Studies show that learning to play a musical instrument can improve one’s cognitive ability. Music can help children to excel in math and language. Music can calm us down and ease our pain.
Art, according to modern research, teaches children it’s okay to fail, to mess up and to try again. Visual arts teach that there are many ways of looking at the same thing and improve performance in other areas of learning.
There are studies that justify drinking coffee, red wine and water, and eating chocolate by pointing out the health benefits of foods we sometimes think of as guilty pleasures.
We are told that having a pet can help us live longer. Married men live longer than unmarried. Mothers of daughters live longer than those with only sons. Higher education improves our income, statistically, at least.
A European friend once said to me, “Only Americans would seek to justify something as pleasurable as red wine and chocolate by citing their medicinal benefits.” I think he was right. It seems we need to always find a payoff. There has to be a practical and measurable outcome for everything we do.
What’s wrong with having a pet just because we love dogs or cats? Does sharing our lives with animals, children, family and friends require a positive outcome for our longevity? How about including these others just because they make life more interesting and pleasant. How about a glass of wine with dinner and desert afterwards because it tastes good, especially when shared with good company?
Why do we try to justify having music and art in our school curriculum because it helps kids with the “real” coursework of math, science and reading? Isn’t the ability to play a musical instrument reason enough for band? Yes, music does help our motor skills, our thinking ability, reasoning, the ability to cooperate and many other useful abilities. Music, however, has value in itself. Every culture has a musical tradition that connects people. When we’re happy we whistle and hum. We soothe babies with lullabies. We sing to praise God and to raise our voices in lament. Even animals respond to music. Why not learn music just because music itself is important?
Is education only important for training workers for future jobs? Should a school’s curriculum primarily focus on courses which prepare young people for the world of work? Should universities give up on requiring all students to study language arts, foreign tongues, history and philosophy? Are liberal arts a waste of time? Should we just let businesses take over our educational system so they can educate their own future workers?
I have never regretted my education. Most of my life I have worked at jobs not directly related to my college degree. My education, however, has profoundly affected my life. I learned how to learn what I needed to know to do many tasks. I learned how to learn new skills. I developed interests and insights that made my life interesting. I was exposed to ideas that challenged what I thought I knew, and I learned there are many ways of thinking about life. I learned enough history to know there is nothing new in the world. I learned enough psychology and sociology to know that we are more alike than different. I learned enough genetics to know that life is complex, always changing and precious.
Many of us look forward to our retirement so we can follow our passions and the things that make us happy, not those things with the biggest payoff. We travel. We paint. We play music. We take on new causes and do mission work. If we’re lucky, we live long enough to do some of those things.
When I finish this, I’m going to go practice my cello. No, I’ll never have a job as a musician. My cello will never earn me money. To the contrary, she will always need new strings. The bow will need new hair. There will be sheet music to buy and lessons to pay for. Playing music may help keep my mind sharp as I age, but I doubt it will improve my math skills or help me get better grades.
I play the cello simply because it gives me joy and challenges me to learn something new. The value of playing music is in the music itself. Anything more is just a bonus.
Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains