Arts education for all or some?

I wrote the post below in response to questions posted by the editor at National Journal.com Education Experts blog on Secretary Duncan’s push for more arts education in schools. Here’s part of what she asked and my thoughts:

What is an “arts-rich” school? Is arts education really so critical?  (Duncan himself hammers on the need for more scientists and engineers.) Is it possible to quantify the benefits of arts education? Can arts education be incorporated into math and reading curricula or vice versa? Are some arts “richer” than others? What is the future of art education?

The real question is not whether arts education is important, but who deserves it. With so much attention rightfully focused on improving the quality of education in low-performing, high-needs schools [translated: schools that serve poor students and/or students of color], the prevailing wisdom argues arts education is a luxury. “Get those reading and math scores up, and maybe we’ll allow you the privilege of art classes.” For many years, the art or music class was seen as a holding area for elementary students while their other teachers were on the 20-min break, or as an easy elective for high school students trying to earn the magic number of Carnegie units.

I agree with award winning Alabama teacher Anne Jolly:

Not offering the arts is as much discrimination as not offering math or reading. Some of our children with the richest talents may never have an opportunity to express them. The arts (including exposure to a wide variety of music and art styles) should not be reserved for the more affluent folk who can afford to enroll their children and transport them to classes after school.

The association of arts with privilege has a long, ugly history.  The truth is many of our students, sometimes those who are the weakest academic performers, come to school with incredible artistic talents or interests. Every child benefits from exposure to and learning about the arts; for some it could be their calling. Or could have been.

Our youngest daughter loved to draw in a variety of mediums from a young age. By her teens, she was already talking about working in art therapy. But she never had the opportunity to take art at her school, and at the time, we had neither access or funds to get her private lessons.  She entered college an honor student in academics, but convinced she could never compete with other students who had already studied art, and reluctantly chose a less satisfying career course.  How many other children’s dreams and talents have we killed with our twisted notions of who does and does not deserve education in the arts?

Another of my TLN colleagues, Steve Owens, a music teacher argues it this way:

…arts education must be valued for its own sake, not because of some presumed effect on math or literacy. And the arts should not be lumped together, because each brings something unique to the table. The reason we must advocate for the arts is that these are fully human endeavors, things that people do and find value in irrespective of the material conditions in which they find themselves. People were painting on cave walls and performing the Verdi Requiem in a concentration camp!

For those who need more practical arguments and data for the inclusion of arts education in every school, I recommend this recent analysis at Edutopia, Why Arts Education is Crucial, and Who’s Doing It Best, but teacher Bill Ivey sums up the greatest value of all: “The arts open up the world.”

Related categories: