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Why Teach The Arts?

Why Teach The Arts?

by Chloé Langley

Albert Einstein - Creative Genius

As a young person educated in a public school environment where art permeated every aspect of the curriculum, I have often wondered what affect this emersion in the arts had on my academic learning experience. The effect on my craft is clear. But did this course of study improve my ability to learn in other fields? Did I do well academically because I would have done well in any environment or did my early and continued studies in the arts give me tools that allowed me to be academically successful? Do I perceive benefit solely because my chosen field is in the arts? Is an education that includes a rich tradition in the arts of benefit only to students that wish to pursue an artistic career? Intuitively I know that the arts made me a better student. I see myself using creative thinking skills every day. “The human brain is the most complex system on earth, yet it is too often used…as a simple device for storage and retrieval of information” (Dickinson). Dogs can be taught to ring bells and rats to navigate mazes but memorization does not make them thinking animals. It only gives them the appearance of intelligence. The human brain is more than a fancy computer and it must be nourished for magnificent ideas to come into being. “The arts provide the means for the human brain to function at its highest capacities” (Dickinson). I want to argue for the value of a strong education in the arts for all students and am curious to know what educational experts have to say and if their research supports my thesis.

The core of the problem is that in many school systems the arts are perceived as being unimportant. “In American schools, the arts receive about two hours of instructional time per week at the elementary level and are generally not required…at the secondary level” (Eisner 1992 592). Much of the resistance to inclusion of the arts in school curriculums is based on the modern philosophy that “the individualism, secularism, and techno rationalism…fostered by science conspicuously” (Dissanayake 2) fails to prove that the arts are of value in an increasingly scientific world. Many educators believe that science, reason, and the quantifiable are all that is important. This cannot be true though for if the arts are of no value to human society then with all the other myriad activities early man needed to accomplish for survival the arts would never have developed. It would have been a waste of energy. Ellen Dissanayake, Affiliate Professor of Music at the University of Washington, “approaches philosophical aesthetics through evolutionary ethnology. She advocates what she calls 'species-centrism' in aesthetics, preferring to see art against a backdrop of four million years of human evolution” (Ellen Dissanayake). It is her belief that “art is a behavior” (33) that evolved as an important and necessary human trait. “In every human society of which we know…at least some form of art is displayed and…highly regarded and willingly engaged in” (Dissanayake 34). Yet why would so much energy be invested in a frivolous activity with no apparent benefit to the community? The answer is that the arts are so important to the essence of humanity that the need for art evolved as a necessary aspect of what makes us human. If it is in our nature to pursue art then art must be of benefit to our continued existence. I suggest that the ability to create art is what allows us to be creative problem solvers.

Arguments for arts in education have been around for over a hundred years. Horace Mann in the late 19th century “demanded that visual arts and music be taught in the common schools in Massachusetts as…an enhancement to learning” (Gullatt 13). In 1934, John Dewey noted the relationship between arts instruction and general perception (Gullatt 13). It was his belief that the ability to find connections during the inquiry process was transformative and allowed art to function as experience (Goldblatt 17). These early pioneers helped to make arts education a mainstay of public education during the 20th century. All children participated in “standard” art classes such as visual art, music, dance, and drama. Even the shop and home economics classes so common during the last century were a type of creative arts curriculum. Students who received this rich and varied education went on to put men on the moon, computers in every home, and a wealth of information at our fingertips. They became civil rights activists, ended the cold war, and increased life expectancy by thirty years. Every student who receives the benefit of a strong arts background will not go on to become the next Yo Yo Ma, Andy Warhol or Mikhail Barishnikov for each child is born with different talents and interests. Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University proposed the theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983. His theory examines “what smart means” (Fowler 39) and suggests that intelligence cannot be tied solely to verbal and mathematical skills (Fowler 39). When the artistic intelligences are educated, awareness is nurtured (Fowler 40). It is this awareness that allows our children to examine and understand the world around them both critically and artistically; to, as Eric Jensen1 believes, become a catalyst to improve and instigate other learning (qtd. in D’Agrosa).

