Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why The Arts Are As Important As Science Or Math

Harvard professor Ellen Winner is featured in this piece on the importance of the arts in education. I think that this is a beginning, important statement that arts are important to culture regardless of any "non-arts" benefits and that all civilizations are prized on the basis of their art.   Dr. Winner further makes the "creative class" argument, if you will, that art engenders the "artistic creators of the future," as well as the "innovative leaders."  

These are good liberal arguments, but there are clearly other important concerns.  Let's start with equity.  Arts for the wealthy is not in jeopardy while the arts for the poor and disenfranchised is.  Another is fairness.  Art by the poor frequently gets appropriated (stolen) and monetized by the wealthy, undermining the productions of community artists. Relatedly, identity and representation, and thusly, power, politics, and cultural integrity are profoundly at play.   

To justify the arts in liberal terms, risks their portrayal as a luxury when for our communities, these looming issues of equity and fairness make them squarely about survival as our Austin Chican@/Latin@ artists and community are often quick to note.  That is, when your community is constantly subjected to marginalizing forces like gentrification, job insecurity, and poverty, artistic productions are a meaningful, historic way to find a place on the seemingly always contested American landscape and in so doing, to write oneself into history in a way that both honors this heritage and renders it visible, complex, and powerful.
 
Much to consider here. I am happy, in any case, to at least see some attention accorded to this matter, particularly when our arts programs (like physical education) in many of our low-income schools are getting abolished.  This tragedy of policy, politics, and political will symbolizes the ways in which so many of our children are systematically deprived of essential content areas like the arts that breathe identity, intellectual depth, and a sense of what it means to be human, into the curriculum.  For all of this, too, we must continue to struggle.

Angela Valenzuela
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"Cultures are judged on the basis of their arts; and most cultures and most historical eras have not doubted the importance of studying the arts. Let's assume then, that the arts should be a part of every child's education and that they are given serious treatment as is the case with mathematics, or history, or biology. Let's remember why societies have always included the arts in every child's education. The reason is simple. The arts are a fundamentally important part of culture, and an education without them is an impoverished education, leading to an impoverished society. Studying the arts should not have to be justified. The arts are as important as the sciences: they are time-honoured ways of learning, knowing, and expressing." -- Ellen Winner, Lois Hetland et all, "The Arts and Academic Achievement"

With the sciences increasingly gaining in importance, this is an interesting juncture in which to review the state of the arts in education, along with their importance, relevance and influence on students.
"When schools cut short the time reserved for the arts and reallocate the time for some other 'important' subject, they may not just be losing their ability to produce the artistic creators of the future, but also innovative leaders who can improve upon the world they have inherited," say Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, both experts on arts education.
What is the role of the arts in moulding a person? The question assumes great significance today in the backdrop of a culture - including in India -- in which arts are seen as unimportant, perhaps even a waste of time, as compared to 'strategic' subjects. This trend has raised the hackles of education experts across the world, who argue that arts can indeed contribute tremendously to the overall development of a student and should not be ignored at any cost.
According to research, students who study the arts show improvement in their capabilities in other areas as well, including in the sciences, math and reading.
According to various research studies, students who study the arts show improvement in their capabilities in other areas as well, including in the sciences, math and reading. Practicing the arts develop imagination, innovative thinking and creativity, thus adding value to non-arts academic outcomes as well.
However, experts like Ellen Winner point out that it is dangerous to classify arts education as secondary or supplementary in comparison with the "super" non-arts subjects. Doing so puts the arts in a weakened and vulnerable position.
"Arts educators must build justifications on the relevance and significance of these subjects based on what is inherently valuable about the arts, even when they contribute secondary benefits other than purposeful orientation. Just as we do not (and cannot) downgrade history and overrate mathematics, we must not allow policy-makers to justify the isolation or inclusion of the arts for the sake of other academic subject matters," Winner says.
According to Winner, the arts are the only school subjects that have been challenged to demonstrate their usefulness. If we deprioritize physical education and give more attention to science, the results will only prove to be detrimental. Perhaps, with more attention to the potential of the arts to foster transfer (of knowledge applicability in other spheres), we can begin to understand their importance better. But even when the relationships are understood, the justification for arts programmes must be based on their inherent merit.
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Image: www.ellenwinner.com

The arts are good for our children, irrespective of any non-arts benefits. They must be considered as an integral part of a well-rounded education.
The arts can help a person cultivate a way of thinking that is not possible in other disciplines. The same might be said of athletics. What if coaches begin to claim that playing baseball increases students' mathematical ability because of the complex score- keeping methodology? Once researchers put such a claim to test, they will only find that it doesn't hold true. In such a scenario, would school boards take a hard stand against baseball by cutting the budget for the game? Of course not. Because irrespective of the positive academic effects of baseball on students, schools believe sports are inherently good for kids.

We should make the same argument for the arts: the arts are good for our children, irrespective of any non-arts benefits. They must be considered as an integral part of a well-rounded education.
Winner sums it up best in the paper "The Arts and Academic Achievement":
"Let's bet on history. Of course, we do not know for sure what is the best education for children to ensure that they will grow up to lead productive and happy lives. But the arts have been around longer than the sciences; cultures are judged on the basis of their arts; and most cultures and most historical eras have not doubted the importance of studying the arts.
Let's assume then, that the arts should be a part of every child's education and that they are given serious treatment as is the case with mathematics, or history, or biology. Let's remember why societies have always included the arts in every child's education. The reason is simple. The arts are a fundamentally important part of culture, and an education without them is an impoverished education, leading to an impoverished society. Studying the arts should not have to be justified in terms of anything else. The arts are as important as the sciences: they are time-honoured ways of learning, knowing, and expressing."
A version of this article was published in Education Insider magazine

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