Kerry Hart: The danger of interdisciplinary arts education


Wouldn't it be great if we could read a couple of books on brain surgery and be ready to perform an operation? In arts education, that is the type of miraculous feat we often expect from our teachers.

Every academic discipline requires a unique intellectual function - from quantitative reasoning to philosophical inquiry. The arts are no different. Dance requires a physical-kinesthetic brain function; music requires an auditory function; visual art requires a visual-spacial brain function; and drama incorporates a combination of several, including the verbal-linguistic function that is important to the literary arts.

The college and university curriculum in each arts discipline is rigorous and, indeed, it takes a lifetime to acquire mastery in one subject area. Yet when it comes to teaching students who do not have a background in any of the arts, we create interdisciplinary arts courses that provide a superficial overview - usually from a historical perspective. These types of courses become tantamount to taking a tourist approach to the arts, sometimes referred to as intellectual voyeurism.

There can be merit to interdisciplinary arts courses that focus on breadth instead of depth. Some of these approaches are bridged courses such as "Shakespeare and Art" where an English professor team-teaches with an art professor to provide a learning experience in both subject areas. In this case, there are two experts in two separate disciplines providing students with connections and understanding between the literary and visual arts. We as a society, however, have assumed that we can provide adequate coverage of an interdisciplinary arts course by allowing one instructor who probably has been trained in one arts discipline (sometimes a non-arts teacher from a related field who just likes the arts) to teach the course. This approach usually has a budget issue at the root of the decision and there is a complacency among us that tends to rationalize this out by saying, "At least the students are having some exposure to the arts."

The prevalent attitude towards the arts would never be acceptable in other fields - the medical field being an obvious example. While we would want the best experts training our future medical professionals for brain surgery and the treatment of diseases, we should also want the best experts training the life of the minds of our children in the arts. Whether or not we continue to fund and support interdisciplinary arts education, or whether we fund and support the teaching of each art separately, we must make sure that our students have the benefit of learning the unique characteristics of each art medium from the very best experts in their fields.

Kerry Hart is dean of the Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus in Steamboat Springs. His education commentaries appear in the Steamboat Pilot & Today.


id04sp 9 years, 3 months ago

Why do we persist in allowing young minds to believe they can make a living by jumping around, making noise, or making a mess to hang on the wall, and have other people PAY THEM for doing it?

Art is a luxury. Most of the people in Steamboat cannot afford it, and cannot afford to try to make a living producing it.

How about combining a dance class with auto shop? Oil painting with house painting? Singing with carpentry?

Comparing art with medicine is ludicrous. Nobody ever died because they missed a performance of The Nutcracker or couldn't gaze upon a painting of Elvis on black velvet.

The demand for literature took a deep cut when movies and television came along to replace reading as a form of entertainment. People still write for a living, but for a different purpose. Similarly, we don't require a portrait artist because now we have K-Mart's portrait studio, or, we simply shake a teddy bear behind a digital camera and produce our own.

The gentleman who wrote this piece is probably the only person in town who makes a decent living as a result of training in the fine arts. Good for him! However, let's not forget that he's one of 10,000 in the city and 1 of 20,000 in the county.


summerbird 9 years, 3 months ago

The arts are essential to fostering creative activity in all forms of human behavior. That part of the human brain that is responsible for creative ideas is the same whether it is the arts, business, science, medicine.

It would be foolish to think that everyone that studies the visual arts or music or dance or drama or literature or creative writing is going to make a living at that particular art! Their lives will have been made richer from the experience.

The ability to make and appreciate art is what makes us human. The following is an article from the NY Times science section. Please take the time to read it.



id04sp 9 years, 3 months ago

Hmmmmmm . . . No! I think you're wrong.

Show me how dancing helps people qualify for medical school, or engineering school, and how it results in a benefit to those of us who fund public education.

I don't think that doing a rain dance will ever help to provide water for anyone. However, digging a well or building a dam ought to do the trick, and have much more predictable results.

