It's About Freedom of Thought: Why Arts Education is a Civil Rights Issue
Access to arts education is one of the civil rights issues of our time. I'd like to use brain science to explain why.
Our brains operate using two types of behavior: automated and mediated. Automated behavior puts a premium on reliability and efficiency. The brain achieves this by pruning: It streamlines the neural circuitry required to complete a task. Automated behavior can be innate, like breathing, or learned, like recognizing the alphabet.
Automated behavior is almost always unconscious. Throughout our lives, we develop and greatly rely on a host of automated skills. That's why we don't like backseat drivers—they force us to think about actions we'd prefer to remain unconscious.
We share the ability for automated mental behavior with all other animals. But as neuroscientist David Eagleman explains in his new book, Incognito, the human brain also has an advanced capacity for mediated behavior.
The goal of mediated behavior is flexibility and innovation. Mediated behavior depends on multiple brain circuits working on the same problem—what Eagleman terms "the team of rivals." Instead of dedicating a limited neural network to a task, the brain tolerates redundancy and promotes networking. It's what we mean by "keeping an open mind."
Mediated behavior can also involve conscious awareness: We overhear and participate in the internal conversation of our thoughts. The vigorousness of our mediated behavior is unique in the animal kingdom. It is what defines us as human beings.
Complex human behavior always involves both automated and mediated behavior. Proper human development requires training both. Which brings us to education.
Automated behavior is optimized through topics that require rote memorization and drilling and questions for which there is one right answer. Mediated behavior is explored through topics that involve synthesis and subjective reasoning and questions for which there isn't a correct answer—where the goal may be to have a new answer each time.
The role of the arts in the curriculum is to encourage and develop mediated behavior.
The cognitive scientists Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier have proposed a unified model of creativity that, I believe, could become the basis for a creative curriculum: If I photocopy your term paper, I haven't been creative. Thus, creativity involves an alteration of some kind.
Drawing on Turner and Fauconnier's theory, I would like to put forth three types of alterations: Bending, breaking, and blending.
Bending involves a transformation of the original: Groucho Marx's line "Home is where you hang your head" is an example of bending.
Breaking occurs when the original is smashed into pieces and rearranged or certain aspects of the whole are negated: In poetry, free verse involves breaking rules of syntax.
Blending occurs when two sources are merged: Words like "Carmaggedon" and metaphors such as T.S. Eliot's "The yellow fog...curled once about the house and fell asleep" are examples of blending.
In music, bending is variation; breaking is fragmentation and contrast; and blending is counterpoint. Unlike automated behavior, whose goal is to reproduce the same outcome every time, bending, breaking, and blending produce new outcomes. That's what makes them creative.
Bending, breaking, and blending are implicated in every aspects of our lives. We bend a relationship when one partner moves out of town; we break it when we decide to part ways; and we blend when we move in together or have children.
These concepts offer a way of integrating creativity into other school subjects. For instance, the civil rights movement was politically creative. Laws were bent and broken in the fight for equal justice; integration is blending.
Creativity is not a specialized gift. Rather, it is an underlying mechanism of our mental lives. Our brains are constantly choosing: automate or mediate? Do I want the same answer every time or do I want options and novelty?
Because mediation is so extensive in human cognition, our thinking is truly an art form. Without training and practice in both facets of our intelligence, we diminish our brain function.
To cut the arts from the schools is to say that we're satisfied to focus on automated behavior for the majority of our children and to treat mediated behavior as a privileged skill, requiring special opportunity and access.
That is why access to arts education is a civil rights issue. It's about freedom of thought, about giving every child the opportunity to thrive with the full measure of human capabilities. We need to train the whole brain. We need communities of richly mediated minds.
Our future as a thriving, productive society—and species—depends upon it.
(Editor's Note: This post was originally published as an editorial in the Houston Chronicle on September 7, 2011.)