If we mandate that teachers’ rank, salary and job security be determined by how their students perform on standardized tests, we are mandating that teachers teach toward standardized tests. If we mandate that school districts’ performance on these tests determines their funding, we are mandating that administrators reward teachers who teach toward the test and punish those who don’t.
The result is a narrowing of the focus of education to questions with predictable answers. This ignores the most important questions we will have to answer: the ones that will determine the quality of our lives and our character. These questions have no predetermined answers. They are part of the unknown. For these, we need creativity and imagination.
Without imagination and creativity, we cannot navigate what is often called “the real world,” that is, the world that exists beyond mere abstract reason, the world where our image of ourselves is challenged by how we respond to actual people and dilemmas, where our ideals are tested by difficult choices, and where how we think things should be confronts how they are.
Some people may respond that they are not “creative types,” and that, regardless of how much we do or don’t rely on standardized tests, there are just some things that can’t be taught in school, that can only be learned by experience.
It’s true that as children, adolescents and young adults, there are things and people we believe we could not live without. Later in life, we know a lot more about our capacity to endure loss, move beyond failure and disappointment, and adapt to unexpected news (good and bad) about our world, our circumstances and ourselves. Our flexibility and creativity, regardless of whether or not we are creative types, have likely been challenged and expanded in ways we never anticipated. This knowledge is invaluable, and it builds the kind of life skills no standardized test can measure.
And so do the arts.
From as far back as the earliest extant critical essay on poetry, Aristotle’s Poetics, it has been posited that poetry (and for centuries the word included theater, song, storytelling, epic and lyric poetry) offered us the opportunity to live through deep, complex, even profound experiences. Aristotle’s catharsis is often discussed in the limited context of it allowing us to vent, or purify ourselves of intense emotions, which is how he described one of the social benefits of tragedy.
But religious historian Karen Armstrong has pointed out that the Greek tragedies Aristotle commented on were acted out as part of a mandatory multi-day festival that evolved from much earlier religious rituals, which engaged participants in the reenactment of myths. This reenactment was the one way to genuinely understand the deeper meanings of those ancient stories: not through intellect, but by living through them. Aristotle was certainly writing with this context in mind.
The earliest Greek tragedies were also based on the reenactment of myths. Anthropologists cannot discover a boundary between the emergence of theater and religion, or between art and religion. These distinctions were drawn later by historians and scholars, and would have been meaningless to the original participants. Ritual and theater have always given us direct experience of the mythos of our own belief systems, regardless of what that system is based on. Religious rituals, theater and all the arts continue to function in this way. This is one of the ways we obtain our education regarding the unknown.
A look at rituals can shed some light on how art also provides this education. If we consider the nature of ancient initiation rituals, especially those that marked the passage into adulthood, they all have a number of shared characteristics. Chief among them is that they are very carefully orchestrated.
The ritual often begins with a violent wrenching out of the familiar: for example, the initiate is dragged from their sleep in the middle of the night and taken away from home and family by masked creatures. Over hours or days, the initiate endures tests of their courage and strength, usually including terrifying events where their life appears to be in grave danger, and sometimes actually is. The senses are distorted by hours of drumming, dancing, chanting, fasting and sleeplessness. Having persevered through these physical and psychological trials, the initiate is celebrated, rewarded and welcomed warmly back into the community.
This ritual pattern is called the dramatic plot in theater: The protagonist endures fear, disorientation, exhaustion and doubt during a series of increasingly challenging trials that transform his or her character and lead to some form of redemption. It is the classic hero myth made personal and immediate because it is acted out by the individual. The ultimate meaning of the myth is learned through experiencing it, not having it explicated in a lecture or sermon.
The hero myth is also the basic plot of The Odyssey, King Lear, Rocky, Star Wars and Life of Pi.
As you were reading the description of initiation rituals above, did images from those you’ve seen in documentaries or elsewhere come back to you, perhaps only in flashes? Did even those brief flashes cause minor physiological changes in your body: muscles or stomach tightening, changes in breathing? If so, why?
