School started this week, bringing with it that recurring discussion about extracurricular activities versus academic studies.
In times of reduced financial resources and overworked teaching staff, what should be done about music, art, field trips, sports, clubs, and other such activities?
Some people label them optional, while others consider them enriching and essential.
I realize this issue has at least two sides, including the claim that students and budgets are more pressured today than in the past. Trying to reconcile the differences in opinion, I am now thinking about education beyond academic preparation for exams or job training; education is for the whole person.
With the phrase “whole person” I am referring to the fact that each of us has a mind, a body, and a spirit. We seek to integrate them through education and community life, in addition to home and family life.
At the same time we discuss the merits of those extracurricular activities, countless nations, cities and towns are having parallel discussions about local cultural events and venues such as museums, galleries, and concert halls. Some say that these must be self-supporting, independent of tax dollars. Yet others claim that we benefit from living in communities with access to arts and culture. This relates again to the idea of enhancing life for the whole person, beyond providing for physical infrastructure.
So it seems to me that both the school question and the community question ask the same thing: where to put our collective financial resources.
At any age we deserve enrichment and not just essentials. Our minds are nourished through the arts just as our muscles are strengthened through exercise. Education in its larger sense—framing how we make our way through life—has as much to do with preparing for our place in society as with the ability to have jobs and develop careers. You can make a strong case for the idea that, without exposure to culture and arts, people are less fit for jobs and careers anyway.
I recently came across a Chinese proverb that speaks to this point: “A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study.”
The “ten years of study” claim in the Chinese proverb may be an exaggeration given today’s context—and yet, the idea has merit as a reminder of the value of learning outside of the classroom. Experiences such as a music class, a school field trip, or a host of other situations offer a chance to balance the learning with the living.
Yes, there are practical limits, and I do understand that sometimes decisions must be made with money as the chief factor. Nevertheless, when we make societal decisions about what to cut and what to keep, we should keep in mind that some cuts save money in the short-run but in the long-run cost more than they seemed to have saved. What is the dollar value of children engaging in an arts program? Or residents living in a city with rich cultural resources? In a paper on education, the Baha’i International Community proposed:
An educational approach directed towards personal growth and societal transformation … When words and actions are not directed by a moral force, scientific knowledge and technological know-how conduce as readily to misery as they do to prosperity and happiness … education must concern itself with these forces [moral values] if it is to tap the roots of motivation and produce meaningful and lasting change.
Acknowledging ourselves as spiritual as well as physical beings broadens the conversation about the purpose of education and community. Priorities change, including the willingness to allocate resources. We realize that institutions such as schools and museums exist to serve us, to help us fulfill our potential, and to motivate creativity and innovation. With principles such as these in mind, new models for decision making will evolve, too.
When I think back to my own school days, I remember as much about time spent outside of the classroom as in it. I just hope that someday, when today’s students look back at their years in school, they will have memories and experiences beyond preparing for tests. If they do, they will be more likely to continue their exploration of their world and balance themselves as whole persons.