In the space of a single generation, work and the workforce have changed dramatically. If we could put a typical 1966 worker into a present day factory or organization, he or she would be disoriented in virtually every dimension of the workplace.
It’s not just new machines and management philosophies, or that services have replaced manufacturing as the dominant sector of the American economy: it’s that the character of the work itself has been transformed, largely through application of information-based technologies and systems thinking to almost everything American business does. The express train to the 21st century left the station long ago and we have been waving goodbye to the rapidly receding 200 year history of industrialism.
Today’s and tomorrow’s workers have to be multi-skilled and multi-dimensional, flexible and intellectually supple. Even the physical office is being relocated to accommodate new work styles as cell phones and telecommunications software stimulate the growing edge of the workforce as it migrates down the information highway to homes, cars, airport lounges and telework centers.
But the changes go far beyond new technologies and the shifting venues for work. Richard Gurin, President and CEO of Binney & Smith, Inc., and member of the National Alliance for Business, expresses a growing consensus among business leaders:
“After a long business career, I have become increasingly concerned that the basic problem gripping the American workplace is not interest rates or inflation; those come and go with the business cycle. More deeply rooted is…the crisis of creativity. Ideas…..are what built American business. And it is the arts that build ideas and nurture a place in the mind for them to grow….Arts education programs can help repair weaknesses in American education and better prepare workers for the twenty-first century.”
An education in the arts addresses and delivers precisely these kinds of skills. The potential contribution of arts education extends across the board. It builds thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and critical judgment. It nourishes imagination and creativity. While recognizing the importance of process, it focuses deliberately on content and end-product. It develops collaborative and teamwork skills, technological competencies, flexible thinking, and an appreciation for diversity.
The implications of this argument have slowly been working their way into the struggle to reform the nation’s schools, even as the “high performance workplace” remains a core driver for education reform. The public’s preoccupation with “getting back to the basics” is being reinforced by school restructuring and testing standards. Most educators, indeed most Americans, genuinely welcome the renewed interest in stronger fundamentals and higher standards for performance and learning Too few Americans recognize, however, the breadth and depth of the contribution arts education can make, both to education reform and to the quality of the workforce.
**The material in this article is from Business Week in October of 1996. How much longer we will allow arts education in our schools to be viewed as something outside the core curriculum?