06/27/2013 09:18 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

The Education of a Citizen Artist

John Coltrane advised: If you want to be a better musician, become a better person.

During my tenure as president of an arts school, I was scolded by the Board Chair for distracting from the mission of the school because I started an environmental sustainability program (which consisted, for the most part, of simply placing recycling bins next to the trash cans). What this little disagreement represented, beyond a governance struggle, was a larger question -- "What does an artist need to learn?"

I come down on the side that (in addition to learning where to dispose of an empty plastic bottle) arts students should learn quite a bit about the world. If there is any subject, any theme, any inquiry, any understanding that cannot be embraced, explained, or encompassed by the arts, I haven't learned of it. Yes, the essential conceptual and technical elements in every artistic discipline must be learned and practiced - this is training, and it is necessary -- but we owe our students something broader, more durable, and even more urgent--habits of independently questioning, observing, and analyzing - an education.

Training in the arts apart from (and usually without) education leads to expertise without depth, interpretation without understanding. Art is informed by more than art.

Academics and arts are often separated in an implied hierarchy of importance and priority. They don't belong apart, and weren't born apart. What is art, or science, or math, or any endeavor of the intellect and spirit but inquiry, observation, analysis, and translation? Creativity is discovering patterns, relationships, connections, and beauty -- seeing itself is a creative act. The potential for creativity resides everywhere, in every subject, every decision, and every relationship. The future is interdisciplinary, and the arts are everywhere.

If arts educators are to encourage in their students clear and coherent communication; the development of an independent voice; and the discovery of meaningful, original sources for ideas and inspiration, the language, sources, and even the media of expression cannot be predetermined. Training is not enough. Students will have a lot to figure out, but they will have the world to work with. Art of enduring power comes from an awareness of where and who we are and where we came from -- from history, culture, politics, science, geography, more - there is much we need to teach. But what students strive for is always within their own experience, capability, and feeling. Chinua Achebe eloquently expresses this philosophy: "What you want to do as a teacher is to make people aware of the complexity of experience...this is what education should aim to do: to draw out from us what is there so that it can interact with what's outside."

Educators are talking a lot about assessment these days, but education is too complex an enterprise to measure in one dimension. You learn more than one thing when you learn. What do we assess when we look for quality? Not just a momentary measure of what we already know we're looking for. When we assess students in art, we hope to learn something we didn't already know - what the student has discovered and shown us, if we are open to seeing and hearing it. Not just "is this good?" - but "what has this student discovered, what have they told me, what have they made me feel?" The full depth of assessment comes in time, in a student's growth and his or her own discovery. It is the evolution and development of thought and expression, and this education never stops.

The world may not always value, reinforce, or reward the aware, striving, empathic individual an artist emerges as, but this better person will be the better artist. I have no doubt this artist will also know where to dispose of an empty bottle.

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