Studies in uselessness: The Oregonian’s argument against support for the arts

Let's hear it for the Golden Ratio!

Let’s hear it for the Golden Ratio!

These days I find myself in stark disagreement with the editorial page of my old colleagues at The Oregonian far more than I did when I worked there. Not that I always agreed with them back then: I thought the blank check they were willing to give the Columbia River Crossing mega-bridge defined reckless and ignorant, for example, and I opposed their strange calculation that tearing down Memorial Coliseum and building a minor league baseball park there at considerable expense to the public treasure made any sense, except as the act of a small group of minor league baseball nostalgists. Just to name two.

Now that the publisher of the newspaper, N. Christian Anderson III, has wrenched the paper’s opinion columns toward the Libertarian Right, I find those columns increasingly incomprehensible—you can’t take a philosophy built on the ideal of the 18th century yeoman farmer and plunk it down into a contemporary 21st century city and expect it to be very useful.

So, I wasn’t surprised by the dim argument against the proposal to restore arts education to the public schools via a small income tax increase that the editorial page mustered today. I’ll dissect that argument quickly, because it wasn’t very substantial: Given budget constraints, the school system was right to allow arts instruction to “wither” because the arts are “low priorities.” That’s it. That assertion. Based on… nothing.


The Portland Public School system graduates something like 60 percent of its students, so evidently that concentration on the basics of math and science (and the editorial quaintly includes “writing,” as though writing isn’t an art) isn’t working very well. We now have good evidence, not just the abundant anecdotal evidence at hand but actual studies, that the arts help keep kids in school and then help them excel. The arts, after all, are mostly about problem solving, about developing the discipline it takes to master a core competence, about developing and applying creativity to various situations. They are both hands-on and minds-on. They connect us to our own cultural past and help us understand the cultures of others.

Science and math are part of that cultural past, of course (not that I think The Oregonian editorialists know anything much about those subjects), and a painting student, plunging into the history of that art form, inevitably runs into the Greek idea of the Golden Ratio, for example. Music students are even more deeply involved in ratios of various sorts, and these days, computer science among other things. We could go on at length (determining the firing temperatures of clay, the psychology of a dramatic scene, the politics of a history painting). The point is that the arts inevitably turn around and touch (and are touched by) other areas of life. That’s why they are so central to our lives together: They are connectors.

But back to school. Say we wanted to introduce a kid to science. What’s going to work better, working out firing temperatures for pots, which 5th graders could do, or those old chemistry experiments you botched in 10th grade?


The Oregonian doesn’t really want to argue about the arts, though. Like science and math, they don’t really know much about them. They’d rather argue that there are other ways to support them than through taxes. Which is right. Of course, we can support education in other ways, too. The Libertarian position, after all,  is that schools should be voluntary associations. (Their advice to the Portland Public Schools in an accompanying editorial was to demonstrate better stewardship of the buildings they own before asking for more money to maintain them. That maintenance has “withered” just like the arts program. The newspaper doesn’t suggest how the “budget constraints”  could have been managed differently to demonstrate this stewardship.) So, the days when The Oregonian argued for school support are probably over. And health research, too? I expect so. Though apparently massive bridges and minor league baseball parks are just fine. Yes, they are bad at being Libertarians.

If bridges were that important, some alert entrepreneur or band of heavy users would get together and build one, right? Personally, I wish they’d start a ferry service instead, far more picturesque and far more 17th century. Actually, the native people who lived along the Columbia employed thousands of canoes of various sizes to accomplish the same thing. That would be SO much better for us, wouldn’t it? (Early European visitors marveled at their skill, both in building and managing the craft. Personally, I’m willing to go back to those practices. We could set up a viewing platform to watch Clark County row its way to Portland every morning.)


The Libertarian position isn’t democratic at heart. In a democracy, we can decide that something is important enough to our common welfare for us to chip in and accomplish it together. Which is how we build roads and schools, fund medical research, protect air and water: Together. Libertarians think about only one part of the freedom equation, the individual. That’s really important, but it’s only one part. Primates are social, too, and as we proliferate, we need to work together more and more, if we want to make sure we hand over a functioning culture (in the broad sense) to generations to come. By myself, I can’t guarantee that my drinking water is clean, because there’s always someone else upstream. I can do things to make my air breathable, but I don’t just breathe “my” air: Your air blows over me, too. And I can’t educate myself, because I depend on the transmission of the accumulated knowledge of the generations before me.

I am not a Libertarian, as you can tell. I’m a pragmatist and a democrat, though in these awful times for democracy, it’s hard to think of government by, for and of the people as a very pragmatic course. Not least because it depends on good arguments and thorough testing of those arguments until a common purpose is determined. The Oregonian editorial page should be a good place to see those arguments made and tested. With regard to the arts tax, it has failed at this, because it hasn’t said anything useful, pro or con. It has merely made an ideological assertion, one I’d urge you to ignore.

Should we vote for an arts tax, both to support arts education and nonprofit arts groups in the city? Let’s hear the arguments. And then the rebuttals. And then the re-rebuttals. And then decide. Which is how it should be in a democracy.

