I saw this commercial yesterday. It gave me a good laugh:
By sheer coincidence, I also got a pamphlet in the mail yesterday from the Americans for the Arts Action Fund. This organization is devoted to increasing public funding for school arts programs and cultural events – a cause for which I am deeply sympathetic. However, the pamphlet gave me pause. It says:
Research shows that young people who participate in the arts for at least three hours on three days each week through at least one full year are:
- 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
- 3 times more likely to be elected to class office
- 4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
- 3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
- 4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem
In addition, young arts participants as compared with their peers are likely to:
- Read for pleasure nearly twice as often
- Participate in youth groups nearly four times as frequently
- Perform community service nearly twice as often
What troubles me is that there is absolutely no suggestion that arts education might be intrinsically valuable. I’ve looked through the Americans of the Arts’ literature, and all of the arguments in favor of arts education (especially music education) hinge upon the idea that arts training makes students better at “real” subjects, such as reading and math. Now, this may be true – just take a look at the statistics quoted above! But is this really the reason why arts education is important?
Art is the only subject in school that is required to demonstrate transferability to other subjects in order to justify its value. No one asks P.E. teachers to demonstrate how playing basketball helps improve math test scores; that would be ridiculous. Rather, schools understand that physical exercise is an important part of being a healthy human being. It is intrinsically good for kids, and thus it is encouraged. But arts advocates seem afraid to make this same claim of inherent value. The fact that arts training benefits so many other subjects should merely be a handy side effect, not the main thrust of their argument. And if they must structure their argument around transferability, they should do it with some passion! Go all the way, as Brian Eno did in this essay for NPR:
“I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor.”
There are several centuries of well documented music and dance, millennia of paintings, sculpture and theatre. This is the stuff culture is made of, and is an essential part of what makes us human. But appreciation and understanding of art is not inborn; it has to be taught. And there is recent research suggesting that even a little bit of arts training makes a major difference in the structure of the young brain.
“This is the first paper showing differential brain development in children who learned and played a musical instrument versus those that did not,” says Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard Medical School.
Schlaug’s team tested musically untrained six-year-olds from the Boston area, 15 of whom then received weekly keyboard lessons for 15 months, and 16 of whom didn’t. When they compared magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans taken before and after for both groups, they found that auditory and motor areas of the brain linked respectively with hearing and dexterity grew larger only in the trainee musicians.
The take-away here is that an unmusical brain is an undeveloped brain. Making sense of music, let alone playing it, is an immensely complicated cognitive task, so an unmusical brain is undeveloped not because it won’t be as good at math or reading, but simply because it won’t be as good at understanding music! I’m not aware of any research on the subject yet, but I suspect that a similar effect may be found in the brains of children trained in any art form, from painting to dance.
I know that we do not have a perfect educational system. We struggle to make sure that students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for them to live happy and fulfilled lives. So I appreciate the argument that says reading and math are essential day-to-day skills, and thus must be pursued before all other subjects. But art is as much a core subject area as reading or math. Arts advocates should try making this case – the arts are good for children, regardless of their beneficial effects in other areas. Advocates must remind us of why societies have always included the arts in a complete education: because like language and science, the arts are ways of understanding and expressing one’s experience in the world. They are a different mode of expression perhaps, but one of equal worth.
Arts advocates do themselves, and their cause, a huge disservice when they make art education dependent upon its benefits to other subjects. I want them to stand up and say, “The arts are an inherently valuable part of our culture. An education that neglects them is an impoverished education, which leads to an impoverished culture.” Art requires no further justification.