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What Artists Could Teach Goldman Sachs

As Goldman Sachs may be discovering, belatedly and to its chagrin, image matters. Perception is reality. Therefore, if we want business and government to do better by us, we need more arts education, not less.
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School arts programs are again under assault, having, in many cases, never recovered from past cutbacks. At the same time, Goldman Sachs has image problems its chief, Lloyd Blankfein, did not anticipate, cannot identify with and continues to exacerbate. These matters are linked; one begets the other.

In recent decades, the educational establishment, with the support and succor of government and business, has toiled to develop a curriculum that produces "leaders" or at least a capable workforce. Academic subjects reign, while arts programs of all kinds have been decimated.

But there is much business can learn through the arts about thinking and even moral reasoning. Teamwork, cooperation and appreciation for the different talents and strengths others bring are inherent in arts education. Creativity and flexibility of thought are de rigueur. These are the so-called "intangibles" businesses find so difficult if not impossible to measure, particularly that qualitative evaluation can be as valid as quantitative evaluation: What is the best medium to use? When is a project complete? Is the work good? How do we know if there are no rules for judging it or answer key? The arts teach us how to judge in the absence of "rules" through the use of emotion and self-reflection, exactly what's been missing from Goldman's public communications.

When the company announced it would dispense bigger bonuses this year than ever before, despite what continues to be a deeply painful economic time for most people, it sent a signal that it is not a member of the greater community, or at least uninterested in serving the greater social good. This is a missed opportunity for Goldman and a loss to the community. Furthermore, and to the point of this blog, it displayed a lack of ability to think and reflect with flexibility and creativity, precisely the type of thinking that is so desperately needed to deal with our current crises.

Stanford Emeritus Professor of Education, Elliot W. Eisner, one of the great thinkers, teachers and writers about the place of the arts in education, states:

"The arts teach students to act and to judge in the absence of rule, to rely on feel, to pay attention to nuance, to act and appraise the consequences of one's choices and to revise and then to make other choices. Getting these relationships right requires what Nelson Goodman calls 'rightness of fit.' Artists and all who work with the composition of qualities try to achieve a "rightness of fit."(1)


"[Artistic] forms of thought integrate feeling and thinking in ways that make them inseparable. One knows one is right because one feels the relationships... Another way of putting it is that as we learn in and through the arts we become more qualitatively intelligent."(1)

Goldman and its leaders seem not to be able to "feel the relationships" it has with the public at large. Qualitative intelligence eludes them.

This is no surprise considering the powerful message the educational establishment has been sending for many years about what matters and what doesn't. For example, arts courses count for only a fraction of the credits that accumulate toward graduation. They take distant second or third place to other curricula, are relegated to extra-curricular activities, or delivered privately, if parents can afford it.

And very significantly, standardized tests, which drive educational programming, do not include the arts. Impressionable young minds quickly crack this code: Some pursuits are not worthwhile.

After decades of inculcation by the education system, Goldman and its leadership (among other businesses and government agencies) are unable to reflect beyond the quantitative, cold calculation of monetary profit and loss. The result is an inability to "read the room," and adjust accordingly, much as artists adjust tone, color or timbre.

Considering how something looks, how information is conveyed and what people will think as a result, are the social mechanisms we use to measure how a behavior will be received by the larger community in which we all reside. As such, they are tools to make better choices and decisions. As Goldman Sachs may be discovering, belatedly and to its chagrin -- and as the arts teach -- image matters. Perception is reality. Therefore, if we want business and government to do better by us, we need more arts education, not less.

As Professor Eisner eloquently writes,

""The problems of life are much more like the problems encountered in the arts... One would think that schools that wanted to prepare students for life would employ tasks and problems similar to those found outside of schools. This is hardly the case. Life outside of school is seldom like school assignments--and hardly ever like a multiple-choice test."(2)

(1) Eisner, Elliot W. "What Can Education Learn From the Arts About the Practice of Education?" Encyclopaedia of informal Education (Infed), Originally given as the John Dewey Lecture for 2002 at Stanford Univerisity.
(2) Eisner, Elliot W. "Three Rs Are Essential, but Don't Forget the A -- the Arts" Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2005 Commentary

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