Proponents of a strong education in the arts suggest that they should be a required component of primary and secondary education because they make a specific contribution to academic achievement. The Executive Summary of the REAP project reported that there were "three areas in which clear causal links could be demonstrated between the arts and achievement in a non-arts, academic area" these being Listening to Music and Spatial-Temporal Reasoning; Learning to Play Music and Spatial Reasoning; and Classroom Drama and Verbal Skills (Hetland and Winner). The LTTA study in Canada found that 6th grade students showed an 11 percentile increase in math computation and estimation skills at the end of three years in an arts enriched scholastic environment (Uptis ). Other studies show that students seem to gain a greater understanding of subjects when they work through their bodies or witness the material in a different perspective. Teachers who use rhyming and song can boost memory and recollection and yet other studies report increases in knowledge and understanding as well as in critical thinking, concept organization, and divergent thinking (Eisner 1999 145). But studies with clear test data quantifying these improvements are rare. More common are the anecdotal comments that Dickinson reports. Principles at schools where arts rich programs exist used phrases such as "incredible achievement", "absolutely astonished", and "students...are flourishing" to describe the improvements they've seen (Dickinson).

A specific dissenting voice is Eisner's. He berates "arts educators who know what the arts have to offer trying to give the customers what they want" (Eisner 1999 143). It is his view that requiring the arts to be responsible for learning in areas that are not distinctive to the arts leaves them "vulnerable to any other...educational practice that claims that it can achieve the same aims faster and better" (Eisner 1999 146). Eisner goes on to discuss three arbitrary tiers of arts education outcomes and further defines four contributions that an education in the arts can be expected to provide. Yet in all of his analysis. it is the fourth set of outcomes that is of the most interest and which he freely admits is the most difficult to measure and assess. These most important outcomes, "a willingness to imagine possibilities; a desire to explore ambiguity; and the ability to recognize...multiple perspectives" seem to be derived from studying artistic creation (Eisner 1999 148) and are, in fact, the true gifts of the arts and ones that can be applied to all areas of human endeavor. Reading Eisner made me feel like Joan of Arts; champion for the protection of the arts for art's sake. I observed from a different perspective and was cemented there...temporarily, until I realized that Eisner in attempting to define why the arts do not improve academic achievement had come full circle to prove that they do just that.

Many opponents claim that there just isn't enough time in the day to include the arts when there are so many other "important" classes to teach. But in the school districts looked at by Dickinson, the most impressive point of commonality between these diverse programs was that their students were spending 25% of their school day in standalone arts classes. (Dickinson) Obviously the arts were adding to and complementing the academic curriculum at these schools but how can the "value" of arts in education be determined? Administrators are looking for and Federal Law requires hard cold facts and figures to provide evidence to support the claims of arts educators that the arts have an instrumental value by improving academic achievement. Results showing academic improvement in schools with a rich arts curriculum are more ethereal than empirical. A strong background in the arts provides for the "creation of opportunities for questioning...and empowering persons to see through multiple perspectives" (Greene). In our technological and scientific world, where the emphasis is on "objectivity, verifiability, and neutrality" (Greene), it is hard to make a case for valuing the immeasurable. How do you measure creativity except by the ideas that it generates? Unlike facts and figures and equations that can be memorized by rout and regurgitated at will, the creative mind and the ideas it generates must be given time to grow. The question here is how can you test for the types of skills that are acquired through a strong education in the arts? Creative thought is what separates us from machines. And, perhaps one day, creative thought will facilitate the development of a way to measure ideas. Teaching the arts is truly learning for the future. There is no test for that. Only a retrospective study a generation from now will be able to measure the real effect.

