Symposium challenges Americans to reappraise their value of art

Education in the arts may or may not lead to higher math scores, but the skills it does foster are just as necessary, panelists say.

by Nicky Penttila

November 15, 2007

Many Americans think the nation’s schools are not preparing young people to thrive in the 21st century, according to national polls. But part of the remedy—teaching the arts—has been shunted aside at many schools, said panelists at an arts education symposium Nov. 1 in Washington, D.C.

“We need to return art to schools,” not just to foster a few talented artists, but to create people who think like artists, feeling free to experiment and learn from mistakes, for example, and who work like artists, with focus and diligence, said Boston educator Stephanie Perrin.

“The arts in school have been declining for decades,” said Perrin, who has been head of Walnut Hill School, the oldest secondary school for the arts in the nation, for the past 25 years. And while the education legislation called “No Child Left Behind” supports study of the arts as a strategy for success, she said, its focus on testing chiefly math and literacy has unintentionally driven many educators to cut arts programs.

But workplaces of today and in the future need people who can do more than read instructions and manipulate numbers, Perrin said; today’s children will need to imagine and innovate, “abilities necessary in a global economy driven by creative problem-solving, flexible thinking and entrepreneurship.”

Part of the reason arts is undervalued is the perception of “art” as a frill, something you might do if you could afford it after the important things are done, said Richard Deasy, director of the Arts Education Partnership, a coalition promoting arts education. But when pollsters ask people what is most important for schools to do for their children, Deasy said, responses include teaching them not only to read and cipher, but also how to use their imaginations, to innovate and create, to give them a sense of self-capacity and vision. People don’t use the word “art” when they answer such questions, but these capacities are best taught through the arts, he said.  

Say a woman’s daughter is learning to play the piano, Deasy said: “She’s learning to be persistent by practicing, she’s learning to be resilient, and she is learning to focus closely and to pay attention. What parent doesn’t want that?”

Complementary benefits

One thing arts educators cannot yet do is say beyond a doubt that arts education will improve math and literacy scores, said Ellen Winner, a professor at Boston College who does research on arts education through Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. But one does not expect such subjects as history or physical education to do that, either, she argued; experience in the arts brings its own rewards, including another way to look at the world that complements the scientific method of other classes.

“Our studies found that arts education teaches such skills as visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes,” Winner said. “All are important to numerous careers, but are widely ignored by today’s standardized tests.”

Other countries are not ignoring them, Deasy said. Even China, once considered the home of rote-learning, is working to add arts and creative thinking to the curriculum. Many countries never dropped it. The United States is in danger of falling behind the fast-changing worldwide economic and scientific marketplace if it continues to define student success solely by scores on literacy and math, Deasy said.

Today's typical curriculum is especially unhelpful for students who do not learn best by rote or are hard to reach because of language, behavior or other issues, said Lourdes Santiago, principal of Sumner Elementary School in a diverse and growing area of Boston. Adding arts experiences can open windows into such children, helping teachers find ways to best teach them.

“The arts allow you to look at children in different ways,” Santiago said. “I will learn something about each child that will help me understand—and maximize their learning.” Many of Santiago’s pupils come with little or no English, and as they learn it teachers must find other ways to help them learn the content of their other classes.

Healthy outlets

The arts also offer one of the few viable outlets for the energies of adolescence, said panelist Steve Seidel, the director of the Arts in Education program at Harvard. In the 1970s, when he taught high school theater, many of the students he worked with were directed there as part of a juvenile justice rehabilitation program.

“Theater at that time was seen as a viable alternative to crime,” he said, and Massachusetts’ juvenile justice department paid for part of his theater program. “Far too many of my type of students today might well be headed for jail” because state systems do not run such programs anymore.

In addition, many lasting innovations come from adolescents and young adults, Seidel said, citing jazz, blues, rap and hip-hop as styles of music that also have influenced fashion and visual arts and society at large.

“Arts display some of the most positive, profound and lasting accomplishments” of adolescents in a society, he said. “They offer a profound opportunity for young people to contribute. But you don’t take that opportunity if you don’t know about it from a young age.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the closing speaker at the session, echoed Seidel, saying that the current “harsher, more aggressive world” may well be due to the fact that “we’re not giving people opportunities for a gentler world.”

“As the world is exploding into different forces and factors, harshness and brutality, a force that can bring us together in a different way is love of music” and the other arts, he said.

“I know we will better equip the next generation of Americans to find their own voice, express their passions and dreams for themselves and our country, to lead by extraordinary example and to inspire the best in all whom they meet.”