Another Side of Safire

The late pundit should be remembered for his commitment to arts education, writes Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

10.05.09 10:56 PM ET

Like most Americans, I knew William Safire through his public biography: the “kitchen debate,” the “nattering nabobs,” the political commentary, the columns on language. But since coming to the National Endowment for the Arts, I have discovered a different aspect of Mr. Safire’s legacy.

In March 2006, delivering the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy in Washington, Mr. Safire posed the following question: “What's a longtime vituperative right-wing scandalmonger doing talking to this audience about the value of education in the arts and the need for a new relevance in the presentation of the classics?”

Was his interest in arts education surprising? It probably shouldn’t have been. As a highly disciplined writer, and as a Pulitzer board member and a past winner, Mr. Safire could easily evaluate the weight of every word, the pace and sway of poetry and drama.

Was his interest in arts education surprising? It probably shouldn’t have been. As a highly disciplined writer, and as a Pulitzer board member and a past winner, Mr. Safire could easily evaluate the weight of every word, the pace and sway of poetry and drama. And he was around when Richard Nixon–at the height of the Vietnam War–doubled the NEA’s budget. (Nixon was himself a pianist whose performances can be found even today on YouTube.)

But although Mr. Safire did some of his most memorable writing at a time when a country torn apart by political debate came together in its support of the arts, the arts did not so often appear in his public life until he became chairman of the Dana Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports brain research and arts education. And it is his work at the foundation–specifically his sometimes-overlooked achievement of encouraging top neuroscientists to study arts education–that I want to recognize publicly.

Morton Janklow remembers Safire So let’s return to Mr. Safire’s lecture. He continued past his opening question to worry about school budgets and, specifically, the too-often precarious position of the arts within them: “[I]n many school districts that are hard-pressed for money, the teaching of the arts is treated as a fringe benefit—nice if you can afford it, but the first area that the school board cuts when budgets tighten. And you can hardly blame the harried budgeteers for asking: How do we know if training in the arts makes you any smarter? School is all about teaching the brain to learn. Art may be fun, they say, but math, science, reading comprehension—those are the subjects that build the brain, and those can accurately be tested for progress.”

It was at the Dana Foundation that Mr. Safire dug into these questions (and perhaps returned to a line of inquiry that began when he was a student at the Bronx High School of Science): “[I]sn't there a way to prove that the study of the arts is also important in brain development? Put in more scientific terminology: Can the latest imaging techniques that enable us to see functional activity inside our brains help us determine if its physical connections are somehow strengthened by studious exposure to the arts?”

Mr. Safire brought his intellectual clarity and his spirit of hawkishness to the table, encouraging neuroscientists at the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, an organization of more than 280 neuroscientists, to “get out of their ivory towers...and start talking to the public.”

And these neuroscientists began to reveal underlying brain mechanisms that explained why students exposed to the arts do well in school. No mere correlations or weak associations; he was after hard science. The 2008 study “Learning, Arts and the Brain” reported that training in general aesthetics fosters the personality trait of openness. What are the implications of this? If one has a “proto network” acquired through training in an art form, one may have an openness and enthusiasm for that art form, which would allow one to maintain attention for long periods of time. In the study, neuroscientist and co-author Michael Posner thus proposed that “absorbing the child in one of the art forms in a way which enthusiastically engages their attention will be one way to train the attentional network.” Studying the arts changes our brains.

Dana Gioia, who was chairman of the NEA when this study was released, saw this quantitative scientific data as the “first scientific raison d’etre for arts education.” The arts can grow attention. But that is not the only reason for having the arts in our schools. Art feeds the soul, the spirit. It is part of what makes us American, individuals. We teach the arts because the arts are a fundamental part of any complete education, part of being human. So why do we need the neuroscientists? Why was Mr. Safire’s contribution so important to arts education?

Because one of the best things about the arts is that art works. And I mean this in its full triple entendre. I am talking about art works themselves—the output of artists: the paintings, the performances. I am talking about artists as workers: citizens who pay taxes, have families, live in homes, and contribute to the economy. And I am talking about art working on us as human beings—art works to make us complete. It works to connect us to our communities. It works to open us to new ideas. And as we know from Mr. Safire and the Dana Foundation neuroscientists, it works to make us open, to pay attention. The arts can literally work to change the brain for the better.

That is a finding that can be interpreted and used in any number of ways. It is even one that can be misused by some. But Mr. Safire used it in his role as a herald. He spent his career making cases for things, for Richard Nixon, for language, for the arts. And I think it is up to the rest of us to keep making the case for the arts. That would be the best tribute to Mr. Safire.

Rocco Landesman is the owner of Jujamcyn Theatres, which owns and operates 5 Broadway theaters. He is also an active producer, having won Tony awards for The Producers and Jersey Boys , among other shows. In August, Rocco became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.