15 Responses.

  1. Erika says:

    The schools are in horrendous shape. My daughter contends every day with windows that cannot be opened, building decaying, very fine powdery lead paint flaking off everywhere, horribly overcrowded classrooms, incredibly nasty old boilers that barely work, exposed asbestos, copious pesticide use all around the grounds, and constantly shrinking in-class time. This is just one of many many many symptoms of a system that is completely insufficient to meet the needs of students and growing worse every year.

  2. Curtis heikkinen says:

    Very thoughtful article that points out the weaknesses of the Libertarian philosophy, which is far more suited to the America of a century or two ago than to a country of 300 million and a planetary population of 7 billion. I am a property owner who certainly supports individual freedom. But I also realize that there are considerations that transcend my individual interests and desires. We are all a part of something greater than ourselves. We recognize this when we support schools(even when, like my wife and I, we do not have children in school), parks , open spaces, clean air and water, and activities such as the arts, which enrich us all. Humans unfortunately have a tendency to focus on narrow self interest to the detriment of the greater good. The Libertarian world view only reinforces this tendency and in doing so poses a grave danger to the foundations of a civilized and sustainable society.

  3. Libertarians urge the reduction of revenues to public institutions from public sources and replacement of these revenues with new private sources of revenue. They make this argument no matter how far back public revenues are pushed; they always move the goalpost because their real concern is that the value of the public square defeat the value of a certain type of private liberty defined as untaxed revenue. But don’t we value some things more highly than revenue? Don’t we value some things more highly than money? Societies usually have, for the sake of their own survival. A libertarian society would be incapable of surviving either disaster or slow erosion.

  4. Gordon Romei says:

    It’s actually a pretty simple maxim: if you deny kids access to arts education, then you deny them preparation to be successful, however that means, when they leave school. They’re not trained how to think critically or how to adapt to less-than-ideal circumstances.

  5. michael rohd says:

    Nice dissection and assertion about where public discourse is today, and what we need from our fourth estate to help address its dismal condition. And what we don’t need. Thanks.

  6. Barry Johnson says:

    Thanks, for all the comments!

    Another incomprehensible element of The O’s editorial: Why did they single out the Portland Art Museum? (“The remaining revenue would be given to the Regional Arts and Culture Council for distribution to the Portland Art Museum and other arts organizations of RACC’s choosing.”) Do they think giving tax money to the art museum is especially egregious? If the art museum was suddenly headed for bankruptcy and dissolution, wouldn’t the paper support a City effort to keep it afloat? Maybe not…

  7. Natalie Genter-Gilmore says:

    What is especially baffling in this scenario is the a newspaper is saying that arts education is secondary to core subjects. Have they not read any of the numerous studies about the connection between arts education and literacy? One would think that a newspaper has a very high stake in the literacy of the next generation.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Someone operating with ideological certainty doesn’t look for studies that disprove or even contest his/her position, I’m afraid.

  8. Martha Ullman West says:

    Bravo Barry and all the commenters. I can’t begin to count the numbers of stories I’ve written over the years about arts education and how it benefits students across the curriculum, starting with a cover story on Jefferson High School, back when it was an arts magnet, for Oregon Magazine, remember that short-lived publication? But between the libertarians and the tea partiers, linked by their solipsistic view of the world, phrases like the common good are hard to come by as applied to any issue, never mind the value of arts education or education itself. The Oregonian editorial was extremely disappointing, but I’m sad to say, not surprising either.

  9. Eric Houghton says:

    The other thing that no one mentioned (most comments were focused on the schools) are the numerous studies that show how fiscal support for the arts returns manifold benefits to the local economy. I don’t remember exact numbers, but for every dollar you pump into the arts in a community you bring in many times that in connected revenue.

    Additionally, other studies show that a thriving arts culture has direct benefits to the business community. It attracts better educated employees to a city, which attracts more businesses looking for that kind of employee. Apparently the correlation between good arts and strong high tech companies is quite clear.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Totally agree. A city that’s thriving has both a creative business sector and arts sector and the two are deeply connected. (It’s not just that prosperous business folk can buy more art experiences…)

  10. Martha Ullman West says:

    Niel de Ponte has an excellent rebuttal to the Oregonian’s editorial in this morning’s paper, in which he cites some of those studies about the cognitive benefits of arts education, particularly visual arts. I am mindful I might add that years ago I met a young man who had been hired by Microsoft BECAUSE he had majored in French and studied dance at Connecticut College.I rest my case.

  11. scooter says:

    An education without art is no education at all. Almost all the people who have shaped the world were artists in one form or another and used artistic skill to propagate that change. Not having art is letting a giant chunk of your brain atrophy.

  12. Briana Linden says:

    And yet another strange perspective in the article was the cagefight between the arts and science/math. These things aren’t at odds with each other and in the real world we’re not all working in isolated disciplines. I believe the arts and creative learning allow students to see that one idea might be approached from many perspectives (ie, engaging their critical thinking and collaboration skills) and allow them to stretch their own understanding.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I couldn’t agree more. My possibly crazy psycho-social interpretation: In America, it’s a “tough guy” position to be for math and science and against the arts. The Oregonian editorial board desperately wants to be a “tough guy.” So, yeah, they embrace those “tough” subjects, about which they are almost completely ignorant, because if they weren’t they wouldn’t write an editorial like this one.

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