implement a more customized, more personalized approach. His books and talks are not just about education, though. Here’s what he has to say about talent:

“We all have distinctive talents and passions that can inspire us to achieve far more than we may imagine. […] Many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not — because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”

It’s arts against the world

The horrifying thing is, it’s not only happening in the U.S. The problem is global, really. In Indonesia—where people have adopted the American ways of doing almost everything, for better or worse—education is not only expensive, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on children.

Parents seem to compete in a race to determine whose kids can learn faster. Even before elementary school, children are given private lessons in maths, English, and sometimes Mandarin. Sure, they learn dance and music as well, but these are not a priority. The definition of success is still to have a prestigious job at a major corporation.

Like many other parents, mine have always been pushing me towards more “serious” occupations. I never stop writing, however, and I’m thankful they’re at least supportive, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my “main career”. I’m also thankful they’re not as extreme as Paulo Coelho’s parents.

Arts or die

The hierarchy that Robinson talks about is very clearly defined in Indonesia. Students who can get into science majors are considered smarter than those who can’t. My secondary high school didn’t even have a language major. Our English class doesn’t even teach Shakespeare—one of the reasons I had never read any of his work before college. Aspiring writers, rest assured, are left to their own devices.

The good news is, more and more schools have adopted a similar vision to Robinson’s. The bad news is, they tend to be expensive and therefore inaccessible to the underprivileged. Moreover, the cost of tertiary education in Indonesia is similar to the U.S. And I guess you all know that story. Millions of people simply can’t afford to go to college, and when they do, they graduate neck-deep in debt.

For a revolution to begin and to succeed, policy-makers should realize that education should aim to prepare citizens, no matter their background, to become the backbone of a country—to contribute to society. Education should not be reserved only for the privileged. It should not only mold students’ minds into future Wall Street or corporation slaves.

And it should not neglect the arts. Otherwise we would all become mindless miscreants living—existing—only to work.

As Stephen King says,

“Life is not a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

What are your views on education and the arts? Let me know in the comments!


8 thoughts on “On Education, the Arts, and Writing

  1. A thank you for liking my post and I look forward to following your blog now that we’ve informally been introduced. I’ll explore some of your older posts when I’ve more time.

  2. Out of curiosity, Sky, what sort of career are you pursuing (especially if not writing-related)? You seem very socially/politically aware, especially regarding education (and not just in your native country, but in others as well). It would be great if what you are studying/pursuing in regards to career could be a platform for making a difference! In the meantime, of course, discussing it (as here) is wonderful.

    As to my thoughts, I have to wonder: if education was more organic and tailored to individuals (or even to more intimate groups…smaller class sizes would have a huge impact, I think)– and everybody was basically allowed to explore and pursue what appealed to them– would we have an uneven distribution of talent and expertise? Would a disproportionate amount focus on art, or music, or literature, philosophy, or language, or social science? Would the number of people who wanted to do something in the arts vastly eclipse the number who pursued math? Hard science? Engineering?

    If so, this could easily be problematic– and I DO think everyone should have a core set of skills in every subject– but I wonder, if all stigma and prestige were factored out of the equation, how many people would pursue the arts? How many the sciences?

    • Thanks for reading and the thoughtful comment, Julie! I have an M.Sc. in Finance, but I don’t think I’m going to do anything with it. It’s not entirely useless, though. I guess you could say that it has awakened my interest in politics and investigative journalism. I simply enjoy reading the news and good journalism—like ProPublica, for example. I often say that politics is in the air we breathe, and therefore, everyone should care. Failures to abide by the Kyoto protocol, for example, damage air quality and our health. (Beijing, anyone?)

      With regard to education, my parents hold a nationwide franchise in private education, which teaches students to solve mathematical problems creatively. My mom gave private maths lessons for many years. I myself have taught hip-hop dance and given piano lessons for several years. So, you can say education runs in our family. 🙂

      It would of course be awesome if our business could contribute to better education in Indonesia, and I’m looking forward to starting something of my own, also in the private education sector. Maybe English lessons for kids? There’s a lot of these in Indonesia, but I don’t think the market has become saturated yet.

      The schools I talked about in my post, the ones that have a similar vision to Robinson’s, actually have small classes. And I agree, it’s really a good thing. I don’t think the revolution he talks about would lead to an uneven distribution. I think everyone needs a creative outlet, be it dance, music, or literature. That doesn’t mean, however, that everybody will become artists. In his book, “The Element”, Robinson gives plenty examples of people whose passions lie somewhere else; in astronomy, maths, science, medicine, even business—like Virgin’s Richard Branson, for example.

      So I don’t think you need to worry about that. Talent, after all, is diverse. Not everyone is good at writing or painting or dancing—and not everyone wants to. Some (not me) may even find rocket science and physics much more straightforward.

  3. Very insightful post. It’s true that there is a certain stigma about the arts. I’ve always enjoyed the arts but also had an aptitude for math, though I can’t say I ever enjoyed it. I chose Accounting as my major because of the security it offered. I later switched to Art because I was so miserable, then back to Accounting because I feared I’d be a starving artist. I worked in the financial services industry for twenty years, climbing that proverbial corporate ladder, only to discover that no matter how many goals I set for myself, achieving them was not going to fill the void. I never fit into the corporate world…mindless myrmidon is just not in my blood.

    • I know what you mean. I’m glad you’ve found a way to fill the void. I’m still struggling with it; I don’t think I can survive twenty years of “climbing that proverbial corporate ladder.” Like you, I refuse to be yet another “mindless myrmidon.”

      Thanks for reading and sharing your story!

  4. Pingback: The Value of Blog Comments and Serendipity to Creativity | sairyou.me

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