Transforming Arts Teaching

Keynote Remarks

June 1, 2007

 Dr. David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, addressed a Dana Foundation forum on how institutions of higher education can better prepare those who teach the arts to young people. Here are excerpts of his remarks.

Rhythm, tempo, pitch, dynamics, melody, harmony, timbre, music. The art of arranging sounds in time so as to produce a continuous, unified, and evocative composition as through melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Music, among the most universal of art forms, among the most primal of experiences, among the most important means of communication, increasingly recognized to be an important subject of inquiry in modern cognitive neuroscience. However, the nature of what and how music communicates has been the subject of longstanding and fascinating inquiries in philosophy, religion, the arts and the sciences.

Today we meet to consider arts education in the context of higher education. … Our great research universities are often thought of in reference to our role in the sciences; biomedical inquiry and discovery are well established in universities, as is research in the physical and mathematical sciences. The biological and physical sciences are in general well supported by the public, though recent years have witnessed some retrenchment.

The social sciences, key to the solution of so many societal challenges, are much less supported by the public but are well represented among the faculties of universities throughout the country. What of the arts and humanities? These disciplines are at our core as individuals and comprise the soul of the research university. … 

How much greater a role do the arts and humanities play in their own right? They certainly do not need to be justified by their utility as servants of science. How unfortunate, then, that the arts and humanities scholarships receive so little recognition and funding and so infrequently find their way into the national rhetoric. And therefore, how heartening that we are here today. Before going further, let me again reinforce the absolutely essential role of the arts and the humanities in the modern research university, a place of education, discovery, service, but very importantly a supporter, creator and disseminator of public culture. …

So let’s move on to the consideration of a particular art form that is at once complex, evolving, upto-the-minute in its currency and yet primal, basic, inherent and eminently human: music. … Music teaches in a way that we cannot replicate with words. Pedagogically complex. Music transforms us, touches alone or in shared experiences, shared as it comes to pass. Planned and improvised.

What are the place of plans and improvisation in art? In life? Can anything make that point more clearly than music? The seamless juxtaposition of the planned and the extemporaneous, musician to musician, musician to audience, audience to musician. The live act of creating and receiving jazz. …

Surely there is growing evidence that arts education improved student learning and thereby produces citizens of a different sort. I believe that arts education is a great value in and of itself, not only instrumentally, and that arts education is all of our business, from the home and the family to the neighborhood or village, to the pre-K–12 school system to higher education, to continuing education to public culture in the largest sense.