by Abd. Lateef Krauss Abdullah
What is an education? Is it merely passing on information or does it mean something more? Do we educate today in a way that fulfills the Prophet’s (SAW) command to learn from the cradle to the grave? Do we educate with the intent to create lifelong learners and nurture intellect, making use of all of our God-given capabilities, senses and faculties? In Malaysia today, there is ample evidence that education is not being provided in a manner that adequately prepares young people for a future world that requires of them more than just the regurgitation of facts. This phenomenon, moreover, is not unique to Malaysia but is become all the more prevalent even in the West. Commenting on the demise of the UK education system, Henzell-Thomas (2002) writes:
One of the outcomes of an impoverished arts and humanities curriculum can be a failure to develop effective communication skills. Cambridge University researchers have concluded that in the UK presently, "the amount of time for teaching each day does not allow for a broad and balanced curriculum", and creative subjects such as art, drama and music are being increasingly squeezed out of UK classrooms. In response to the report, John Bangs, Head of Education of the National Union of Teachers, said: "What is shocking about the report is the extent to which arts have been eliminated from primary schools. Tests and targets are wiping out pupil and teacher creativity.”
In a world that is increasingly driven by the ability to think outside the box, to be creative, communicative, dynamic, ingenuitive and self-driven, education must be balanced between hard and soft skills, right and left brain activities, and with the ultimate aim of developing the whole person. However, the current public school curriculum provides very little time and investment for such a balanced approach. The very discipline that can ensure this balance – arts and humanities – is virtually absent from the Government’s notion of education. Ironically, it is the public universities in Malaysia – the IPTAs – that are being targeted to provide the necessary soft skills to their students, in the hope that after a mere four years, students will be adequately equipped to take on the world and put Malaysia ‘on the map.’ This indicates that policy makers recognize the need for soft skills development, yet have chosen to address the problem too late in the developmental trajectory of a student’s life.
"Look at the schools that have the highest test scores on standardized tests. Generally, you will find that the arts are a part of their curriculum. Now, is that just a coincidence? Or is it part of the environment that makes the students more successful in their efforts to learn and compete on standardized tests?" - Derek E. Gordon, Executive Director, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Soft skills development through the arts and humanities needs to be included throughout primary and secondary schooling for it is the early years where such skills can best be internalized and nurtured before the child becomes hindered by social, cognitive and peer-related obstructions to learning such skills. According to Houston (in Henzell-Thomas, 2002), "arts kindle the imagination, stimulate the brain's connectivity". It is no secret that young children are naturally adept at learning new languages in a very short period of time and as individuals get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to internalize such knowledge. At the primary school age, children are less hindered by peer group pressures and social conformity and tend to be more eager to learn new and different skills. They are less shy and regard such learning as play, making it a more natural activity in which to engage.
The need for arts and humanities in education also represents the all-important need for self-expression in healthy and non-threatening ways. Self-expression is an inherent need for all individuals and it is usually only a question of how the self chooses to, and is able to express itself. This occurs often in negative ways such as the joining of black metal bands, Mat Rempit and the like, where young people – in order to be validated and to understand themselves better – feel the need (often unconsciously) to take on rebellious and anti-social roles. Ultimately, it is their need for self-expression that is an integral part of the identity formation process. Young people need to find out who and what they are and will go to great lengths to discover it. This process often takes the form of ‘showing off,’ taking risks, being rebellious and the like. These types of expression of self, however, are due to the fact that more positive outlets are either not available, are suppressed, or are somehow not going far enough in meeting the need for positive self-expression, where the soul is nurtured rather than the ego. Creative endeavors thus provide a new awareness of one’s inner spirit, which cannot be silenced, and which will eventually be expressed in one form or another. As long as children are given the tools for healthy expression, then there is no time or thought for destruction (Lawson, 2005).
“If I had been given a computer during those intense ‘growing-up’ years, I may have had endless information, but I would not have had the knowledge that, in spite of all the teasing and ridicule, I was really ‘okay’. That inside of me was a spirit worthy of recognition and that through art that spirit could be revealed, acknowledged, shared and even celebrated. Most importantly, art can offer a much-needed outlet for those capped up emotions, which scream for release in a child’s heart. Art in essence is a wonderful vehicle for communication. It’s a way of saying, "I exist and I have something to share with you." (Lawson, 2005)
The arts cannot erase the pains of life. They cannot eliminate criticism and cruelty that many children endure, but they can and do connect children with a strong inner resource, which contributes to a better sense of self (Lawson, 2005). By providing children in their early years with positive opportunities for self-expression such as those provided for through the arts and humanities, led by caring adults, crucial developmental needs can be met in positive and constructive ways. However, it must be provided early on in a child’s life and offered continuously throughout a child’s development into youth and young adulthood.
