Education Opinion

The ‘Imperative’ of Arts Education

By Thomas H. Kean — March 01, 1989 5 min read

While a back-to-basics movement has figured prominently in the reform agenda of recent years, one “basic” has not been taken along for the ride on the bandwagon: arts education.

Our children can only suffer from schools’ inattention to the performing arts, literature, visual art, and design. Sound training in these areas can not merely enrich their educational experience but also help prepare them for careers in the economy of the future.

In New Jersey, we are re-evaluating arts education and working to find ways to better incorporate it into the school curriculum. To this end, the state legislature has created a 22-member Literacy in the Arts Task Force.

A report released last spring by the National Endowment for the Arts--"Toward Civilization"--reached the unsettling conclusion that “basic arts education does not exist in the United States today.”

The arts have often been dismissed as but another educational frill, little more than an entertaining diversion from ordinary classroom fare and perhaps even a contributing factor in the decline of public education.

To many ears, “arts education” harks back to the permissive educational environs of the last few decades. It sounds a bit too “touchy-feely"--too dependent on ill-defined criteria of personal response--to fit comfortably in the stern vocabulary of current education reforms.

No doubt the skepticism of many Americans toward arts education is born of personal experience. Too many of us can remember classes in which art meant learning a simple tune on the recorder or making a macrame potholder for our mothers. And we can all recall English classes in which studying literature meant reading the occasional novel or poem and certainly never included creative writing of our own. Though such experiences are more a symptom of the problem we face than a critique of arts education, they hold sway over parents and educators alike.

But Americans’ distrust of arts education runs deeper than personal experience. As a people, we have always had a no-nonsense attitude toward education. The mission of the public schools in our democracy has been to provide young Americans with the basic tools for citizenship and employment.

While continuing to sing the praises of the three R’s, we have gradually expanded this mission. Today, we expect our schools to teach technological literacy, prevent drug abuse, and even educate students about aids. But the potential of the arts to contribute to the basic goals of our public schools has always been discounted.

What, then, makes the arts so important? Why dedicate scarce time and money to their history, performance, and appreciation when children are struggling to learn how to read and write, add and subtract?

Perhaps the foremost reason, in this competitive age, is that people who can communicate through the subtleties of the arts will have the skills and understanding that our 21st-century economy will require. The thespian will move from the stage to the boardroom with the self-confidence and range of intellect so vital to both. The engineer who has studied painting will grasp the “utility” of beauty in a world of increasingly sophisticated design. And the talented writer will stand astride our information age.

Creativity and expressiveness will be valuable commodities in an economy that places a premium on adaptability. As a recent report on “workplace basics” put it, “Increasing0ply, skills such as problem-solving, listening, negotiation, and knowing how to learn are being seen as essentials.” The “frill” of art may well provide the best career training a solicitous parent could hope for.

But the arts offer more than good job training. They have a unique capacity to capture and express human experience; what unites them is their power to convey truths about life that escape the probing eye of social and natural science.

Art makes us feel. It adds meaning to our lives by vividly evoking those qualities that our civilization holds dear: beauty, courage, justice, liberty, love of family and country. And it points out our failings when we fall short of these standards. The arts are part of the glue that binds one generation of Americans to the next and the whole American experiment to the enterprise of Western civilization.

Our moral and ethical traditions are exemplified in our art. Dozens of courses explicitly dedicated to ethics cannot approach “Macbeth” for conveying the nature of ruthless self-promotion, cannot approximate Rupert Brooke’s poetry for capturing the grim reality of war, and cannot match Norman Rockwell’s prints for teaching the simple lessons of American life.

Art allows us to ask those questions that have forever occupied humankind. We can ponder our ultimate destiny on the back of Melville’s Moby Dick, in the intent gaze of Rodin’s “Thinker,” or on the weary feet of Dante’s pilgrim in “The Divine Comedy.” As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”

By nurturing the creative impulse in our schools, we can ensure that our artistic tradition will continue. And in doing so, we will give our children skills and sensitivities that are simply not to be found in diagramming a sentence, doing long division, or dissecting a frog.

Art also serves as an ambassador of understanding, both within our diverse nation and among the nations of the world. If the plays of Arthur Miller give us a glimpse into American character, can we not learn about the Japanese from their Kabuki theater? If the colorful murals of the barrio can convey the rhythms of Hispanic life in the United States, should we not study the solemn visages of Russian Orthodox icons and the cold, mechanistic aesthetic of Soviet propaganda posters to know the Russians better?

New Jersey’s task force--composed of educators, artists, and administrators--will develop a model arts curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade and seek ways to provide the money and teachers that expanded arts education will require.

We have a long way to go--in New Jersey as in the rest of the country. But our goal is worthy of the other educational reforms we have seen in the last several years.

Artistic literacy is no less an imperative than general literacy. As Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and chairman of the New Jersey Literacy in the Arts Task Force, has so aptly put it: “Now, more than ever, all people need to see clearly, hear acutely, and feel sensitively through the arts. These skills are no longer just desirable. They are essential if we are to survive together with civility and joy.”

We all must share Mr. Boyer’s sense of urgency. The appeal of the arts is universal, their purpose is clear, and they deserve a place in our schools.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1989 edition of Education Week