Author: Teagan Milford (Moderate Democrat)
Nineteenth-century scholar, philosopher, and psychologist John Dewey wrote, “If I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education, I should say: ‘Cease conceiving of education as a mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life.” In today’s educational climate, many students feel disengaged in a public school system that seems to prioritize test scores over mental health, safety, and intellectual engagement. There is so much emphasis on the future, whether college plans or career choices, and not enough focus on education for the now, which produces students with a mastery of high-level calculus who have no idea how to communicate their emotions. The solution to this crisis is as old as human history itself and lies in two words: arts education.
While the US education system has made some improvements to implement more problem solving and creative thinking exercises, specifically through legislative actions like the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) and aspects of the Common Core curriculum, there is still room to grow. Systems exist to measure college or career readiness but not preparedness for significant non-economic aspects of life, like mental health and life satisfaction. Based on past school budget cuts and the current state of the economy, arts education in schools is not a priority for most. Some view art as a luxury that we simply cannot afford, while others see it as a frivolous waste of time. Too few people understand the benefits of arts education as a means of teaching well-adjusted, solution-oriented students.
Before we begin discussing arts education and its benefits, we have to visualize the cracks in the current US education landscape. According to the American Test Anxieties Association, approximately 16-20% of students experience “high” to “severe” test anxiety due to feelings of extreme pressure in standardized situations, and this percentage is rising with time. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that approximately 6.1 million children, or 9.4% of US students from 2-17 years old, have been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These are children who often experience difficulty focusing on mundane classwork and reading silently. And roughly 3.2% of children, or 1.9 million, are diagnosed with depression. Many students cope with these mental disorders, and more, in a monotonous and overly standardized education environment. In other words, millions of students in the United States receive a lesser education because of untreated mental health crises and unfit classroom conditions.
Now, it may sound like I’m just going on a tangent. What does arts education have to do with mental disorders? More than you would think. Art, when created for art’s sake, has no rules. The details do not matter as much as the communicative abilities of the piece as a whole. This is why abstract paintings can evoke feelings from an audience; despite having no true subject matter, the colors and composition of the piece strike the emotional chords of the viewer. Exposing children to a medium that has no “right” answer, as opposed to strict one-answer-only tests, allows students to learn to not fear failure. According to Dr. Kerry Freedman, arts education researcher, professor of the arts, and co-Chair of the Art Education Research Institute, who explains in her article Rethinking Creativity: A Definition to Support Contemporary Practice, creativity is “the concept of freedom” that “involves critical reflection.” Dr. Freedman states that thinking creatively and acting on such creativity allows students to hone in their feelings of discontentment and help them convey their “concerns and passions.” In art, as with life, there is no correct answer, so people benefit from effective means of self-expression to help them find success, prosperity, and fulfillment.
Adding arts to education does not require any fancy buildings, materials, or art specialists, though those certainly would help if available. Teachers on the creative platform Tik Tok, or “TeachTok,” if you will, share their inventive ways of integrating arts into the classroom, especially in elementary and secondary schooling. Some examples include dancing to remember geometric figures, sparking discussion using interactive lecture styles, acting out historical events, and writing songs to remember the branches of the US government. These are inclusive, engaging means of education and tend to improve students’ memories of target topics. Youki Terada, who holds a Master’s Degree in Education, writes that active engagement with information reinforces remembrance of the information because “it forces students to grapple with what they’re learning and reconstruct it in a way that makes sense to them.” Applying information to the arts requires students to think critically about the information being presented rather than just passively reading, writing, or hearing it. By encouraging students to be active learners and absorb material in ways that make sense to them, we develop students that are problems-solvers, critical-thinkers, and most importantly, well-rounded individuals.
In addition to its social and emotional value, arts education has economic value. Students who dropout of school often face difficulty in the job force and must settle for low-paying positions. However, students who graduate in a timely manner may seek higher education or a more meaningful, well-paying job position. The correlation between arts education and graduation rate is clear. One study reports that arts involvement increases graduation rate by 5 times, while another finds that students with arts education are 29% more likely to earn a four-year college degree as a young adult. According to LinkedIn, the number one most sought after skill in 2020 is creativity. And like any skill, creativity takes practice. By encouraging children to explore different means of expression and communication, art exercises the mind to foster more inventive, out-of-the-box ideas. Even the College Board, a well-respected college preparation organization, recognizes the arts education as important for success. As of the 2019-2020 school year, the College Board offers creativity-based Advanced Placement courses including 2-D Art and Design, 3-D Art and Design, Art History, Drawing, and Music Theory. Including these courses among subjects like Comparative Government, Microeconomics, Statistics, Biology, Chemistry, and the like legitimizes the role of arts in academics.
The coronavirus forced approximately 50 million students to social distance and to do virtual schooling in the spring of 2020, based on the National Center for Education Statistics fall 2019 reports. When considering public school budget cuts, arts education is often the first to go. The combined stress of economic downfall, online schooling, and a decrease in public school investment will deprive many schools of arts and cultural education. For example, the original 2021 fiscal year budget for New York City involved an almost 70% reduction of its budget for arts education in public middle and high schools. The arts education advocate group Arts are Essential protested the budget cuts, stating the arts as a necessary tool for expression especially in times of crisis, which caused Mayor De Blasio to return the funding for arts education in NYC. However, most communities do not have the same degree of public outcry for the arts. Cuts to arts education funding impact schools in poor and/or rural areas, which may already have scant exposure to culturally significant education. This is despite studies like The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth study (2012) that reported improved grades, higher rates of college enrollment, higher career aspirations, and increased rates of civic engagement among students of low socioeconomic status who received high arts involvement education. Students should not be penalized for coming from low-income areas by experiencing little or no cultural education in their curriculum.
Rather than thinking of arts education as a luxury or an irresponsible use of public funding, we should think of arts as a tool. It’s a tool for personal wellness and professional growth, and let’s face it, art makes life a little less boring. And if I haven’t convinced you yet, let me leave you with this: during the months of chaos and fear and stay-at-home orders, what did you turn to? My guess is movies, books, television shows, music…all of which would be impossible without artists. So before you discount art as something we cannot or should not teach, think about a world without art and ask yourself if that’s a world you want to live in. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t.
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