This post appeared on my original blog on May 16, 2016. I am reposting it because I think it’s a thought provoking essay. It’s mostly “as/is”. The featured photo was taken by me at the Uffizi Art Gallery and Museum in Florence, Italy in April 2022.
Just to be clear, I don’t think anyone who teaches art or any other humanities or creative class is stupid. I think a good art teacher can be a lifesaver to some kids. However, I know there are “practical” minded people out there who think anyone who chooses to teach art or music or any other course that isn’t an “essential subject” must be an idiot.
“The real question is, how stupid do you have to be to pay for a degree to teach art? Financially doesn’t add up.“
This was posted in a Facebook group I used to frequent. It was full of overly pragmatic people with “military mindsets”.
Some people who read this blog may know that I am a graduate of Longwood University. Longwood is well known in Virginia for turning out great teachers. I didn’t become a teacher myself, but I do have a lot of friends and one relative who earned teaching endorsements at Longwood. I’m not sure what the laws in Virginia are now, but I do remember that the year I entered Longwood, the “elementary education” major was discontinued. Everyone who wanted to be an elementary school teacher had to major in a subject and then take additional education courses. And while some of the subjects seemed fun, they were also a lot of hard work. I can’t count the number of times I watched my friends laboring over colorful projects involving contact paper. You’d think it would be fun to make teaching aids and bulletin boards, but those projects required time, patience, creativity, and most of all, money. They weren’t fun and games.
I often hear people talking about how art, music, dance, and theater are “fun” majors that are ultimately useless. They have no respect for people who study the arts because they perceive those subjects to be easy. What some people don’t seem to understand is that it takes actual talent to major in those areas. Moreover, the arts make the world a better place. They stimulate creativity, which leads to innovation and discussion. Arts of all kinds get people talking and thinking and make the world more exciting. People who teach artistic subjects inspire young people and, in some cases, can actually be lifesavers.
When I was in school, the local school system employed a husband and wife who taught art. The wife taught art to 7th and 8th graders and her husband taught at the high school. Mr. and Mrs. Bergh were definitely “artsy” people. In 7th grade, I took Mrs. Bergh’s class. I had always enjoyed art and thought her class would be fun. I actually found Mrs. Bergh’s class difficult. I will never forget trying to draw a perfect sphere, my hand, or my shoe. It was really hard. I don’t think I got higher than a B in that class. But I did learn something from Mrs. Bergh. She taught me to “draw what I see”, and that changed my whole perspective.
Before I took Mrs. Bergh’s art class, I would only draw what I thought I saw. I wouldn’t actually look at something and try to create it on paper. I would just create something from my thoughts, never even observing the thing I was trying to draw. While a lot of great art comes from imagination, there is a lot to be said for taking a minute to look at reality and recording it accurately, as you actually see it with your eyes. Mrs. Bergh taught me to look closely at an object and draw what my eyes were actually seeing, not what I thought I was seeing. I must admit, learning to draw what I see was a difficult skill to master, but it changed my worldview. I could apply that lesson to more than just art. Mrs. Bergh taught me to look at things objectively rather than subjectively. That’s a skill that transcends all subjects.
I never took any of Mr. Bergh’s art classes. I am not a particularly talented artist and I found his wife’s class to be enough of a challenge. However, many of my friends took Mr. Bergh’s classes. He was a popular teacher who managed to make a career in art even though he had one prosthetic eye. Some of my friends were struggling with adolescence. At least a couple of them were not doing so well in their academic classes, but they excelled in art. Mr. Bergh’s class gave them a place to express themselves and may have even prevented a couple of them from committing suicide. He was a good teacher, but he was also a valued friend to most of his students. He made high school more bearable for a lot of kids.
My sister majored in art. She is not a teacher (thank God), but she is a very talented artist. She’s always been employed, generally in her field. Years after she completed her art degree, she went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism. The two areas of study complement each other. Though she probably could have majored in something others would consider “practical” like accounting or nursing, my sister would have been mediocre and miserable in those fields. She’s an artist and her work has value. She got to where she is because people in her past chose to be art teachers. It’s because someone taught art that my sister isn’t torturing some poor soul in the hospital with a cold bedpan or fucking up someone’s taxes.
Today’s post was inspired by a rant one of my friends posted about an art teacher calling her daughter stupid. My friend was understandably upset about the teacher’s conduct. Another friend said the music teacher had also behaved unprofessionally. There was a lot of talk about how difficult it is to be fired from the government system and that’s why these teachers were getting away with behaving so badly. As the discussion continued, someone mentioned that art teachers are usually not very good teachers because their field is not in high demand or they couldn’t hack a “real” subject like English or math. There may be some truth to that idea. It could also be that some of the people teaching art and music would rather be creating art and music. They became teachers because they thought they had to teach in order to make a living. Maybe they’re burned out or not suited for a career in teaching.
I think a lot of people go into teaching because they simply want to be employable. I almost did that myself. Originally, I planned to get a teaching endorsement to be a high school English teacher, even though I had no desire to teach. Having taught English as Peace Corps Volunteer, I now know that it would have been a mistake for me to be a professional teacher. But even as an 18 year old, I knew that I wanted to be able to find a job. Not being a particularly worldly 18 year old, I thought teaching was the obvious practical skill to fall back on should I ever find myself faced with the prospect of living in a van by the river.
I majored in English because I love writing, but I believed it was unlikely I would be able to write for a living. So, being a somewhat practical sort, I figured I could teach. I know I’m not the only one who’s done that. Fortunately, I wised up and abandoned my plans to teach. It would have been a mistake for me to be an English teacher. I would not have been very good at the job. Had I decided to be a teacher, some poor kid would probably be complaining to their parents about me. Or maybe I would have been fired and still ended up in a van by the river.
Too many Americans have the mindset that they have to follow a set path. Yes, it’s important to have solid skills that lead to gainful employment. We do need people in fields that require a specific skill set. But the world also needs creators and dreamers and people who think outside of the proverbial box. People who mentor the world’s dreamers have an important job. Art, music, dance, and theater are very important, especially to young people who are developing their critical thinking skills and their creativity. We should have more respect for those who choose a career in the arts and those who are brave enough to teach in the arts.
The world doesn’t need more mediocre scientists, nurses, accountants or teachers. I know some people think studying the arts with the intention of launching a career is a “stupid idea”, but I would submit that it’s actually stupid to expect everyone to go down the same narrow path. If you broaden your mindset, you may find that any course of study can be useful and worthwhile. Moreover, it’s often the creative types who find ways to use arts training to make the world better while they earn a living. Limited thinkers are those who believe wholesale that art teachers are inherently “stupid” or “can’t hack teaching a ‘real’ subject” simply because they choose to teach art.