Don’t collapse the arts

At last week’s faculty senate meeting, the core curriculum committee (CCC) presented a “draft working model” of a new core to the senators for feedback. Provost Brandsen stressed that it was tentative and in-progress, and it was missing much of the detail that the final model will have to include, but I find one of its components worrying.

The draft model contains a grouping of three subject areas from which students would have to choose one class: arts, literature or “humanities and society.” This means that this model would allow many students to graduate from Calvin having only taken one class in music, literature, architecture, art history or film, among others.

This would be a change from the current core, which includes separate categories for literature and the other arts. Right now, students take classes in at least two art disciplines during their time of Calvin.

My central worry with this change is not about equality in the number of classes, though the draft model does still separate biblical and theological studies and includes both natural science and mathematics. And I do not doubt that most of Calvin’s decision-makers believe the arts are vital for the school to thrive, even if that hasn’t been as apparent lately as many of us would like. I do question whether administrators and CCC members who are not artists or art scholars really understand how big the word “art” is.

As I’ve attended arts festivals and other events in high school and college, I’ve often been struck by just how different the various arts disciplines are. In a music class last week, the professor was explaining how music is more precise than words at conveying emotion — since, say, a Chopin prelude can make you feel something you can’t label with language.

But to that I reply, “You just need more words.” You need to read the last chapter of “A Tale of Two Cities” and cry without knowing exactly why or to rejoice with Susan and Lucy when the stone table cracks and Aslan shakes his mane again. Words and the stories they tell can move us just as much as music, but not in the same way and maybe not to the same place.

No kind of art is more “precise,” more real or more powerful than another. I think this must be taught emphatically in Calvin’s curriculum, and the best way to do that is to have students study more than one artistic discipline, whether that’s film and dance, theater and studio art or music and literature.

In my experience, the more you know about art, the more you can understand about humanity. Art allows us to see ourselves as both God-created and deeply flawed, both brilliant and foolish. In Star Wars we are heroes, in “King Lear” we are beasts (or clowns!) and in Handel’s “Messiah” we are wandering, redeemed sheep. Each kind of art does this self-reflection differently, and fluency in more than one of those languages is just as important as having both fundamental math skills and basic history knowledge. There is no single human endeavour called Art, and we can’t act like there is when we’re crafting a curriculum.