I do appreciate art. I love music. I've even spent some enjoyable time watching ballet. I just don't see how any of it is a part of providing essential services to the public from an expenditure of tax dollars.

Enjoy it privately, fund it privately, and study it for a hobby if you want. Just don't take money I provide for reading, writing and arithmetic and spend it on things that don't prepare kids for a productive future in the local economy.

The entire Bolshoi Ballet performing Swan Lake in the waiting room is not going to affect the outcome of my coronary bypass operation, or get a new road built to relieve traffic on US 40.


summerbird 9 years, 3 months ago

There is more to the human experience than the obviously pragmatic. Creative thinking is needed to tackle the traffic problem and the bypass surgery. If the arts help foster the creative process, that same creative process can be applied to any human activity which in turn would help students be more productive.

The arts should never be equated with a profit margin or the bottom line. The intrinsic value of the arts is not about $$$, it is about the enrichment of the human experience.


Matthew Stoddard 9 years, 3 months ago

Dancers usually have a great knowledge of their bodies, including muscle control and sports injuries. Sounds like a good qualification to have during Med School when needing to work on another person's body. Or- "exotic" dancers use that profession to pay for schooling sometimes...yes, even Med School.

Since these dancers know their bodies well and how they "go together" that same knowledge could be applied a little differently in order to figure out how other things go together an engineer would learn.

As for the most instrinsic value as a dancer (or any artist):

As we learned from Stephen King, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."


id04sp 9 years, 3 months ago

Mounty Mike,

"After the age of 45" is a huge discriminator. It ignores the increased income which most acquire between the ages of 22 and 45. The second home I purchased in Steamboat while still employed as an engineer in an eastern state was a direct result of the higher earnings I enjoyed during those years, despite spending half that time in the military. I am sure I make less now than some who came up through the ranks from liberal arts degrees, but Dawg, it's my CHOICE! I don't NEED the money, and don't have to scrape for it. A lot of those jobs at the higher end after age 45 are open because people who made more money when they were younger just don't need the hassle. I avoided promotion into the ranks of management for years because I preferred to do the "work" rather than attend meetings, fill out personnel evaluations and all that crap.


I've read all that stuff, and even written a couple of my own, one of which was classified as "literature" by my agent (that's right, "literary agent").


There are certainly engineers who only go into the field because they are good in math, and don't have much else going for them. I once loaned a battery charger to a couple of guys visiting at the house across the road, and when I went over to check on them a couple of hours later, found the positive lead attached to a plastic insulator on the battery. They were electrical engineers!

Creativity is a wonderful thing, and people who have the talent combined with a proper education can do wonders for themselves and humanity. The ability to solve any math problem you put before a person does not mean that he can actually design anything new, however. We see that all the time among the so-called "genius" asian and west asian graduates of engineering curricula. On the other hand, a "creative" person who lacks basic skills (and by that I mean calculus, physics and chemistry) cannot apply his ideas to anything productive. You must have both strengths in your corner if you want to make a difference.

When a ballerina takes the stage in Los Angeles, the enabling technologies which put her there (the airplane she rode on from New York, the electrical power, the building, and even the material in her costume) are all products of the engineering disciplines. Without engineers, most ballerinas would be squatting in rice fields or digging roots to supplement their mates' "catch of the day."

One of the links talks about people like John Travolta and Charlize Theron, who are successful despite the lack of a high school diploma. So what? There are always the lucky few. Bill Gates is also one of the lucky few.

Science and mathematics are essential to human life as we know it, and creativity combined with those disciplines is the reason we have a town like Steamboat Springs. Look over at Mt. Werner and you see the fruits of engineering at work. No amount of "art" could have produced it.


Michael Brumbaugh 9 years, 3 months ago

ID, you might be interested in reading the following study done in the summer of 2001, where it was concluded that, overall, those who followed degrees in Humanities (including performing arts) or Social Sciences do indeed surpass (after the age of 45) those who followed Applied Science majors in their attainment of income.