The Need for Arts and Humanities in a Science-Driven World
The arts make us human. We know from research that only 15% of learners are auditory learners (i.e. absorb information through hearing it); 40% of students are visual learners (i.e. they process information primarily through seeing pictures) and fully 45% are kinesthetic learners (i.e. they learn best through the immediate sensory stimulation of hands-on experience and action). The implications of this are very clear. The best schools do not rely on predominantly verbal instruction, which is one of the main sources of the pervasive boredom which inhibits learning. To do so would not only ignore the learning styles of the majority of people, but also fail to make use of the full potential of the individual human brain (Henzell-Thomas, 2002).
The best schools will always balance the seduction of hi-tech by providing highly stimulating visual and tactile environments, and use multi-sensory teaching techniques. An education system in tune with the findings of contemporary research needs to re-evaluate the place not only of music in the school curriculum, but also the educative potential of movement activities such as dance, which energizes and stimulates the entire mind-body system. Research has shown that test scores in language arts rise in correlation to the amount of time spent in movement activities (Henzell-Thomas, 2002).
This is highly relevant to Malaysian education today in particular, with the focus on science and technology, new discoveries and a populace geared more towards critical thinking. Arts help people, particularly children, develop the skills and motivation to experience the world without hesitation and fear, to engage in new endeavors and seek out new discoveries. Arts help young people to know themselves better through exploring one’s emotions and inner experiences, which increase one’s self-knowledge as well as helping to understand abstract subjects and concepts. Along these lines, most early education practices are filled with arts activities, because they offer the most basic and immediate ways to connect to a young mind by engaging them in a way that is often more kinesthetic, and perhaps more emotionally satisfying, than the "traditional" approach to teaching a text (Gordon, 2007).
Academic Achievement and the Arts
Some evidence of the importance of arts in improved academic performance of students (from U.S.; compiled by Dickinson, 1997):
According to the College Entrance Examination Board, students who studied arts and music scored significantly higher than the national average on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Students who had participated in acting, play production, music performance and appreciation, drama appreciation, and art history, scored an average of 31 to 50 points higher for the math and verbal sections. The Board also stated that students with long-term arts study (four years or more) tend to score significantly higher on the SAT than those with less coursework in the arts.
In 1995, The United States Department of Education reported in Schools, Communities, and the Arts: A Research Compendium, that "using arts processes to teach academic subjects results not only in improved understanding of content but it greatly improved self-regulatory behavior." Barry Oreck of Arts Connection and Susan Baum from the College of New Rochelle observed integrated arts lessons in all major subject areas in fourteen New York City elementary and secondary public school classrooms. They found that "student behavior improved strikingly in such areas as taking risks, cooperating, solving problems, taking initiative for learning, and being prepared. Content-related achievement also rose."
In Needham, Massachusetts (USA) at the John Eliot school, the arts are fully integrated throughout the curriculum, and academic achievement has soared. The Superintendent told Principal Miriam Kronish, "I am absolutely astonished--even dumbfounded--by your results." John Eliot does not cater to superior, talented students and many are economically disadvantaged, but nonetheless their 1992 MEAP (Massachusetts Educational Assessment Program) scores were the highest in the state.
The arts are strong at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia (USA), a magnet school that enjoys a national reputation for consistently high achievement. Its graduates are sought by the most prestigious colleges and universities.
According to the major research study Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student
Social and Academic Development (2002), the most expansive areas where the arts pay off academically are these: first, in basic reading skills, language development, and writing skills. Increases in general academic skills also showed up and would appear to reinforce these specific literacy-related developments. This refers to focus and concentration, skills in expression, persistence, imagination, creativity, and inclinations to tackle problems with zeal. In addition, a wide range of social skills accompanies learning in the arts and engagement in arts activities. These are the sorts of skills and behaviors that, in their absence, parents and teachers have been seen to tear their hair out: positive social behavior, social compliance, collaboration with others, ability to express emotions, courtesy, tolerance, conflict resolution skills, and attention to moral development (Catterall, 2002).
The Role of Arts in Educating Muslims
The best Islamic education must encompass the two traditional categories of knowledge, and the hierarchical relationship between them: revealed knowledge; attained through the religious sciences; and acquired knowledge, attained through the rational, intellectual and philosophical sciences. In the worldview of tawhid (Divine Unity), knowledge is holistic and there is no compartmentalization of knowledge into religious and secular spheres. Both types of knowledge contribute to the strengthening of faith, the former through a careful study of the revealed Word of God and the latter through a meticulous, systematic study of the world of man and nature (Henzell-Thomas, 2002).
