1998 Rotary Club: Why The Arts Are Good For Business

“It’s déjà vu all over again.” I stumbled across a speech I gave to a Rotary Club in 1998 on why business should support arts education. Here’s a condensed version. Twenty years later, same arguments apply and the situation is worse for workers and arts in education.

For many years, American business got what it wanted from schools; people suited to work in factories or, more commonly in our area, people suited to work the land. Over the past two decades, however, business has changed drastically from an industrial to an information orientation with fierce global competition. Today, a skilled, creative, workforce is key to competitive success. What the business community of the 21st century needs for success and what the arts have to offer in educating the workforce are these five things: (there are really more than five but...)






Imagination: The arts teach students to create something from nothing...to visualize situations and consider possibilities and solutions. The cultivation of imagination is one of the most precious human resources but it is not on the agenda of the American education reform movement. It is not on the agenda for the South Dakota education reform movement. It ought to be the center of our educational goals.

Teamwork: the arts help students to recognize that nothing stands alone. The craft of forming something... in music, words or any other art discipline...helps students understand how elements within a work influence each other and interact. In other words, exactly how the parts make up the whole. An important attribute for any executive or manager.

Flexibility: the arts foster an awareness that problems can have multiple solutions...that good things can be done in different ways. Schools often emphasize rule-governed learning focused upon a single correct answer. In business, government and in our social relationships multiple answers are often desirable. In fact, they are often necessary.

Communication: the arts teach students that there are many forms of communication other than the spoken and written word. This is critical in the information age (the virtual age) where we are bombarded with 15 second sound bites at every turn. The arts teach us that the effectiveness of what we communicate depends on how we communicate it.

Excellence: All art disciplines challenge students to seek a level of excellence. In the areas of math, science, social studies or history, if you make a mistake or two, you get a “B” or a “C”. In the arts of music and theatre, if you make a mistake or two, it can mean a disaster, a flawed performance, an embarrassing moment. You cannot be just one bar of music behind everyone else. You cannot miss your exact cue on stage. And so students rehearse over and over to get it right. An attribute that every employer can appreciate.

We know that toddlers are curious, creative, and uninhibited. They sing, they dance, they draw, they sculpt, they write, they compose. THEN THEY GO TO SCHOOL.

In elementary school, we take away, for the most part, all the visual, sensorial, audio and movement aspects of how children learn, and we ask them to learn through the linear intelligence’s of linguistics and logical mathematics. In other words, we take the fun out of it all. We ask them not to create but to re-create. We ask them not to imagine but to recite. There is a huge learning gap in the arts for children between the ages of 5 and 12. And at the age of twelve, those students who have not been encouraged by parents to engage in learning through the arts, are lost to the very concept.

I believe that education reform will not come from within the education community. I believe, like most real change, it will come from societal demand. (Could this be part of Occupy America?) It will come because the business community will demand it. It will come because, as Charles Fowler wrote in his book, “Strong Arts, Strong Schools,” “the arts provide what the business community needs: critical thinking and problem solving skills; judgment and independence; attention to detail and craftsmanship and an openness to other cultures and ways of the thinking.”

(Come to think of it, in 2011, government could use what the arts have to offer too.)