(Quote from the study) "The picture that emerges is one in which individuals graduating from programs in the humanities and social sciences had considerably more difficulty with the school-to-work transition, as might be expected given the lack of a clear connection between their programs of study and occupations. But once that transition was made, the generic nature of the skills they acquired appeared to stand them in good stead-because these skills have a greater longevity and are complementary to continued, lifelong learning in the face of labour market changes. The shorter unemployment durations for humanities and social sciences women and the higher occupational and industrial mobility among both sexes in this group reinforces the interpretation that their skills were more portable, thus providing them with broader re-employment opportunities."

(My summary) Initially, once these types of graduates get out in the workforce, their incomes are generally less than those in fields like Engineering and Business. But, as they mature, they tend to be of greater economic benefits to society at large.


Michael Brumbaugh 9 years, 3 months ago

And, here's another study done with similar conclusions:

(Study Conclusion): "The (economic) return on humanities programs is almost identical to that of engineering, and social science and education programs are even more profitable."


Sheryl Pierson 9 years, 3 months ago

ID- You missed the point of the article. Better yet, rather than spending your time rereading it, why not find a nice piece of literature to read. You might discover that there are more enjoyable things to do besides complaining about things that you have no control over.


Scott Wedel 9 years, 3 months ago

I hope Kerry Hart does not teach critical thinking and it appears he certainly could benefit from taking the class.

The premise is all wrong. It compares introductory breadth and interdisciplinary art classes to highly specialized medical training that begins after a rigorous education of chemical and biological science. The situation is similar in introductory classes for all fields, whether it be art, mathematics, physics, or philosophy.

Every discipline quickly breaks into specialization and you would not want teachers of one specialization teaching another specialization. Yet someone with a specialization typically teaches generalized breadth classes. The reason is simple, to achieve the specialization typically requires general knowledge in the field sufficient to teach an introductory class touching upon all of the disciplines of that field.

A real analysis mathematician should not be teaching finite algebras. But there is no reason why a specialist should not be able to teach our kids math up to introductory college level classes such as calculus.

There is nothing different with the arts. An educator with a reasonable education and interest in the arts should be able to interest and challenge kids in the arts. Also, education is not primarily about the teacher being a supreme expert in the subject matter, but about advancing the student's knowledge which can mean being skilled in educational methods while knowing just enough of the subject matter.

So all sorts of subjects, not just the arts, are successfully taught by teachers whom are not great experts in the subject matter.

Thus, while it is not appropriate for a kid to take a college acting class from a sculptor, there is no inherent reason why a sculptor that is interested in education and the other artistic disciplines cannot be a skilled teacher of art to our kids.

As for economic return on humanities vs engineering, the results should be obvious to anyone who has ever taken engineering. Their are many number of students in the engineering major only because of the promise of graduating with a high paying job. They find no joy in the subject, just the hope of money and that makes for an unhappy or short career. Meanwhile, those that major in fields with no obvious high paying career paths are in those fields because of intellectual interest. And someone with intellectual interest in any field has a better chance of having a successful career than someone that learns something only if absolutely required.

It would be misunderstanding those studies to suggest that someone should major in social sciences in order to have a more successful career. The very act of picking a major in search of money dooms the student to a less successful or happy life.


summerbird 9 years, 3 months ago

We need both: ARTS & SCIENCE. Just don't sell one short.


id04sp 9 years, 3 months ago

Here's a better idea.

Teach everybody how to type and run an adding machine. Business always needs these skills, and you can always find a job if you have them. I once filled the time during a job search with a job through a temp agency. It was great, and there was no stigma attached when I moved along two months later.


dogd 9 years, 3 months ago


You are a complete waste of the precious freedom we have. Thank GOD you are not in charge of anything. The ridiculous status of arts in the present educational scheme brings up this question- just what (tf) is the culture we are defending when somebody somewhere stands on a wall?