Is studying the arts in school valuable only for those wishing to become artists? Pablo Picasso answered this question when he said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up." As Dissanayake pointed out art is a crucial part of what makes us human. We are all born with an artistic soul. Watch a four year old "dancing" to music only she hears or coloring a huge mural with only two shades of pink. Artistry is everywhere and so accessible. Children have the capacity to see beauty in the simplest things. A child will observe the sun and draw every picture for weeks with a huge yellow blob gracing the sky. They draw the same pictures over and over again just to illustrate the small differences. Children dance and dance, not needing to turn or to leap to impress their peers but just to move to express their joy. It is beautiful! But by not teaching the arts, we are allowing our cookie cutter, technological society to educate out this innate, fearless creativity. We are becoming a society of people who blindly do what has been done and what is accepted. Support for this idea comes from an unlikely group. An IBM study of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the most important personal characteristic for future business leaders in a world of increasing global complexities (Kern). They have declared that "success requires fresh thinking and continuous innovation" (Kern). It is their belief that creativity that will allow a new generation of business leaders to operate with more dexterity, to disrupt the status quo and existing business models, and most importantly to drive decision making by disrupting what they call "organizational paralysis" (Kern). Creativity may be an inherent aspect of Homo Aestheticus, but as with all things, that which is not used will atrophy. If we do not teach the arts, the capacity for creative thinking will die and there will soon be no one capable of breaking the mold. If we allow education in the arts to die, all that is great about our society will die as well. Without ideas we cannot advance.

As an artist I want to argue for teaching the arts in the schools and, like Eisner, I want to insist that the arts not be diminished during the integration process. There is a grace and beauty in art that has value just because it is. At the same time the arts provide a way to vary the purpose of academic thinking by finding different forms of inspiration. I would never suggest that an art class should take the place of studying calculus. The arts, no matter how brilliantly integrated in our schools will never help a child learn to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But an art class can teach a child to imagine the possibilities of the word. Once we stop trying to make the arts "made to order," we will begin to learn how to truly use them to benefit our children's futures. If we leave arts standards as they are, unfinished and undefined, they will continue to be a distraction instead of a springboard to a brighter future. The arts are an all encompassing field that assists in areas we can't quantify completely. If proof is needed for these programs to grow, then it is imperative that studies be designed to provide the proof that analytical thinkers require.

About The Author

Chloé is entering her senior year at The University of Utah where she is majoring in Modern Dance. She began dancing at the age of four and received most of her early training at Amanda's Dance in Grand Prairie, Texas. In addition to this studio training, Chloé attended the Dallas Independent School System's wonderful arts program where she graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The concept for this paper grew out of her personal observation that despite the long hours devoted to the study of their respective crafts, her peers both in the studio and at school seemed as a whole to excel academically.

Works Cited

D'Agrosa, Esther. "Making Music, Reaching Readers." General Music Today 21.2 (2008): 6-10. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 19 July 2010.

Dickinson, Dee. "Learning Through the Arts." New Horizons for Learning. Web. 18 July 2010. <>.

Dissanayake, Ellen. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1992.

Eisner, E.W. "The Misunderstood Role of the Arts in Human Development." Phi Delta Kappan 73.8 (1992): 591. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 17 July 2010.

Eisner, Elliott W. "Does Experience in the Arts Boost Academic Achievement?." Clearing House 72.3 (1999): 143. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 17 July 2010.

"Ellen Dissanayake". 13 August 2010 <>.

Fowler, Charles. Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling. New York. Oxford University Press, Inc. 1996.

Goldblatt, Patricia. "How John Dewey's Theories Underpin Art and Art Education." Education and Culture 22.1 (2006) 17-34. Project Muse. 31 July 2010. <>.

Greene, Maxine. "Breaking Through The Ordinary: The Arts And Future Possibility." Journal of Education 162.3 (1980): 18. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 July 2010.

Gullatt, David E. "Enhancing Student Learning Through Arts Integration: Implications for the Profession." High School Journal 91.4 (2008): 12-25. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 14 July 2010.

"Harvard Educational Review". 13 August 2010

Hetland, Lois, and Ellen Winner. "The Arts and Academic Achievement: What the Evidence Shows." Arts Education Policy Review 102.5 (2001): 3. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 20 July 2010.

Kern, Frank. "What Chief Executives Really Want." Bloomberg Businessweek. 18 May 2010. Web. 20 July 2010. <>.

Upitis, Rena. "What is Arts Education Good For?." Education Canada 43.4 (2003): 24-27. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 21 July 2010.


1Eric Jensen, the author of Arts with the Brain in Mind, is neither an arts educator nor an artist, but a researcher. Jensen has compiled and reviewed research studies on the arts, the brain, and learning, which has convinced him that the arts are vital to educating our children and should be taught every day in our schools (Harvard Educational Review).

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