Stuck in Second Chair: the Impact of Arts Education
With a cursory Google search, it is easy to find endless articles discussing why arts education is important. (You can even look to the bottom of this article to find a few.) Countless studies have been done on the topic, all of which suggest that with increased exposure to the arts, a child’s development is stronger in several critical areas. Whatever the medium, research shows that a child who explores, experiments, and engages with different forms of artistic expression from an early age demonstrates increased capabilities around:
Critical thinking and analysis,
Drawing connections and making inferences,
Empathy and social skills,
And much more.
In short, without the arts, a child’s education is just incomplete. For many, this is not news. (The popularity of Disney’s Encore! series is evidence enough of how childhood art experiences prove formative for adults.) But even so, the importance of the arts is often overlooked or ignored.
In late May, faced with budget shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Randolph Public School District in Massachusetts made the decision to eliminate all art and music teachers for the 2020-2021 school year (link). While this is an extreme case of de-prioritizing arts education, it is not unique. Even in stronger economic times, when faced with the choice of where to curb a budget, schools regularly choose to defund arts programs over other academic programs or administrative costs. Public and private schools alike increasingly face pressure to perform in standardized testing and to build stronger STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs. While STEM education is of course critical for future scientific innovation and for strong childhood development, it often comes at the expense of the arts.
Perhaps such a choice is not unsurprising. Despite the comprehensive research around arts education, the arts are often considered non-essential — an additive to life. When employers look at a resume, they might skip over the listed skills in dancing or photography in favor of skills in Excel or Python. When college admission offices look at a student’s application, they might glance past participation in a school play towards performance in history and chemistry. Similarly, when parents look at their child’s report card, they might pass over art or music and jump straight to math and English. Many parents may also recognize the importance of giving their child a creative outlet, but still interrupt a child playing make-believe to make sure homework is completed. While none of these examples are necessarily problematic by themselves, they are not unfamiliar to many of us and reflect broader priorities around the arts in western society.
In my own life, I have been privileged to have received an excellent arts education which in turn has led to a career supporting arts education in several different ways. I am further privileged to work in a unique educational environment that integrates arts (including visual art, music, dance, and theater) fully into the curriculum for every student. I have seen firsthand here (and in other organizations in which I have been involved) the benefits of the arts to a child’s development. But their importance was cemented for me many years ago in my own adolescence, with a specific memory.
When I entered high school, due to minor scheduling issues, I was ready to leave music class behind and replace it with another course. But with my family’s encouragement (or rather, insistence) that I continue, I soon found myself enrolled in jazz band on trumpet. Soon after, my teacher took me aside, told me that he believed in me and my skills, and that he was assigning me further responsibilities. He said that if I dedicated myself, I would one day be a first-chair trumpet. He went out of his way to give me (as well as my classmates) extra coaching, advice, and opportunities to perform and refine my skills. With his guidance and support, I found a passion for music and artistic expression (and eventually did achieve first chair status). I have been lucky to have many moments since then from many teachers who believed in me, encouraged me, and went above and beyond to help me grow. But I often look back on this moment of initial encouragement as a turning point in my life, when the arts helped shape me into who I am and how I see the world.
As I have become a teacher, I have further been a witness to many other instances of key growth in students’ lives. I have watched students develop confidence in the face of vulnerability onstage, share their artwork proudly on hallway bulletin boards, and learn to feel rhythm and pitch so they can sing in harmony with their peers. I have watched students’ eyes light up when they finally achieve a new dance move or complete a difficult piece on the piano. It is clear in each moment of encouragement and exploration that they have learned collaboration, compassion, openness, curiosity, and resilience. For these students, art is more than an outlet—it is critical to their development as humans and citizens of the world. The identity and self-discovery I experienced as a student myself, I now feel privileged to help share and see in young minds.
But I know that my experience and that of my students is an exception. Especially for families from low-income backgrounds, school is the only place where many students may get exposed to many forms of art, let alone have the opportunity to delve into them and explore. As arts programs are defunded nationwide, countless students are cut off from the opportunity to engage, grow, and develop capacities in all of the ways mentioned above. All children deserve the opportunity to engage with art’s ineffable qualities, grapple with creating something new, and become whole by exploring themselves. Now more than ever, we need strong arts education to build the next generation of compassionate, creative, critical thinkers.
But beyond that, as we face difficult, harsh realities in the world around us and as we try to make that world a better place, we should invest in the next generation of artists because art is not a life additive. The arts—storytelling, honesty, and expression in each of its varied forms—reveal us and make us human. Whether paintings in caves, mosaics in ancient homes, or statues and pottery and stories, art survives history to teach us about ourselves. All children—all humans—deserve to experience humanity through art, to let it teach them and help them grow. When the world seems bleakest, we turn to the comfort of art to re-center, reconnect, and recommit us.
So, whether you sit down with a novel tonight, watch a movie this weekend, or are listening to your favorite song right now, know that it is thanks to arts education that you can experience it. And consider visiting some of the resources below to find ways to give back and pass the gift of art on to the next student who needs it.
Americans for the Arts is an Arts Education advocacy organization that also does best practices research. If you are looking for a way to actively support arts education in the United States, their Arts ActionFund helps fund lobbying and grants via the National Endowment for the Arts.
The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies is another organization seeking funding to protect arts programs across the United States. Check out this link to donate.
If your organization is struggling to maintain their arts programming during this unprecedented time, check out this list of resources compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts.
To learn more about the overall benefits of arts education for societal well being check out this article by Brookings. For more on its benefits for childhood development, check out this article by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, this one by the New York Times, or this one by EdWeek.
For more ways to support arts education, this list of resources provided by the Arts Education Partnership may be a good place to start.
About the Author
Though mainly a musician by trade, Michael is an avid appreciator of all the arts and has a passion for education. Whenever he is (rarely) not teaching, practicing, or sleeping, he loves to write, sing, and help his brother.
Michael has served as Program Manager at an award-winning educational theatre company and is currently on faculty at both a music center and a small independent school in Connecticut. He is a graduate of Vassar College.
For more of Michael's work, check out his writer's page.