An engineer is nothing but a drone tasked with providing a place for life (the arts being strictly for those who have one)- now mr-the artist formerly known as LCDR woxoff- tell us about how you are really an unbelievable musician and painter, but are slowly getting over the shame of it all.


twostroketerror 9 years, 3 months ago

How do you find your specialty w/o being first exposed to the 'breadth' of whats out there? Is there some kind of sorting process at birth? 'Hey kid forget the Bard, your destined for ballet!' How is there a danger in being exposed to all the arts or sciences has to offer? Isn't that how life works, by being introduced to 'whats out there', and then making our own choices as to whats for us? Did I totally miss the point of this article? I did read it twice.....


threeyearlocal 9 years, 3 months ago

Well, at Strawberry Park, a discussion among parents who have been in the art room say that tv watching is big and art projects are only being done by a small portion of the class because there aren't enough supplies. The rest of the class scribbles.

I haven't personally seen this, but several parents are upset at the lack of art being taught. Apparently, this is not a new behavior.


gatorhunter 9 years, 3 months ago

I think id04sp needs to get a life. Or a shrink. Thank goodness most of the people in this community appreciate the arts, and all of the hard work and training that accompany it!


id04sp 9 years, 3 months ago


We have "arts" because the so-called "nobility" in olden times confiscated wealth from the peasants and applied it to solve their own pitiful boredom. Everyone else was busy trying to avoid starving to death under the burden of the King's taxes. It goes all the way back to the freakin' pyramids and the vanity of the pharaohs.

One of my favorite stories is the one about the congressman who went up in an air force transport with a thermos of coffee to demonstrate why it's not necessary to have a coffee maker on the aircraft. When he opened the thermos, the water inside flashed into steam because of the sudden decrease in pressure (8,000 ft pressure in the cabin versus sea-level pressure in the thermos which was filled and sealed on the ground) and the congressmen and several nearby people got scalded with 200+ degree steam. (The boiling point of water at 8,000 MSL is around 198 degrees F). Never has a lack of scientific education been so famously demonstrated.

Our culture is one of science, invention, learning, mastery and mathematical innovation in everything from the cotton gin to the atomic bomb. The X-15, space shuttle and Boeing 777 are products of our culture. You can go up the road a bit to a lake in Wyoming and read how Thomas Edison was inspired (by his bamboo fly rod) to use carbonized bamboo as filament material in the first practical electric light bulb.

By the way, doggy, I DO have an original musical piece running in the background on a radio commercial back east. I recorded the whole thing in my living room using a Yamaha S90 keyboard and Sonar LE. How does that twang your strings?

Oh, sure, hip-hop is a part of our culture, as are pot and meth and transvestite cabaret productions. Are they teaching dance class in drag over there at CMC these days? I would not be surprised.

Art certainly has its place in our culture, as the illustrations in Gray's Anatomy and various other publications clearly demonstrate a clarity that a photograph of a bunch of slippery insides leaves out. Those illustrations date from 1918, however, and I don't see any ads running in the N Y Times for someone to do more of them.

Our current "culture" is best placed in a petri dish where it cannot escape from the lab. If you value art, then go crazy and buy all you can. Just don't be surprised if you are unable to resell it at ANY price.


dogd 9 years, 3 months ago

Art, music, or anything else is a wasted course of study for the careless, the lazy or the dull-witted. Your view is so incomplete, however emotional you want to make it.

You go to a good junior high band class, and you are standing at a place that can be pretty important. You are standing right on the battle line of the culture war, a place where an impressionable kid can learn something damn important- that some of the cultural things people share are NOT disposable trash- that there are some enduring elements of Western culture and civilization. It is sometimes the first place in school that such an idea is brought forward. Sometimes, it's the only one.

There is more to life than disposable consumerism. Maybe that idea can be approached in our schools.


dogd 9 years, 3 months ago


There is more to this world than your robotic version. You shouldn't wish your pathetic vision on anybody.

