Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means "to fit together," suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.
It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions -- questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?
Art is the cleverness of Odysseus; the intimate knowledge of materials in a sculpture by Renaissance master Benvenuto Cellini or a dress designed by Issey Miyake; the inventive genius of a Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, or computer visionary Douglas Engelbart; the verbal craft in everything from an aphorism ("Time is money") to an oration ("Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation") to a commercial slogan ("Just Do It"). In short, art isn't to be found only in galleries and museums; it is woven into the warp and woof of an entire civilization.
To erase art, as the Taliban did by turning explosives on the colossal centuries-old Buddhas of Bamiyan along the ancient Silk Road through Afghanistan, is to deny the reality of human differences and historical change.
To oppose art, like the Nazi writer Hanns Johst does in his 1933 play Schlageter, which famously features the line "Whenever I hear the world culture . . . I release the safety on my Browning!" is to envisage the imaginative powers of the human mind as a threat to the public order (and, by extension, to enforce conformity to the familiar, the known, and the officially sanctioned).
Though omitting art from school curricula, whether because of budget or time constraints or censorship, is not on a par with pillaging the past or thwarting free expression, it does impoverish learning in ways that compromise the core subject areas routinely invoked as essential: reading, writing, and arithmetic. All three are coextensive with art -- so much so as to be inseparable.
Reading involves navigating the cognitive complexities of books and an emerging cluster of new media that merge text, moving or still images, and sound. The basic ability to decode and make sense of arguments and narratives is just the starting point on a road that soon leads to a critical understanding of how, if, and when things rationally fit.
Writing is, of course, the active counterpart of reading, the ability to state arguments and create narratives and thereby master the rules of written communication. To say that even everyday writing isn't an art is to accept the cliche that art refers exclusively to works of the fictional, visual, or musical imagination. And the all-inclusive art of writing now is expanding constantly to incorporate the communications revolution of the information age. For centuries following the invention of printing, writing still mostly meant applying pen to paper; now, any computer-equipped high schooler can be a typographer, a graphic designer, and a layout artist when completing a homework assignment. Information design has become the natural extension of crafting a well-honed message and a persuasive turn of phrase.
Last but by no means least, arithmetic: the domain of calculation and logic that undergirds the digital tools that are reshaping practices of reading and writing, not to mention a domain where the highest aspiration of a proof, formula, or algorithm is to be recognized as "beautiful."
So, the question we are now facing is not one of "education minus art" versus "education plus art," but, rather, what is the quality of the core skill set with which we hope to -- and must -- equip future generations? Will it be a tool kit designed for the performance of simple practical tasks? Or will it promote instead the sort of flexible, imaginative, and critical thinking that is required to grapple with the complex and ever-shifting challenges posed by the contemporary world? Will it limit its compass to the classroom? Or will it instead become a lifelong resource for personal growth and enrichment? Will it reduce the world of knowledge to what is readily quantifiable, or grant equal weight to that which can be measured only by the subtle yardstick of quality?
"Life is short, and art long," reads the Hippocratic aphorism. And the endurance of art summons humankind to look beyond the immediate chores of our daily existences toward the far grander horizons of knowledge and growth.
Jeffrey T. Schnapp is director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent cultural historian of the 20th century, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.