Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Case for Arts Education

"We need education that nurtures judgment as well as mastery, ethics and values as well as analysis. We need learning that will enable students to interpret complexity, to adapt, and to make sense of lives they never anticipated." I can imagine that these words from Harvard President Drew Faust might have been input on the keyboard of about a hundred college presidents across the country.

Mastery, ethics, values: check. Enabling students to interpret complexity and adapt to change: check. Enabling students to make sense of their lives: check, check, and check. Sounds like sound education strategy from a moving, thinking, planning, proactive post-secondary corner office. Except, President Faust was not talking of the latest whiz-bang construct from his engineering department or a breakthrough in medical research. He, along with legendary trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, was writing a USA Today opinion piece (Jan. 2, 2014, p 7A) about the importance of arts education.

As examples of the practical lessons that arts teach, they cited music: "... Music stresses individual practice and technical excellence, but it also necessitates listening to and working with others in fulfillment of the requirements of ensemble performance," and they cited visual/performing arts: "... Learning to play or paint, dance, sing or act, means constantly being refashioned, constantly demanding risk."

Too often, when local budgets tighten, the first cuts are in arts education: labeled the  "luxuries" of the classrooms by misguided populists. In secondary schools, Faust and Marsalis noted a steady decline in arts education over the past 20+ years: "In 1982, nearly 66% of 18-year-olds in the US reported taking art classes; by 2008, the number had fallen to below 59%." That's troubling, but what is disgraceful is the practical elimination of credentialed arts classes from elementary schools: "The percentage of elementary school students who had theater or dance classes available to them went from 19% in the early '90s to only 4% and 3% respectively, in the 2009 - 10 school year."

My word.

What kind of education are we giving to a generation by eliminating early and consistent exposure to the fine arts? The lessons lost at that age create deficits in creativity, in discipline, concentration, and self-confidence. The loss is not just in those classrooms, but in all of us. President Faust and Marsalis wrote arts teaching encourages students "to develop understanding of those different from themselves, enabling constructive collaborations across national and cultural origins and identities." Arts are not just self-expression projects on school bulletin boards, but a rhythmic pulse from the best part of being human.

As we consider the basics of education, one of those basics has to be arts education: reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic and 'rts. President Faust and Marsalis summed it well, "As we lament the discordant tone of our national conversation, perhaps we should focus less on that which we can easily count. Let's instead look to the longer run as we teach our children how to practice until it hurts, to bravely take the stage, to imagine, create and innovate and -- after hitting that wrong note -- follow it up with the right one."





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