Washingtonians are the recipients of a strong, statewide commitment to promote Arts inclusion into our everyday lives; ArtsWA was commissioned by our government to support these ideals in public education. On a national scale, America’s roots go deep as we have long recognized the arts as a healing, galvanizing, soul-nourishing investment in our collective success and progress — perhaps ironically illustrated by the public legacies of “robber barons” like Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller.
In Spokane, WA where I live and teach, a burgeoning Arts movement is enriching our current culture, economy, and connectivity. Non-profits like Terrain , INK Art Space, Spokane Arts, Get Lit, the Spokane Symphony , local theatres , and the MAC have been drawing scores of participants at interactive and viewing events such as Browne’s Addition Concerts in the Park, the 900 Horses Commemoration, Spokane International Film Festival, Laura Read’s city-wide poetry project, and Spokane Throw. Paralleling the downtown mural projects, the mural in my class was student created.
Given this robust history and ongoing public interest, why are we experiencing the tumultuous present debate over whether and how the Arts fit into 21st century public education? The argument that the Arts, an integral part of the Humanities, has little market-place value in a 21st Century economy, and therefore education, is steeped in short-sightedness. The image perpetuated by the “Humanities/Arts are Dead” camp centers on a dusty mausoleum where undergrads hunch over ancient tomes of medieval folklore and French poetry. All the while, in the new science hall, sunshine illuminates students in protective eyewear surrounded by a titillating menagerie of touch screens and whirring gizmos, surely on the brink of the next scientific breakthrough.
Though a false dichotomy, in the face of such graphic contrast, the Humanities just aren’t sexy anymore — by proxy, the Arts also lose their charm. This contrast aims to support the idea that the Arts aren’t viable in today’s technology-driven economy and culture, that only a few Humanities majors will find employment within their field. Indeed, some professionals may specialize in hard-to-come-by, Arts-driven niches like semiology just as one might in myrmecology , a pure science. However, pursuit of education in the Arts or the Sciences holds equal value to the development of a human being whether or not she secures a lucrative career in her general field. And that feat isn’t as dead as nay-sayers purport.
Arts education is such an important topic (especially since it is under fire both openly and subtly, often the first sacrificial lamb slashed from funding, course offerings, and teacher-prep programs) that I plan to tackle it in 3 parts.
Part I (April): Why Arts education must be funded and included as basic education for all students.
Part II (May): Lesson ideas and resources for incorporating the Arts in the content classroom.
Part III (June): “Art Means Business.” STEAM, CTE, & the Maker Movement are natural Art cohorts.
So, let’s dive in: why should we fund and incorporate the Arts as part of basic education for all students?
1. We need the Arts to be human. Public education is all about growing humans. Not robots who can put a peg in the right hole. Not zombies who make money at the expense of character, ethics, or democratic liberties. The Arts allow students unique access to growth. Bob Bryant offers “[t]he following … findings reported in Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning (Fiske, 1999):
- The arts reach students not normally reached, in ways and methods not normally used. (This leads to better student attendance and lower dropout rates.)
- It changes the learning environment to one of discovery. (This often re-ignites the love of learning in students tired of just being fed facts.)
- Students connect with each other better. (This often results in fewer fights, greater understanding of diversity, and greater peer support.)
- The arts provide challenges to students of all levels. (Each student can find his/her own level from basic to gifted.)
- Students learn to become sustained, self-directed learners. (The student does not just become an outlet for stored facts from direct instruction, but seeks to extend instruction to higher levels of proficiency.)
- The study of the fine arts positively impacts the learning of students of lower socioeconomic status as much or more than those of a higher socioeconomic status. (21 percent of students of low socioeconomic status who had studied music scored higher in math versus just 11 percent of those who had not. By the senior year, these figures grew to 33 percent and 16 percent, respectively, suggesting a cumulative value to music education.)”
In essence, the Arts provide unique knowledge and skills needed for a literate, democratic society of people who can balance individuality with community. In my classroom, the Arts help promote empathy, community building, confidence in problem solving, stress coping, civil discourse, critical thinking, focus, attention to detail, and synthesis of knowledge. I don’t consider those “soft” skills in my career or my adult life; they are foundational to who and how I am.
2. “Art Means Business.” That is, study and creation of the Arts engenders a huge array of knowledge and skills applicable to another huge array of vocations, personal pursuits, and senses of purpose. According to the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, “The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience.” The National Endowment for the Humanities and Stanford include the study and performance of Linguistics, Cultures, Literature, Music, Theatre, Fine Arts, History, Philosophy, Sociology, Religion, Law, Journalism, Politics & Civics, Education, Dance, and interdisciplinary studies like archaeology, psychology, human ecology, social science, architecture, business administration, engineering leadership. Most university degrees in STEM require a number of Humanities/Arts courses for good reason: zombies don’t make good leaders whether in their homes, neighborhoods, or vocations. It seems clear that the Arts offer numerous pathways to and enduring skills useful for a gainful career. (I will address counterarguments in Part III)
3. The Arts make us think, feel, and do differently. We are uniquely provoked by art to higher order thinking in a way that engages the mind, heart, and spirit of people individually and collectively. For example, Art literacy and communication fit hand in hand with reflection, mental and emotional health, cultural and ethical aptitude. But how do we measure these abstractions as easily and clearly as we do reading and math in order to determine growth? For that matter, can or should we measure discrete, Arts industry specific skills? It turns out, we can do both. A study conducted by Jay P Greene, et al., out of the University of Arkansas proves mere exposure to art, at a museum and theatre, impacted learning. Greene, et al., report that “[t]he results across our two experiments were remarkably consistent: These cultural experiences improve students’ knowledge about the arts, as well as their desire to become cultural consumers in the future. Exposure to the arts also affects the values of young people, making them more tolerant and empathetic…. Arts experiences boost critical thinking, teaching students to take the time to be more careful and thorough in how they observe the world.” We can reasonably extrapolate that deep learning of art processes, creation and performance, and connections to core subjects will intensify critical thinking skills and insights about life.
What We Can Do to Keep the Zombies at Bay
If we accept the claim that basic education must include Arts for all students, then we can hardly sit back and watch Arts programs and opportunities drift away in favor of rapidly changing technology instruction and more easily measured standards. We must act. Easier said than done, I know. Here are 2 doable ideas to effect change right where you’re at —
- Americans for the Arts, a grassroots Arts’ advocacy nonprofit offers a collation of salient research proving the importance of Arts’ education. Use it to open a dialogue with your legislative, district, and building leaders.
- PBS and Johns Hopkins University also have easy to share talking and writing points about the value of Arts Education.
- The Washington Arts Alliance Foundation has an advocacy toolkit, email alerts, and a FB page.
- AFTA provides a thorough compendium of research based rationales and resources to help guide the why and how of arts incorporation.
- ArtsWA has educator grants and resources.
- Get familiar with the STEAM movement; the resources at EducationCloset include Common Core aligned lesson ideas, videos, podcasts, and a magazine.
- Check out some examples of Arts integration to get your thoughts percolating.
With job market flux as hot, heavy, and ephemeral as a middle school crush, students need lifelong learning, communicating, and being skills more than they need a narrowly job-centric education. The Arts give necessary and unique access to these skills. Michael Werner, ESD 189 Regional TOY 2016, inspired me to stop asking my students “what will you be when you grow up” and start asking “what problems will you solve,” to which I’ve added “and what stories will you expand” — many have embraced this way of looking at their future dreams. I sincerely hope that appreciation, study, and creation of the Arts will enrich and strengthen their problem-solving and story-telling futures.