In the United States, arts education is often viewed, as blogger Rick Hess recently put it, as “other stuff"—less critical than reading and mathematics, and less definitively beneficial for students.
But for hundreds of students from poor communities near the Thai-Cambodia border, the arts are framed quite differently: They’re viewed as a way out.
While on a personal trip through Southeast Asia two weeks ago, I saw a performance by a group of young artists in Siem Reap, Cambodia, who are known as Phare: The Cambodian Circus. The hour-long event combined Cirque Du Soleil-style acrobatics, dance, music, visual storytelling, and live painting.
The artists, mainly in their late teens and early 20’s, trained through a nonprofit called Phare Ponleu Selpak, which provides education, social supports, and arts training for students and families in need. The group was started in 1994 by nine Cambodians who had received art therapy while living in a Thai refugee camp as a means of helping them recover from war trauma.
Located in Battambang, the nonprofit now has a public school that serves 750 students, a visual and applied arts school, a performing arts school, a child development center, and a social services unit that supports and monitors about 1,000 families. According to the website, many of the students served are “street kids, trafficked children, and orphans.”
The performance group, Phare, puts on shows nightly in Siem Reap, a major tourist destination. Phare’s tagline is “uniquely Cambodian"—and the description is apt. The performance I saw, Sokha, told the story of a young girl
battling nightmares and visions of the violence she’d witnessed during the Khmer Rouge‘s reign. She eventually overcomes her fears through art and teaching. Not surprisingly, it’s based on the story of the group’s cofounders.
Phare is now touring internationally and, according to the artists with whom I spoke after the show, will likely be in New York City sometime next year.
Images: Liana Heitin for Education Week
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.