Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic – and Rhythm

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.”

Submitted as Evidence

Submitted as Exhibit A...

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.

Published in: on August 13, 2009 at 4:16 am  Comments (9)  

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  1. Very nice post. I’m reading this as my elementary general music teacher girlfriend is stressing about whether or not she’ll have a classroom this year. If one (one!) more fourth grader enrolls before the first day of school, they’ll snatch her room from her to use as another 4th grade classroom and make her teach on a cart. A symptom of the prevailing attitude that music isn’t on a level with the other, more “real” subjects.

  2. Unfortunately, you can’t really talk about this kind of stuff without invoking “the higher goal of humanity,” and if you fail to define that goal, the whole conversation becomes murky.

    In an attempt to rein it in, I must point out that schools don’t teach subjects according to their “intrinsic worth.” They don’t teach language and science to understand or express oneself. They teach language to facilitate better communication between people. They teach science so that people may use the scientific method to produce what they want to produce and to make good decisions. The underlying goal of all of this is to directly improve the quality of life for society. We teach basketball not out of an “inherent” respect for the sport, but because we want children to enjoy exercise – so that they may be healthy.

    Arts education is different. What is the aim supposed to be? We don’t really need new trained artists (craftsmen, perhaps; trained artists, no). And I’m not at all convinced that greater appreciation of past artistic traditions makes us any happier or better. I appreciate Bach and Picasso because I have had good artistic training. But I wouldn’t say that I’m a happier person that those who like The Jonas Brothers or Thomas Kinkade.

    I suppose you can say that anything is “intrinsically valuable” and still be logically consistent, because you’ve just made that statement axiomatic. You just have no reason for people to agree with you. Intrinsic values have traditionally been things like happiness or knowledge or God for the simple reason that people can agree on them. You can call anything you want “inherently worthy” but if you can’t tie it back to something universal, nobody will or should have any reason to support you.

    • Hi Adam,

      I appreciate your thoughtful commentary. However, I don’t concede your premise – that arts education is somehow different than other forms of education, and that arts don’t “directly improve the quality of life for society.” You say that knowledge has traditionally been an intrinsic value; this includes knowledge of mathematics, knowledge of history, and, I would argue, knowledge of the arts.

      If I did not feel that art had real value, than I would find it awfully difficult to justify being a musician. Why shouldn’t I quit playing trumpet, and go lay bricks for a living? Building houses and hospitals would almost certainly be a more tangible contribution to “the quality of life for society.” But I continue to pursue music because I think that art is what defines a society, what brings vitality to it, and what is remembered after that society is gone. Attempting to add in some small way to the arts, to document what it feels like to be a person living in this place and time, is not inferior work. And I don’t think that the arts be taught as if it is.

      • Matt,

        You have very good points. I have just finished rereading Brave New World, and my initial response was both hasty and influenced by my reactions to that book (I find it a deeply misguided book and it annoys me that it is so venerated as to be beyond reproach). Of course, that is not your fault, so I will not defend what I said before.

        I guess to be honest, I see arts as different only because they lack practical benefit. And your argument is that practical benefit is irrelevant in this case, so I guess we’re not technically disagreeing.

        But I do have a big personal problem justifying being a musician. As a reasonably well-off citizen of one of the richest countries on Earth ever, and a male and white-looking one at that, I automatically have an immense amount of economic, social, and political power. If I really dedicated my life to service, say in a Third World country, I could do much more good than I will playing either a) music that thousands of others could play just as well or b) my own music, which is admittedly a little esoteric and interesting to a very few.

        I do try in many ways to justify it, but the justifications never seem airtight. Your reasons are good ones, and indeed ones I think of often. They are not unproblematic, though. Why does a society need to be defined? We know what happens to art when it is too aggressively defined – it actually LOSES its vitality. More importantly, without me as a musician, will my society lack art? I would guess not. And I have no desire for people to remember my society any more than they need to remember – it seems egotistical to assume that preserving my culture is vital to the future of the world. And even if these are worthy goals, it would seem to be a bigger priority to stop people starving, murdering, dying of preventable diseases, etc.

        This is starting to get away from the original topic, so I’ll cut it short there. I guess my biggest point is that the reason that arts educations foundations don’t talk about art as an intrinsic value is that it IS such a complex issue problematic. Not necessarily incorrect, but complex. They don’t want donors having the dialogue we’re having here before cutting a check. Everyone can agree, however, that increased test scores and other quantifiable things are good.

  3. Great post. I was recently playing a gig and by chance in the audience were the parents of an old acquaintence of mine who had recently taken some sort of job with a computer company after many years of struggling along in theater. His parents mentioned how incredibly relieved they were that he finally has a “real job, with benefits, and health insurance, and even life insurance, and everything!!” So, naturally when the inevitable “what are you doing these days?” question came, I had already been pre-scorned.

    This attitude is of course common, and I believe that the positive side of the type of advertising that you quoted from the Arts Fund is its ability to catch the ears of the large percentage of the population who think like my acquaintence’s parents. Perhaps some of each is in order. I certainly agree with your thesis that art is valuable for it’s own sake, and for the sake of our culture, which brings me to a response to Adam’s comment:

    Adam, you point out that “The underlying goal of all of this is to directly improve the quality of life for society.” I argue that by your own logic, arts education should take a place next to Math, Languages, etc. Althought you could (and and seem to) argue that a society with no “trained artists” will not be culturally void (I assume through the proliferation of art by untrained professionals, or as a side pursuit), I would challenge you to find a society somewhere in the world, past or present, where the arts and music are not passed down to the next generation in some form, and where they do not comprise an integral part of that culture’s identity.