The perfection of the Islamic revelation embraces all the diverse aspects of the life of man and roots all of them in the Unity and Comprehensiveness of God. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains, Islamic education is concerned not only with the instruction and training of the mind and the transmission of knowledge (ta`lim) but also with the education of the whole being of men and women (tarbiyah). The teacher is therefore not only a muallim, a 'transmitter of knowledge' but also a murabbi, a 'trainer of souls and personalities'. "The Islamic educational system never divorced the training of the mind from that of the soul." Islamic education ideally aims to provide a milieu for the total and balanced development of every student in every sphere of learning - spiritual, moral, imaginative, intellectual, cultural, aesthetic, emotional and physical - directing all these aspects towards the attainment of a conscious relationship with God, the ultimate purpose of man's life on earth (Henzell-Thomas, 2002).
The Prophet (SAW) said: "God has not created anything better than Reason, or anything more perfect, or more beautiful than Reason; the benefits which God gives are on its account; and understanding is by it, and God's wrath is caused by disregard of it".
Art is – in its ideal form – is the result of the interplay between the cognitive and sensitive imaginations of the human soul (Wan Daud, 1998). Most contemporary art is nothing more than the result of the sensitive alone, and contains little representation of the beautiful soul, which can be seen historically in the great civilizations of the past whose integration of both the cognitive and sensitive imaginative aspects produced the greatest religiously-driven masterpieces in fine arts, scholarship, music and others. Arts from the Islamic perspective must therefore reflect both the cognitive and sensitive imaginative faculties. In the modern Muslim world, this tends to be a weak area of the curriculum. In fact, many Muslim politicians and educational leaders do nothing about the obvious ill-effects of pop culture, yet openly frown upon classical arts for Muslim students.
Yet this is highly relevant to Malaysian Muslim youth today who are bombarded by a steady stream of ‘pop culture’, disguising itself as art. This cultural influence, perhaps more than any other, has created a dichotomy in the eyes of many that religion and art can never go hand in hand and are eternally opposed to one another. The modern art form also known as pop culture, rather than the beautiful soul manifesting itself with the intention of making the world more beautiful and in so doing singing the praises of God, continues to steer young people away from religion and God and entices them to embrace hedonism, materialism, sexual promiscuity and superficiality. Arts are meant to turn people inward, to facilitate self-refinement and support one’s quest for maximizing human potential. True art reflects the beauty, struggles and uniqueness of the human condition and provides meaning to those aspects of life that are difficult to understand and communicate. It is also a vehicle for personal knowing and understanding at a level that incorporates both the sensual and cognitive levels and in so doing, results in a more unified, competent and contented self.
Why Performing Arts?
High achieving schools use the power of drama to enrich the learning experience. Through dramatic enactment in theatre, the student explores the many guises of what it is to be a human being, using a rich array of skills - music, movement, rhetoric, expression and feeling - to tour the landscape of human experience. What is more, what is enacted is more readily remembered (Henzell-Thomas, 2002). According to Gordon (2007), “The arts encourage learning as a process of discovery. We want every student to be a researcher who is asking probing questions—not only demonstrating their knowledge, but also testing and defending the assumptions that they are making. This is something that artists do all the time.”
Performing arts can be a powerful learning experience that can come in a variety of forms: vocal and dramatic instruction, discipline, self-confidence, self-awareness, physical fitness/health, etiquette, cultural expression and sharing, performance experience and martial arts. In a creative drama lesson, for example, students might listen to or read a story or poem, or hear a piece of music, or see a painting and plan how to interpret it dramatically. They might review and if necessary develop a plot, choose characters, create an imaginary setting, then improvise dialogue and action. Together with their audience (of students not in the play) they might critique the performance, decide what was good and what could have been improved, then replay applying the suggested changes. This process is a highly collaborative one, develops quick-witted spontaneous thinking, problem-solving, poise and presence, concentration, self-awareness and both conceptual and analytical thinking skills. Conducting a dramatic performance with students encourages, and even demands cooperation, compromise and commitment--all skills necessary for any work environment (Dickinson, 1997).
Such skills are critical for Malaysian youth today in order to be well-rounded, capable and confident human resources for the nation. The ‘old school’ approach to verbal instruction alone is not sufficient to mold students into being complete human beings, for such methods are too one-dimensional and ignore the human and developmental need for self-expression and experiential learning. Performing arts is a time-tested method to accomplish this goal and it is time to introduce it into the educational life of all Malaysian students.
