Opinion: Now is the time to push for arts in schools

With uncertain times because of COVID-19, music, art and theater can help students make sense of this ambiguity and invites them to explore new knowledge.

Students doing crafts at a pre-k center in Flushing Meadows.

Students doing crafts at a pre-k center in Flushing Meadows. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Why don’t we take arts education seriously? Traditionally, verbal and quantitative subjects such as reading and math make up the core of what we consider a basic education while the arts are of secondary importance. This dichotomy becomes stark when educational resources are limited. Arts are often the first to be cut.   

Throughout history, civilizations have debated the existential value of arts and arts education to a functioning society. Our global journey includes examples such as the griots of West Africa passing the history of their communities from generation to generation through memory, music and oral traditions and the ancient Greeks’ emphasis on poetry and drama. In the western hemisphere, early practical philosophers believed the purpose of education was to produce an individual with a sound mind and a sound body to better serve society. In colonial America, the importance of arts to a quality public education was noted by Benjamin Franklin in his Proposed Hints for An Academy. “It would be well,” he wrote in 1747 Philadelphia, “if [students] could be taught every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental.” While early advocates emphasized the practical application of the arts, John Dewey saw a higher significance. Art could be valuable for its own sake because it is an attempt to find light amid a vast darkness. And rarely in recent memory has there existed a time when our children have been in such need of light.

Yet today the arts are often consigned to the periphery of education. Nice to have but not essential. At worst, an unaffordable extravagance. Faced with a budget shortfall in the face of spreading Covid-19 infections, the City of Philadelphia cut its arts budget by 40% last year. Other cities and school systems have faced hard choices amid the pandemic and have made similar decisions to sacrifice the arts. 

But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we live in an uncertain world filled with conflicting information and contradictory inputs. Rarely does life present us with multiple choice problems. Far more often we face a clean page, a blank canvas, or an empty stage. Rote memorization has utility in an environment of repetitive tasks, but a grounding in the arts helps us make sense of ambiguity and invites us to apply our minds and experiences to the task of creating new knowledge. True innovation is only possible when one’s imagination is engaged, and innovation will be vital for tackling issues our generation cannot begin to fathom. 

To understand truly complex systems, students need a combination of practiced skills and open-ended exploration. Arts teach core skills along with the experience of frequent failure and practiced persistence. The immediate product of this may be a well-executed painting, a resonant composition, or a captivating performance, but the enduring outcomes are resilience and flexible thinking, perhaps the most valuable qualities in an ever-changing and unpredictable world. 

Public education’s focus on verbal and quantitative skills is in some ways a relic of our Cold War competition when the U.S. appeared to be lagging behind the Soviet Union in science education. The Soviet Union’s success with Sputnik and the space race was deemed a threat to America. The country’s response was the passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958.  Emphasis was placed on “hard” subjects like math and science at the expense of arts, drama, music, and dance. The mere fact that students liked the arts was taken as evidence of their relative “softness.” These pursuits had little value in existential competition with a geopolitical rival. 

Three decades later, “A Nation at Risk,” a report by the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education, sent shock waves through the nation’s education system. Published during the Reagan administration, it controversially condemned a supposedly underachieving American education system. Regimented approaches to the three “Rs” were in; the critical exploration, imagination and problem solving engendered by the arts were out. From Sputnik to the report, the country’s resulting educational remedies were reactionary responses to a perceived threat of mediocrity instead of a forward-thinking approach that correctly valued arts education as a fundamental necessity.  

An array of research shows that studying and engaging in the arts stimulates social and emotional growth in young people; it strengthens and enhances cognitive, motor and problem-solving skills; it boosts academic achievement as well as college preparedness; it catalyzes the power of individuals to challenge, change, and connect by exposing them to other cultures while at the same time encouraging them to more deeply discover their own. Our own research at New 42 reveals that a combination of theatergoing and in-classroom arts education expands perspectives and interpersonal skills that strengthen teamwork; inspires creative thinking that encourages innovation and problem solving; and, perhaps most excitingly, nurtures hope and improves self-confidence that fosters optimism and resilience.

The transformative self-empowerment that is the byproduct of a good arts education cannot be underestimated. By bringing arts to kids and kids to the arts, we help ensure that the arts, an intrinsic engine for our city, will be a vital factor in its recovery and future.

Supporting arts education at a meaningful level is critical, not just in order for the arts to survive and thrive, but also in order to ensure that our children do. For far too long we have talked about the importance of arts to a quality education. As the Adams administration prepares to take office, the time is now. It is up to all of us to hold this leadership accountable. Let’s make our voices heard. Let’s push our new leaders to commit to change the course of our children’s futures.

Russell Granet is President & CEO of New 42 & New Victory Theater.

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