    We no longer transmit the majority of information to youger generations through apprenticeship and individual tutoring. The educational system is modern America’s way of transmitting information and, as such, the arts deserve a place therein. Furthermore, the quality of life for society is directly improved by the arts in numerous ways. A purely utilitarian society without art to contrast with intellectual pursuits is unbalanced.

    And, to conclude, I would point out that even if you disagree with every point I’ve made about the value of art in society, the statistics in the original post demonstrate that, just as a healthy society benefits from a balance of artistic and cultural pursuits alongside scientific ones, so the individuals’ capacity for intellectual pursuits which “improve the quality of life for society” benefits from exposure to the arts as part of their whole education.

    • Matt, I don’t want to hijack your post but I will respond to this one because it also has good points.

      To Andrew: The example society in my head is preindustrial Europe, and here we must make a distinction between high and low art. While the aristocracy and sometimes the church were pushing high art ahead in a very systematic way, everyone else knew almost nothing of it (Sundays excepted). They had art, of course, but no trained artists.

      Though the educational system is a very important medium for transmission of culture, it is by no means the only one. Popular music of the past 50 years is a perfect example – rock and roll and hip hop have done just fine without trained artists. Of course, they built on the work of previous trained artists. In any case, my point isn’t that art education isn’t good for art, it’s that the relationship between good art and good society is not a simple correspondence.

      And I do agree that art does benefit individuals’ capacity for intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, relying on quantifiable relationships to demonstrate this connection has been a little shaky. Anyone remember the Mozart effect?

      • Matt, I also apologize for potentially hijacking this thing, and will be very brief.

        Adam, apologies for perhaps being a bit too vitriolic with my initial response. As a jazz musician I am of course conscious of the importance and value of “low art” and will not further digress by bringing up the many problems with jazz education.

        I suppose my main point was just the reinforce that artistic training on a very basic level is justifiable and important if for no other means than to engage young people’s creativity and broaden their thinking patterns, which can of course be applied in any field or discipline, and I suppose I felt a bit affronted as a musician by the quality of life statement.

        Anyway a good dialogue. I think the question of justifying oneself as an artist in the face of the world’s problems is a good one, and perhaps I will address it soon somewhere else (i.e. perhaps my site in the future). Thanks for the responses and thanks to Matt for the thought-provoking post.

  4. As I’ve been reading the comments, especially about the value of arts education, the children’s book Frederick by Leo Lionni came to mind (basically it is a story of a mouse who during the summer, to all the mouse world, looks like he isn’t doing any ‘real’ work of preparing for winter; yet in the middle of winter when all the food runs out, it is the eponymous mouse who shares the fruits of what he ‘gathered’ by keeping everyone ‘warm’ and filled with hope through his poetry). Andrew, that book would be an interesting rebuttal to your friend’s parents about the value artists can provide to a society.

    Having been in and out of education for years, I think the reason it sometimes seems as if art and music must justify themselves by comparison with external and ancillary benefits is because of the needs of outcome-based education (especially now). Every subject, not just the arts, must have clear and defined outcomes and justify them. Some subjects are easy to define and judge and these are the subjects that are looked to as ‘real’ subjects because most people can see and understand the outcomes. But how do you quantify and judge things such as creativity, expression, perseverance, which are some of the incredible internal benefits to studying music and art (not to mention the sheer fun and beauty to create)?

    In the 1950’s when Sputnik happened no one in America said, ‘Let’s boost the arts funding’ or ‘we need more home ec in school’. It was math and science all the way! Why? Because the resultant end point of those subjects was tangible and definitive: if you study it you would have mathematicians, engineers, scientists who can build, make, and design things to beat the Soviets. And I think something similar is happening with today’s mindset about which subjects are important and ‘real’.

    Really, I can think of reasons why every subject in school is valuable and should be taught. Just as I’d want (in my perfect world) every student taking music, art, dance, theatre, I’d also want them taking PE, multiple foreign languages, shop class, civics, etc. Choices have to be made, though and everything can’t be taught (or supported equally, which is not the same thing as being respected and valued). Does that mean that if Lucas’s girlfriend’s music room becomes a 4th grade classroom it shows that music “isn’t on a level with the other, more ‘real’ subjects”? I’d say not necessarily. We all want music to be valued because music is our ‘girlfriend/wife/boyfriend/husband/partner/lover’, we want others to love her and respect her too, so any slight (real or imagined) we react to. Not everyone will think she is as beautiful/necessary as she is to us (we all know her worth); but if it takes showing the powers that be the benefits of music through other subjects, so they can see her beauty too, then I’m for it, especially if it works.

    And I can understand Adam’s concerns about choosing to be a musician in today’s America (even if music chooses you, you still have a choice for your life-just saw Minority Report again so this point is fresh in my mind). Why spend so much energy on something that (seems to) offers no practical benefit? Well even in our ancient hunter/gatherer past, there must have been some people telling stories or banging on logs and rocks or dancing, things which on the surface seem not practical or inherently necessary for survival of the group. As Frederick showed though, we do need those things and we do need us (do we need all of us, is probably a more intriguing question?)

    Anyway certainly Einstein hinted at some of this dilemma of value with his famous quote which was something like, “Many of the things you can count, don’t count. Many of the things you can’t count, really count.” Maybe we need more of those in charge to remember that more.

  5. Indeed, Joe, the role of the Griots (Jelis) in West Africa, past and present, highlights your point about the importance of musician/storytellers in a society…

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