National Arts & Humanities Month was celebrated last month and there were countless events highlighting arts and culture across the country, which is a beautiful thing! Yet funding for the arts continues to be an area where we are deficient locally and as a nation overall.
I love the arts in all its forms, music, theatre, dance and the visual arts. As such I am happy to climb up on my soapbox (by invitation or not) to be an advocate for the arts, especially when it comes to art education in our schools. The arts have a unique way of enhancing our lives, our communities and our humanity because they are such an integral part of our cultural heritage. The arts cannot be learned through occasional exposure any more than math or science can. Education and engagement in the fine arts are an essential part of the school curriculum and an important component in the educational program of every student.
The following are findings reported in Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts (1999) on Learning that should be noted by every parent, teacher, and administrator:
1. The arts reach students not normally reached, in ways and methods not normally used. (This leads to better student attendance and lower dropout rates.)
2. It changes the learning environment to one of discovery. (This often re-ignites the love of learning in students tired of just being fed facts.)
3. Students connect with each other better. (This often results in fewer fights, greater understanding of diversity, and greater peer support.)
4. The arts provide challenges to students of all levels. (Each student can find his/her own level from basic to gifted.)
5. Students learn to become sustained, self-directed learners. (The student does not just become an outlet for stored facts from direct instruction, but seeks to extend instruction to higher levels of proficiency.)
6. The study of the fine arts positively impacts the learning of students of lower socioeconomic status as much or more than those of a higher socio-economic status. (Twenty-one percent of students of low socioeconomic status who had studied music scored higher in math versus just eleven percent of those who had not. By the senior year, these figures grew to 33 percent and 16 percent, respectively, suggesting a cumulative value to music education.)
Even though these findings are not new, funding arts education has lagged and budgets have been cut drastically in many cases. In 2016 Georgia ranked 48 of the 50 states in arts funding according to the National Assembly of State Art Agencies (0.11 cents per capita) and ranks last among southern states (ArtsGeorgia.net). We have a lot of room for improvement.
Why does all this matter? It matters because we live in a global economy where employers now place value on individuals who are critical thinkers, problem solvers, self expressive and risk takers while maintaining the ability to work with others. These are skills that have proven to be exhibited by students with several years of fine arts training at a far superior level over their peers without arts training. The fine arts also provide learners with non-academic benefits such as promoting self-esteem, motivation, aesthetic awareness, cultural exposure, creativity, improved emotional expression, as well as social harmony and appreciation of diversity. These are the very building blocks of our American culture.
Art education is popping up in the most unexpected places. Professionals as varied as doctors and police detectives are taking part in art observation classes. The goal being to sharpen their visual analysis skills and to learn to view a patient’s condition or the scene of a crime more objectively without injecting personal bias. They learn to use their eyes to be better observers and therefore better professionals in their chosen field.
The value of fine arts education as part of the core curriculum is becoming more not less important and essential to the long-term success of our young people. There is room on this soapbox. We need more advocates for the arts who can help influence decision makers of the importance of arts in education.
Carolyn Wright is an Atlanta native and resident of Snellville, Georgia since 1987. Carolyn describes herself as a lover of art, world traveler and a student of life. She and her sister Sylvia Culberson own The LONA Gallery located on the square in Historic Downtown Lawrenceville.