In Praise of 'Soft' Subjects

Why theatre, music, art, and psychology are underrated and what to do about it.

Posted Oct 26, 2015

Colorline Long Beach, CC 2.0
Source: Colorline Long Beach, CC 2.0

Think back to when you were in high school and college. Which of these did you find most beneficial? English, Math, Science, History, Foreign Language, Psychology, Art, Music, Drama, and/or Athletics?

Many people say it's the latter five, the non-academic subjects. And if I ask, whether they found the academic or non-academic courses more pleasurable, there's usually no contest.

Yet, except for athletics, today's schools' driven by the Common Core and the nearly-everyone-to-college movement, are replacing the already modest time students spend on those in favor of yet more rigorous academics. Have you seen what the Common Core requires of students? An article of mine lays it out.

For example, here, verbatim from the Common Core Standards, is the introduction to and first example of the 8th grade math standards—students are required to learn all of these:

Instructional time should focus on three critical areas: (1) formulating and reasoning about expressions and equations, including modeling an association in bivariate data with a linear equation, and solving linear equations and systems of linear equations; (2) grasping the concept of a function and using functions to describe quantitative relationships; (3) analyzing two- and three-dimensional space and figures using distance, angle, similarity, and congruence, and understanding and applying the Pythagorean Theorem.

Students use linear equations and systems of linear equations to represent, analyze, and solve a variety of problems. Students recognize equations for proportions (/ = or = mx) as special linear equations ( = mx + ), understanding that the constant of proportionality () is the slope, and the graphs are lines through the origin. They understand that the slope () of a line is a constant rate of change, so that if the input or -coordinate changes by an amount ,the output or -coordinate changes by the amount m·A. Students also use a linear equation to describe the association between two quantities in bivariate data (such as arm span vs. height for students in a classroom). At this grade, fitting the model, and assessing its fit to the data are done informally. Interpreting the model in the context of the data requires students to express a relationship between the two quantities in question and to interpret components of the relationship (such as slope and -intercept) in terms of the situation.

A school's superintendent and member of a major state superintendent’s cabinet, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “If my fellow superintendents and I were in a room and told we had to take an exam that tested whether we met the 8th grade standards, there’d be a massive rush for the door."

Most Ph.D.s never need to know that stuff, and requiring every 8th grader to learn it is such a shame when the time could be much better spent.

The problem is that the education establishment gives too much power to university professors. Indeed, they drive the K-12 curriculum. And those professors, passionate about their field, like religious zealots, believe everyone needs a heavy dose of their subject. (A rare exception is Andrew Hacker, a math professor and author of the  forthcoming book, The Math Myth.)

What's a person do to?

You've been made to feel bad for preferring "soft" subjects. But ultimately, they may, not only give you more pleasure, but improve your life, perhaps more than academic subjects. Think of how many successful people say that playing sports established discipline, sportsmanship, teamwork, and leadership skllls they use throughout life. How many people who were involved in school theatre on or off stage feel it added to their poise, teamwork, and aesthetic sensibilities as well as created some fond memories. How many people feel their basic psychology class improved their understanding of and empathy for people and improved their communication skills.

Apart from gain, most people feel they derived far more pleasure from music, art, sports, and psychology that from studying chemical formulas, quadratic equations, and the causes of the Pelopponesian Wars. Pleasure counts.

So it seems wise to redirect some of your and your child's efforts toward "soft" subjects. And to the extent that such courses are insufficiently available, consider supplementing outside of school, for example, by enrolling your child in an after-school theatre program offered in your community.

And if you're ambitious, consider leading an effort through your schools PTA to fund an after-school art, music, or theatre program. (Sports generally is already well-funded.)

What's society to do?

I believe that's hopeless. There has been a decades-long, accelerating ratcheting-up of academic standards. When I was growing up, few kids took Advanced Placement (college-level) courses in high school. Now, many if not most kids who aspire to selective colleges do. When I was growing up, there was plenty of room in the schedule for shop, music, art, P.E., psychology, etc. Now, when I look at high school kids' course load, they typically have one, maybe two periods of such subjects because the colleges are demanding that students take so many academic courses. And those academic courses have been made unduly rigorous per the Common Core. I've even seen elementary schools replacing art, music, etc., with double periods of English and math.

Per the Serenity Prayer, we must know what we can and can't change. In my view, the movement to replace "soft" subjects with "hard" ones is inexorable, at least for the foreseeable future. I feel sorry for kids who have to sit through more than a decade of that, especially when the time could be much better spent.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.