Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How Bernie Madoff makes a case for arts education

There’s a great article in this week’s New Yorker about Bernie Madoff and the original schemer, Charles Ponzi, from which Madoff’s new nomenclature is taken. Writer Ron Chernow says this about Charles Ponzi:

Ponzi was convinced that he was a wizard who had stumbled upon a form of financial alchemy that had eluded others. Incapable of moral clarity, he could never quite admit to himself that he was a charlatan and that his scheme was an impossible fiasco.
The idea of being “incapable of moral clarity” struck me as I read this article. Ponzi’s inability to understand his actions and their consequences resonates throughout the article. He appeared to have no understanding of the impact of his immoral actions on others. This reminded me of a great book called Moral Imagination by Mark Johnson. Johnson says that the moral imagination is “an ability to imaginatively discern various possibilities for acting in a given situation and to envision the potential help and harm that are likely to result from a given action." In other words, the moral imagination is to imagine what effects we might cause with our actions. How do our actions affect others and what might their experience of our actions be? This moral role-taking, if you will, is a sophisticated ability. It obviously isn’t innate (see various felons listed above) but is a learned behavior. So where can it be learned?

Why, look! We’re back to the arts. The arts in general and I will argue the theatre in particular is all about this role- or perspective-taking. Through theatre we explore experiences outside our own – experiences we have no access to in our own lives. But through learning in theatre our ability to use our imaginations “to discern various possibilities” is front and center. Ideally, we put ourselves aside and imagine what is to be someone else.

The moral imagination is not limited to perspective-taking. When children learn in theatre, it is also an opportunity to develop an understanding of actions and outcomes. How many of us wish that our children had a better understanding of the consequences of their actions (all parents with teenagers can raise their hands)? When we read a play or "do" a play or see a play, we reflect on both the actions and the outcomes. We are forced to consider the consequences. Think of how Lear rages at his daughters with disasterous consequences.

By educating our children in the theatre in particular and the arts in general, we offer them these extraordinary skills – to understand another person’s point of view and to reflect on possible consequences. Imagine what today’s headlines might be if we had taken these skills more seriously. For one, Madoff might have run a legitimate business rather than bilking thousands of investors. For another, the implosion of the credit market might have been averted with more ethical lending practices to homeowners who clearly could not afford the debt they were accumulating.

We want to prepare our kids for the world they will live in. We don’t know what that will entail but we can probably assume that fraud will be part of it. Charles Ponzi began his scheming in 1919. Ninety years later Bernie Madoff nearly perfected the scheme. Perhaps we can offer our children something better than a nearly perfect Ponzi scheme. Perhaps, through thoughtful education that includes the arts, we can prepare our children for their world with a robust moral imagination. I’m all for that.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That's a great article! We are in dire need of virtues education all over the world; the arts/theater can impart fantastic lessons about these essential and non-material qualities of a good life, and also illustrate quite clearly the sad life and lived without them.