The Need to Bring Performing Arts to Malay Youth
In 2001, thirty American Muslim boarding school students in Paulsboro, New Jersey, USA conducted a martial arts drama called ‘Hang Tuah,’ based on the classic Malay tale. The school, Taqwa Gayong Academy, was run by a Malay husband and wife team, En. Sulaiman Sharif and Pn. Nurliza Khalid who spent thirteen years in the U.S. educating young Muslims, teaching Silat Seni Gayong and running a variety of small businesses. Taqwa Gayong Academy’s production of Hang Tuah was a first not only for the young men and women that starred in the show, but also for the Muslim American community that the school served. Never before had parents, neighbors and interested community members seen their kids do what they did during that memorable performance.
Donning traditional Malay costumes, ‘Hang Tuah’ was re-created to suit an American audience. All the young people involved in the show were between the ages of 6 and 16. The students, all boarding school students at the Academy, spent 2-3 hours/day for several weeks rehearsing for the show; not including the many months spent prior honing their silat skills. The result was a fantastic display of artistic expression, creativity, music, color and a dramatic martial arts performance unlike any that the audience had ever seen. The effect on the performers was equally powerful. The young people involved, mostly African-American Muslims from poor and high-risk neighborhoods and households, discovered a potential within themselves that they never realized existed. Despite growing up in a world that teaches them that they are useless, ugly, violent and destined for a fruitless life, for the first time in their young lives they felt like they were apart of something beautiful and special. Not only apart of it, but at the very center of it. They came alive in ways that even their own parents never believed they could. It was something to behold for anyone who knew them and the multiple challenges they faced everyday of their lives trying to succeed as young, black, Muslim children growing up in America.
The lesson that En. Sulaiman and Pn. Nurliza learned from this experience was that the performing arts can play a dramatic role in changing young people in positive ways. When used and applied in a purposeful way, to develop young people’s soft skills and enhance their inner sensitivities and competencies, the performing arts can be a powerful vehicle for youth development and education. In addition, performing arts can be used to educate young people in an interactive and fun way about subject matter that they might not otherwise take any interest in, such as history and culture.
Since having returned to Malaysia in 2002, En. Sulaiman and Pn. Nurliza have been educating local youth through their own private tutoring and tuition center in Pulau Pinang. After four years, they have observed that the nature of the current education that young people are receiving is not complete. Malaysian students, particularly the Malay students, are weak in a number of soft skills and social competencies. They attribute this, at least partially, to the government education system’s virtual abandonment of arts and humanities programs. Without these crucial programs, young people lack critical outlets for positive self-expression, self-exploration, self-awareness, speaking skills, critical and creative thinking and a host of others. These observations by En. Sulaiman and Pn. Nurliza are reinforced by scientific research. As Catterall (2002) explains:
“While motivation to achieve in school comes in various forms in the literature and across the compendium's studies, probably the most central is a tendency for the arts to promote both certain competencies for children who struggle across the curriculum as well as genuinely grounded feelings of competence and engagement. Feelings of competence and engagement can impact outlook and approach to schoolwork more generally -- and research on the arts finds impacts showing both increased attendance and fewer discipline referrals. And the limited number of studies we found addressing special needs populations show that arts activities associate with particularly important outcomes: writing and reading skills, oral language skills, and (of great importance to struggling learners) sustained attention and focus.”
Arts are thus an integral component of education for the development of competences and soft skills using developmentally-appropriate methods.
Conclusion: The Gayong Amerika Performing Arts Academy
To respond to this challenge, En. Sulaiman and Pn. Nurliza are proposing a new performing arts program to integrate arts back into education for Malaysian youth. Though the program will target Malay youth, it will be open to all young Malaysians ages 7 and up. The Academy will hold regular youth-led dramatic performances with its members geared around pertinent themes, relating to contemporary social issues or even historical issues that have relevance to today’s youth. Whatever the theme, it will be relevant to youth with the intention of educating them about their world, other people and themselves.
STAY TUNED FOR MORE DETAILS…
Catterall, J.S. (2002). Book summary: Critical links: Learning in the arts and student
social and academic development. New Horizons for Learning Website. Retrieved
February 24, 2007 from: http://www.newhorizons.org/strategies/arts/catterall.htm.
Dickinson, D. (1997). Learning through the arts. New Horizons for Learning Website.
Retrieved February 28, 2007 from:
Gordon, D.E. (2007). A conversation with Derek Gordon. Why Arts Matter. The
Kennedy Center – Artsedge Website. Retrieved February 27, 2007 from:
Henzell-Thomas, J. (2002). Excellence in Islamic education: Key issues for the present
time. The Book Foundation website. Retrieved October 5, 2005 from:
Lawson, S. (2005). Why art is essential in our public schools. Passion4art Website.
Retrieved March 2, 2007 from: http://passion4art.com/articles/pubschool.htm.
Wan Daud, W.M.N. (1998). The educational philosophy and practice of Syed
Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. ISTAC: Kuala Lumpur.