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Joe Hall

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How Would We Teach Andy Warhol?

Posted: 06/14/11 11:10 AM ET

During high school, Andy Warhol took classes at the Carnegie Museum's teen program in his hometown, Pittsburgh. Building on a solid public high school arts curriculum, Carnegie provided an added dimension with long stretches of study time in the galleries, high-expectations and rigorous critique of his emerging craft. These classes brought Andy great joy, and they instilled the discipline of a creative life. And his was a life that would radically alter 20th century culture.

But what if 15-year-old Andy were to enroll in a teen arts program today? He's from a poor, single parent, immigrant family (his dad had died two years earlier). He's a shy, effeminate loner with sexuality issues. He would probably get an ADHD diagnosis, requiring medication and counseling. In short, he's exactly the fuel today's at-risk, arts program model needs -- where final product standards are replaced by therapeutic intervention and social service outcomes.

By focusing crucial attention and resources on 2011 Andy's "self-esteem deficits," we'd likely ignore or even diminish the abilities of possibly the greatest artist of the second half of the 20th century. More importantly, we'd lose a paradigm-shifting, inspirational leader right when we are in the throes of a creative crisis.

For the first time in our history, this generation has less creative capacity than the one it follows -- and while countries like the UK and China make major investments to revamp their systems toward creative education, we follow an at-risk approach with standardized testing and psychotropic drugs. We're living in a conceptual age, beyond the information age, with a new economy anchored by creative jobs that cannot be outsourced.

Earlier this year, President Obama visited Facebook headquarters to talk about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), a policy initiative that supports a long-term investment strategy. What STEM lacks is a big C for creativity. Design, storytelling, teamwork and empathy are just some of the 21st century skills every business needs. Therefore STEM is like a new shiny car, with a powerful engine, minus the steering wheel. High tech and business investments lack direction unless they are designed, marketed and informed by creative people like Mark Zuckerberg -- who brought an existing technology to the entire world as a new paradigm-shifting social innovation.

Resurrecting our creative capacity and output should be a national priority. Significant resources and investment should be funneled to communities where there are no arts programs for the sake of art, for here lies the greatest untapped potential: poor Andy Warhols from single parent families. Immigrant Andy Warhols. African-American and Hispanic Andy Warhols. Driving diverse tech companies, media, and design firms while creating new businesses and fields we've not yet imagined.

Excellent creative education is anchored by high-quality, high-expectation compulsory arts and media programs in our schools -- integrated with a core curriculum -- to develop the skill set our economy requires. A strong network of out-of-school community organizations offers opportunities for specialization and exploring one's unique interests. Carnegie's excellent teen program is still doing great work, but we've not made that available across the country. With an expanded STEM initiative, inclusive of creativity, we can build on this and other successful models to address the crisis head-on and bring America back as the global leader of education and innovation.