You Can Build A Toilet, But You Can’t Make Me Use It!

There may be no greater evidence that increasing arts in schools won’t create more arts patrons/lovers than the fact people in India won’t use toilets.

Yes, while that statement may be a cheap ploy at getting you to read the rest of this post, there is some truth to it.

According to a CityLab article, even though the government of India has gone on a huge toilet building campaign in order to improve sanitation, so many people refuse to use the commodes that the government is pondering a monitoring program to make sure people do. (my emphasis)

In a recent survey of 3,200 rural households by Delhi-based Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, half of respondents who didn’t have a toilet believed that “defecating in the open is the same or better for health than using a latrine.” Most people who owned a government-constructed latrine still chose to use the outdoors. Some end up using their loo for storage or extra living space.

Many people in the article talk about the use/non-use as a factor of cultural and religious values and advocate for everything from education campaigns to social pressure and spying in order to achieve the goal of no public defecation by 2019.

It can be perplexing to read about the difficulties this effort faces despite the clear and nearly immediately demonstrable health benefits of sanitary practices (Not to mention the government will do the construction.)

We might think that the benefits and importance of using a toilet would be self evident, but apparently that is not the case in India. In that context, saying something that is far from self-evident like arts education improves test scores starts to sound a little weak as an argument.

Comparing toilets in India to Arts in America is probably rife with more flaws than I am immediately imagining. But there is a similarity in the societal inertia that needs to be overcome. Because India is a situation outside our experience, we can examine it with some objectivity and recognize some of the common issues we face.

Parents and schools providing arts experiences to kids certainly contributes to socializing young people to participate when they get older. When I look at India, it reinforces my sense that any effort to help people recognize the presence and importance of arts in their lives is going to involve a lot more than just advocating for more arts teachers in the schools.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


3 thoughts on “You Can Build A Toilet, But You Can’t Make Me Use It!”

  1. The scenario is the old ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ dilemma. But lets not get stuck too much on the lack of causality from leading to doing: If you don’t get that horse to the water but leave it in the desert it WILL die of thirst. What more art in schools provides is opportunity, and the issue of transforming that opportunity into activity is another question.

    The case you bring up shows many of the hurdles that we face in nurturing new arts enthusiasts. At its root, the move in that direction always seems balked by our own sense of identity, who we think we are, what we customarily do, and what we believe. Getting folks to buy into the value of art isn’t a simple problem.

    How do you come to believe in the arts? Well, some folks grow up with it and never question its role in their lives. It can be as natural as speaking their mother tongue. But if you have no exposure to art you are an outsider, art is by definition something foreign. You are not just being led to water, you have no idea where you are being led. Art can be unintelligible, and that’s not an easy place to start building enthusiasm.

    So how does art come to make sense to us? Well, imagine we were talking about a sport, or a game. If you look at it as an outside observer you can eventually pick up the rules. You might even become a fan. You can also read instruction books and look at videos. All these indirect measures are ways that folks can come to appreciate things like games, sport, and even art. Sometimes we are struck by something new and it resonates enough with us that we develop an appreciation.

    But what if we start learning the activity by our own involvement? What if you start kicking a soccer ball yourself, start playing bridge or poker with your friends, or start painting or throwing pots on a wheel? Sure, folks will probably still have to explain some of the rules to you, but the learning is much more direct. And the outcome is not just that we are a fan of soccer, that we are a fan of bridge, a fan of painting, but that we are soccer players, bridge players, and painters ourselves. By doing it ourselves we have changed something fundamental about who we think we are. And maybe that’s the most important transition to make.

    There is no guarantee that kids learning to paint will cause them to become professional painters later in life, that they will still have an affinity for paintings, or that they will support painting as a worthwhile activity, but its not a stretch to connect the dots that if you are a painter in some sense, painting has value for you. The trick is that folks not see themselves as just ‘doing art’ but that they see in themselves the creative potential for art. The thing that needs to happen is that we teach more people about the art within themselves. We need to show folks that art isn’t simply the stuff that other people do but that it has meaning in our own lives as well.

    There is plenty of support for the arts outside of artists, but no one supports it like the artists themselves. If you had to ask who was more likely to enjoy and support the arts, a cop, a farmer, a lawyer or a painter, is there a reason you’d not pick the painter? If you were to survey folks who self identify as artists whether they enjoy and support the arts would you ever get less than 100% response?

    Toilets in rural India are a tough sell because folks don’t see themselves as people who use toilets. When you put it like that it sounds simple. And its also clear that what they are being asked to do is not as seemingly easy as just getting them to employ a new technology in an everyday activity. We need to understand the same nuance about art too.


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