Maybe.. just maybe ....that's an inherent cause of your obvious lack of ability to get over anything and move on. Your aesthetic poverty. You have a right to it, but why share it with us?

Your anecdote about the steaming coffee is about as far off-point, as your theory (which you state as fact) about the origin of art is far off the wall.

The fool was a congressman, not an art teacher.

Art pre-dates both peasants and nobility by millenia, and will endure far into the future (unless the type of robots you seem to personify wipe out the whole biosphere.)

Now you may have a legitimate beef about PUBLIC art, the selection of which depends on the vision of a committee, which is exponentially cross-eyed (to the power of how ever many people are on it). Unless yer talkin pyramids, where there was only one guy on the committee.

By the way, I ain't done too shabby with the art I done bought, inherited or traded for.

Congratulations for the huge professional sucess in music- hope your uncle's car lot is able to get rid of several units per week. (Due , of course, to your song). I knew you'd brag about somethin-you very often do.

There is a huge mass of people who STILL subscribe to a more traditional blend of American (non-pop) culture and not all, by a long-shot, are old.


id04sp 9 years, 3 months ago

The "culture" one chooses is too often an excuse to be rude to others.

Okay, I'll drop the satire and be serious for a moment.

I spent some time in Japan a few years ago, and was struck by the lack of aesthetics in the architecture in Tokyo. If you don't like electric signs, there's nothing to see.

People pay extra for a pattern on their china dishes, and for engraving on the receiver of their shotgun. Few can argue that the Corvettes of the late 60s were things of beauty. Even Mr. Coffee beats the heck out of the old percolator.

I'm sitting here with a chalk drawing of my step kids on one side, and a watercolor of the Smoky Mountains on the other. I have an original watercolor showing the main street of Jamestown, Rhode Island. Each of them shows the artist's hand and impressions. It makes me feel good to look at them.

The thing is, Bubba, that art is not owned by the "artists" any more than the sky is owned by pilots.

Oh, and the commercial, it's for a scuba shop. They're doing quite well. They wanted a "James Bond" sound without paying royalties, and that's what they got. People are calling up the station wanting to hear the whole song (it's only 27 seconds, total), and asking for more.

A few years ago, I sat down and wrote the dumbest piece I could imagine, and entered it in the CMC "Spilled Ink" competition. I took a prize for it. Go figure.

Enoy it! Love it! Collect it! Save it and trade it! JUST STOP LETTING EVERY OTHER KID IN TOWN THINK HE CAN MAKE A LIVING AT IT.

Art takes talent, just like music, math and most other worthwhile subjects. Of all the things we should worry about in our community, however, the very least is whether a person teaching art in middle school really has the required background. If you look back just a few decades and see how styles change, don't you think the people doing art deco in the 30s would probably have failed design class in the 60s? It's all a matter of the taste of the moment as defined by a few people who gain the required patronage at the right time. Math and physics don't change, however, and people can die of bad math. If we're going to be concerned about education, shouldn't we at least pick something where there are standards aside from the impressions of the dude teaching the class? That's about all it is in many cases when it comes to art. Geez, who's better, Fred Astaire or Bob Fosse? Depends on who you ask.

Art is too frivolous and fluid to be a subject of serious study. Who, in our modern schools of art, emulate Van Gogh and Grandma Moses? It's all a bunch of subjective nonsense. If Piccasso is right, how could Leonardo da Vinci have been right? Get it?



id04sp 9 years, 3 months ago

I freely admit that the fine points of tecnique applied to oils versus water colors can be studied and learned, but to what end other than the pleasure of the painter? The South Park guys have made more cutting simple figures out of construction paper than any fine artist can ever hope to earn in his/her lifetime.

Art and band are electives in engineering school. That's where they belong in life, too. Enjoy them as a hobby, but don't try to make a living marching down the street playing a tuba.

Heck, we can't even hire a competent superintendent or elect a school board worth having. Why worry about anything as dumb as "intellectual voyeurism?"

(It always comes back around to sex with you people, doesn't it?).


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