It’s an old philosophical question: why can’t we watch another person being tortured without feeling anything? Rationally, we should feel nothing because it’s not happening to us. But we do. We have empathy, sympathetic compassion. We feel for others. This is not sentiment; it’s science. Using MRIs, neurobiologists have shown that the same pain receptors in the brain light up when we directly experience pain as when we witness someone else’s suffering. We have mirror neurons that allow us to experience what someone else is feeling. To those neurons, there is no difference between our suffering and someone else’s.
Some people find the torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty so unbearable they have to shut their eyes. Many of us have had a similar experience watching other films. Even knowing such scenes aren’t real, that the blood and bruises are make-up and the victims actually actors pretending to be in agony, we cringe, hold our breath, avert our eyes. Apparently, our mirror neurons can’t tell the difference: we feel empathy for the characters being portrayed by actors.
A powerful film, poem, novel or play is an experience we live through. Physiologically, our bodies do not distinguish between a real and a vividly imagined event. If you have ever wakened from a nightmare bathed in sweat, or felt your stomach flop and heart race in anticipation of something that finally never occurred, you know this is true.
This physiological response is not always the result of an automatic unconscious reflex; it can be consciously manipulated. Physical therapists can lower their patients’ blood pressure by having them imagine themselves in a soothing, peaceful place. Those we call “Method” actors can step onto a bare stage and convince us they are walking along a beach, not through mime, but by deliberately journeying inside memory and vividly re-imagining the specific sensual experience of walking in sand: The image in the mind is transmitted to the actor’s body, and we “feel” them walking on a sandy beach.
The vividly imagined poem, like a nightmare, a meditation image, or an actor’s sense-memory exercise, comes alive in the body. It’s no wonder then that the experience of certain poems or plays stays with us. Every memorable experience, whatever we have learned of importance in our lives, has come to us in this way.
Whatever we know of importance about love, death, honesty, cowardice or loyalty has come to us through the senses, through the body. Such words remain mere abstractions unless we’ve lived through an experience that has made them real to us. It’s one thing to read the platitude that we should have compassion for others, quite another to be mugged or in a car accident and have total strangers come selflessly to our aid, or, to have them turn away and refuse us.
It is no wonder that spiritual leaders have always used parables to teach moral lessons. They know that only by vividly imagining ourselves living the story will we understand it in a deeply personal way. It is this experience that plants the lesson in memory.
In On Moral Fiction, novelist John Gardner argues that the purpose of all great literature is to put our ideals, morals, opinions and beliefs to the test. It’s likely many writers don’t have this purpose at the forefront of their minds at any point in the composition process, and we can disagree with how Gardner or any other author might define morality, but it’s impossible to call to mind a literary masterpiece that moved us greatly that did not address fundamental questions in some way. These are the questions that have no predictable answers. We need all the help we can get when we must ask them of ourselves.
Not just in fiction, but in the course of our lives, our ideals, morals, opinions and beliefs will be tested again and again. How well we adapt, how creative and flexible we are in response to what we learn about ourselves and the world after enduring those tests will determine the quality of our lives. We live in the grey area where there are no clear black and white answers to essential questions. We live in the space between true and false, and it is here that teaching toward standardized tests utterly fail us.
It is in the real world, the one we actually live in, that we need art. Our ancestors understood this when they created rituals. These were communal, shared experiences. They gave participants the opportunity to live through challenges, test themselves, grow and learn new skills, new ways of thinking and a new way of being in the world. Rituals included playacting, poetry, song, dance and storytelling. They were meant to be transformative experiences.
A profoundly moving work of art changes us just as rituals do. They force us to confront our flaws, prejudices, ideals and fears. Their impact can linger for weeks, years, even decades as we imagine ourselves in the new context they provide. The light of reason may be one of humanity’s distinguishing characteristics, but it is not the only one. Creativity and imagination are two of our most unique features. So far, the best means human beings have developed to foster them is through the arts. Regardless of whether or not we make art ourselves, our encounters with art are real, lived experiences that teach us new ways of being in the world. If we fail to provide such experiences for our young people, we fail to educate them.