Thursday, March 12, 2015

All kids need art.

Art is a vital part of every educational system.  It's as essential as Math, Science, English, and History.  All kids need it.

(Side note:  for the purposes of this post, I am defining "art" a bit broadly.  When I say that all kids need art, I mean that all kids need to be exposed to music, film, theater, and various kinds of visual arts.)

There are a lot of ways to approach this discussion.  If we wanted to, we could spend our time here discussing the fact that people have been making art for 100,000 years.1 Or we could talk about how "complete literacy includes the ability to understand, respond to, and talk about visual images," or how "when we study the art of many lands and peoples, we expose our students to the expression of a wide range of human values and concerns," etc.2 We could cite expertswho say that "the study of drama, dance, music, and the visual arts helps students explore realities, relationships, and ideas that cannot be conveyed simply in words or numbers."  We could copy-paste from studies that show that young people who participate in the arts perform better academically, socially, and vocationally.We could point to the research which consistently shows that kids who have artistic cultural experiences are more tolerant, empathetic, and better critical thinkers.5 We could talk about music and how it may increase IQ.We could talk about how the arts promote a special, vulnerable kind of bravery and an openness to feedback and criticism.7  We could go on and on about these studies, measures, statistics, etc.

But I don't care about that stuff.  Not really.  I believe that art education has a self-evident value, and I don't need the numbers to back me up (though - overwhelmingly - they do).

Art is important because art is people.  And people are important.

Art is important because art teaches you how to think.  And thinking is important.

"Hey, not all kids need to become artists," you might say.  And that's true (sort of).8  But not all kids need to become mathematicians, either.  Nor scientists.  Nor writers, nor historians.  Yet no one thinks about cutting the budget for subjects like those - meanwhile art programs across the nation are typically the first to get cut when budgets shrink or are reorganized.  Since 2008, public funding for art programs has declined pretty significantly,9 and it doesn't look like it's getting better.

Why is it that art even needs to be defended?  Why is it that art has to fight to survive, when something like math does not?  Is it because math is everywhere?  Is it because math is an essential part of adult living?

Art is everywhere, too.  Art is an essential part of adult living, too.

If we can teach students to think critically and deeply about aesthetic, dramatic, and musical principles, then they'll be better equipped to engage with culture as they leave school.  They'll get a deeper satisfaction from films and television.  They'll have useful and interesting things to say when discussing music.  They'll notice details in the architectural choices that went into building the bank they frequent to collect their paychecks.  Their lives will be filled with wonder and meaning and beauty.  They'll be more observant, more interesting, and more emotionally healthy.

Furthermore, if a student can learn to appreciate art - in all its various styles and genres and media - then they will be more able to appreciate other people.  Artists are empathetic to other worldviews; artists are trained to look at one narrative from several perspectives at once.  They'll be better friends, better neighbors, and better lovers.

The benefits go further than mere appreciation, too:  kids who understand art will better understand themselves.  And they'll have creative outlets at their disposal:  they'll feel empowered to explore various media and styles when they want to communicate something in a new way.  They'll draw more clever birthday cards; they'll host more elegant parties; they'll sing profound impromptu lullabies to their children.  They'll be better coworkers, better communicators, and better leaders.

In short, they'll be better members of society.  They'll be thoughtful and careful and open; they'll be tactful and creative and honest.

Now, let me make one thing clear before leaving you with this:  I am not arguing that art is "more" important than other parts of a school's curriculum (whatever that means).  But it is [or, should be] equal.  All subjects are important, because all subjects are a different way to describe the world, and the world is important.  To say that one subject is "better" or "more vital" than another is inherently nonsensical.

People need math - even if they don't become mathematicians - because it exercises important parts of their brains and it helps them prepare for adult life, which is full of numbers and calculations and comparisons.

People need science - even if they don't become scientists - because it helps them learn to think critically, carefully, and systematically about how the world works and it helps them develop an enthusiasm for questions and discovery.

People need English - even if they don't become writers - because it helps them communicate their thoughts, dreams, feelings, ideas, and questions; furthermore, it helps them understand the communications of others.

People need history - even if they don't become historians - because it helps them understand the interconnected web we all belong to, all people and nations and ideologies clashing and intermingling and trading and warring, and it helps them to assess current events in the light of how we have heretofore behaved.

Likewise, people need art - even if they don't become artists - because it helps them develop aesthetic sensibilities, communicate abstract thoughts and emotions, and appreciate the endeavors of their fellow men and women whose important artistic expressions throughout the centuries have shaped the course of human history and philosophy.  People need art because art is everywhere:  it's in the way your car was designed; it's in the graphical user interface of the operating system your computer is using; it's in the way your date's outfit matches.  Art is people.  Art is feeling.  Art is color.  Art is painting, drawing, sculpting, video game design, film, music, theater, interior design, and performance.

Art is vulnerability and expression.  Art is beauty and connection.  Art is joy and anger, sanity and madness, family and friendship, transcendence and immanence.  Art is feeling and being felt; art is speaking and being heard; art is loving and being loved.  Art is paradox and synchronicity.  Art is the human experience.  Art is everything and everywhere and everyone.

So everyone needs it, especially kids.

All kids, in all schools, in all places, need art.

Some footnotes:
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  5. Source:  two studies ( and  Full PDFs available.  Also see commentary on an article from here:
  6. A study by E. Glenn Schellenberg at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, as published in a 2004 issue of Psychological Science, found a small increase in the IQs of six-year-olds who were given weekly voice and piano lessons. Schellenberg provided nine months of piano and voice lessons to a dozen six-year-olds, drama lessons (to see if exposure to arts in general versus just music had an effect) to a second group of six-year-olds, and no lessons to a third group. The children’s IQs were tested before entering the first grade, then again before entering the second grade.  Surprisingly, the children who were given music lessons over the school year tested on average three IQ points higher than the other groups. The drama group didn’t have the same increase in IQ, but did experience increased social behavior benefits not seen in the music-only group.
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  8. This depends on what you mean by "artist."  Not all kids need to become professional artists, for sure - we need engineers and doctors and actors and athletes and accountants and therapists and botanists, too.  But if the goal of an education is to produce well-rounded individuals who can interact in meaningful ways with the world - not just as over-specialized cogs in a machine - then all kids absolutely need to become artists, at least in some way.  Maybe not professionally.  Maybe not even competently.  But all kids need to become artists in the sense that they need to develop a relationship with art - because all people need to have a relationship with art.  Art is everywhere, and if you don't know how to interact with it, then your education is incomplete.
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