School Climate & Safety Opinion

Schools and the Arts: An Investment in Civilization

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 12, 2017 5 min read
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A recent Fortune.com article, ‘What Trump’s Proposed Spending Cuts Could Mean for the Arts Economy', raised understandable concerns among those who value the arts. In an effort to streamline the federal government and save money, the arts have found themselves on the chopping block. Whether working in the arts or not, this is very bad news. Looking back, in 1985, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote in the New York Times:

Twenty years ago this week, the Congress passed the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act. The act’s preamble declared that support of the arts and humanities, ''while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, is also an appropriate matter of concern to the Federal Government.’' In enacting this law, which led to the establishment of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, Congress affirmed a conviction that the arts and humanities are vital to the health and glory of the Republic.

He went on to say:

If history tells us anything, it tells us that the United States, like all other nations, will be measured in the eyes of posterity less by the size of its gross national product and the menace of its military arsenal than by its character and achievement as a civilization. Government cannot create civilization. Its action can at best be marginal to the adventure and mystery of art. But public support reinvigorates the understanding of art as a common participation, a common possession and a common heritage.

Well, here we are. The NEA is on the edge of the chopping block with arts, along with many other programs, being devalued as a national priority. So, when a change in administration changes values of a nation, how can values be preserved for the future?

What Students Will Learn Matters
As long as it is allowed and is possible fiscally, schools can make a difference. Now is the time to firmly plant new and deep roots for the arts in our programs and in our communities. The next generation of artists are sitting in today’s classrooms. Their parents are watching the young talent grow and are wondering at how great it might become. This is not only important for those budding actors, painters, writers, set designers, musicians, photographers, and composers, it is important, also, for the next generation of civilians, no matter their role as adults. If we don’t contribute to an understanding of the value of the arts over the course of human history, who will protect them? How will we be measured as a civilization? What will nurture the soul of our nation?

Arts and the Economy
Here are some facts that can help in the argument to support the arts. The arts are not only creative juice of a nation; they do, in fact, contribute to the economy. In that article from Forbes.com .

The Bureau of Economic Analysis recently released that attempts to put a dollar amount on the arts economy and its impact. They found that arts and cultural production contributed more than $704 billion to the U.S. Economy -- this accounts for 4.2% of the United States GDP and is greater than the contributions of the construction ($586.7 billion), transportation and, warehousing ($464.1 billion) industries.

According to that study, as of 2013, more than 4.74 million people were employed in arts and culture economy.

What is the Focus?
Don’t allow a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, college and career readiness and graduation rates to distract. The efforts that educators pour into opportunities for students to develop as learners and thinkers, as communicators, critical and creative thinkers, and as collaborators, all call for the contributions of the arts to 21st century learning.

Colliding Worlds
It is easy for attention to be drawn to budgets and staffing and to standardized testing. Don’t allow it. Artist Paul Klee clarifies, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” Art is more than a painting or a performance. It is a means to create understanding and to reveal the common human experience. With the artist’s invitation, we find ourselves able to walk for a moment in another’s shoes and be changed, if we want. Artistic and scientific genius can, and often does, arise at the same time. We draw from an example is in the last century. Two creative geniuses experienced the most creative periods of their lives from 1902-1909. They were Picasso and Einstein, the artist and the scientist.

Miller, author of Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art reports that later, in1915 Von Doesburg, a Dutch artist, looking at artist Mondrian’s work said

“There are ‘made’ laws, ‘discovered’ laws, but also laws - a truth for all time. These are more or less hidden in the reality which surrounds us and do not change. Not only science but art also, shows us that reality, at first incomprehensible, gradually reveals itself, the mutual relations that are inherent in things.” This was a call for the artist and the scientist to work together to seek the true, unchanging laws of nature that lie in a realm beyond what we can perceive with our senses (Miller, A.I. p. 19).

Poetry and music do the same, and so does literature. Miller concludes we are in a time where we are witnessing a new culture,

...a third culture, in which art, science, and technology will fuse. That implies individuals whose understanding of the world includes a merging of art, science, and technology, a blurring of boundaries on the largest of scales, in which these three disciplines no longer function separately (p. 342).

We cannot prepare students for this world with 20 minutes of ‘art on the cart’ a week, or from an extra curricular opportunity for music, performance, or art that takes place outside of the school day for just some students. Students will lose out if those teaching in classrooms aren’t educated in the intersections of the arts with science, technology, engineering, and math. The arts matter, especially now. With the arts being considered excess baggage on the national stage, schools have a responsibility to invest in the next-gen adults who will understand, value, and promote the arts as they exist and as they may exist in the future. Schools’ investment in the arts is a contribution to our society and it is important work. The arts are central to the human experience. As Viola Davis accepted her Oscar several weeks ago, she spoke about why she became an actor..."because it is the only profession that tells what it is to live a human life.” Shouldn’t schools, and civilizations, place great value on that?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by lachrimae72 courtesy of Pixabay

Miller, A.I. (2014). Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.