Arts have dropped out of the curriculum in most schools around the country,
and more's the pity, I say. Add arts back to the schools and we'd have a
Disagree? What if I told you that arts education might be the key to
training better scientists, or that thinking skills developed by the arts
help build the skills demanded by the economy of the future? What if I told
you arts education can cut juvenile crime rates?
Okay, you say, but if arts programs are so great, why did they get cut in
the first place?
Most got squeezed out during the budget cuts of the 1970s and
1980s. The few survivors got stomped by the reform clamor that followed the
publication of A Nation at Risk, a document that said
American kids' low math and science test scores put this country at risk of
falling behind other industrial economies. The feeling is, with money and
time so tight, we'd better focus on the practical skills--math and
science--that kids will need to compete in the world of work. The arts drop
out because they're seen as frills.
I have one problem with this argument.
If the job market is the measure, why concentrate on math? I took math
through calculus and I haven't used a drop of it in all my working life. If
I go by the math I actually need, I could have stopped in fifth grade.
Science? I can't even remember the formula for velocity (as I tried to tell
that cop who gave me a speeding ticket). And I know enough history to choke
a horse, but what good has it done me?
I'm playing devil's advocate here. Of course math and history aren't frills.
I can knock down the arguments I've made against
them like bowling pins.
It's the skills, stupid. I've rarely (if ever) used algebra in
my daily life, but I have used the skills that learning
algebra gave me, like the ability to think precisely and
solve problems logically.
Just like math, art requires--and develops--key
mental skills, including some that will separate
winners from losers in the job market of the future.
With subjects like history, there's another argument to be
made: A culture is like a conversation. You can't join a
conversation unless you know what people are talking
about, and history and literature are the record of what
we've been talking about.
But again: If that's an argument for history, it's
certainly an argument for the arts. They're a huge
part of our social conversation.
Finally, there's an argument the arts have pretty much to
themselves. They help keep kids in school.
What the arts teach
You can't play guitar by listening to someone tell you how it's done. You've
got to do it yourself. That's a great thing about the arts. They promote
learning by doing.
Almost everyone learns better by doing. The know-how we bag for ourselves
because we want and need it tends to stick; information poured into us like
water into a bottle tends to evaporate.
Any teacher will tell you that different kids have different types of
intelligence and learning styles. According to Howard Gardener's theory of
multiple intelligences, there are at least seven distinct types of
intelligence, maybe more. The mainstream, art-poor school curriculum caters
to students with logical or linguistic intelligence. And the kids in whom
spatial, social, or some other intelligence dominates? They get left out.
Want to Learn More?
Read an argument for the arts in schools by Elliot Eisner, an education
professor at Stanford University. Find out what skills the government
believes people will need in the future. Read Elliot Eisner's Cognition and
Curriculum Reconsidered, Roland Barth's Learning by Heart, or Ernest Boyer's
The Basic School: A Community for Learning.
Incidentally, the different intelligences don't describe what you can learn,
just how you learn. If you're strong in social intelligence, it doesn't mean
you can only learn how to get along; it means you can learn math or history
or whatever best by working in a group. So weaving the arts into the
curriculum is not just about the arts--it's about helping some kids learn
the non-art, supposedly non-frill, subjects better.
Art skills lead to thinking skills
Elliot Eisner, an education professor at Stanford University, has spent his
career studying the mental abilities and disciplines developed by the arts.
Here are a few items from his impressive list:
* The ability to wrestle with problems that have no single correct
answer. (That's most of the problems we'll ever encounter in life.)
* The ability to analyze a problem from many different viewpoints.
* The ability to absorb new information even while immersed in a project.
* The ability to change strategies and even set new goals, if that's what
new information demands.
* The ability to make good judgments in the absence of fixed rules.
* The ability to work with others toward a common goal. (Sports do this
too, but we can't all be athletes. And in theater--or any art--everyone can
be a winner.)
* The ability to imagine what doesn't yet exist. (It's easy to assume
imagination is something you're either born with or not, but actually, like
any faculty, it can be nurtured or neglected, flourish or wither. And if you
want to create something really new, you'd better have your imagination
running, whether you're creating new software, designing a car that looks
nothing like last year's model, or founding the United States of America.)
Arts skills in the world of work
There's a government agency I had never heard of until recently: the
National Skills Standards Board (NSSB). The NSSB studies the job market to
predict what skills will be needed in the future. James Houghton, a recent
chairman of this outfit, says the future will place a premium on people who
have "learned how to learn." Almost any specific skills you have when you
enter the world of work will be obsolete long before you retire, he points
out. What you'll need most is the ability to adapt, switch jobs, and learn
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are probably enough if you want to
produce a nation of competent clerks. But developing leaders, visionaries,
and entrepreneurs? That's another matter. Their job description says "boldly
go where no one has gone before." In the zone where they operate, answers
can't be looked up in a manual or derived by plugging in some algorithm. The
faculties needed in this zone are imagination, judgment--all that Elliot
And how do you get good at stuff like that?
Enter the arts.
Art makes no sense unless Š
I heard about a kid who went to the ballet with his class. Someone asked
him later how he liked it and he rolled his eyes. "They only put one team on
the floor," he complained. "If they'd had another team out there trying to
stop them, they'd have had something."
Now there's a good argument for involving kids in the arts early. If
you've never had much contact with the arts yourself, you may not understand
them enough to appreciate and enjoy. That's just as true for the arts as it
is for baseball.
Want to Learn More?
Take a virtual tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Have a question?
Ask an art expert. Browse some of the world's great paintings. Test your art
IQ with our art quiz. Learn how to become a famous writer.
And the arts must be worth appreciating because we revere them, don't
we? Our museums look like palaces. Our symphony halls and opera
houses--in grandeur, they rank right up there with government buildings and
banks. Judging by our buildings, you'd have to assume what we cherish most
are power, money and ... art.
Not to be crass, but as a society we've got billions invested in high
art, and a lot of it is taxpayer money. So shouldn't we taxpayers get the
tools we need to enjoy this stuff?
Art and money
There's another side of the coin. Art isn't just the hoity-toity stuff
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's everywhere. It's in the air we
breathe. And let's not kid ourselves: It's thoroughly braided into the
It's just that we don't recognize a lot of it as art.
I'm talking here about a broad definition of art: Art is any effort to
create something aesthetically pleasing or expressive. Never mind whether it
succeeds or fails.
Taking the broad definition, how much art can you see, taste, and hear
right from where you're sitting?
In my case, I'd have to start with my clothes. Some might not call my pants
art, but I had choices and I chose this pair because I thought it looked
good. And it didn't get this look by chance; someone designed it. On my
T-shirt, there's a colorful logo. Someone painted that. My feet are resting
on a gorgeous little carpet--someone made it. My dining room chairs are
nothing special, but when I look closely I realize they have interesting
curves made of bent wood, and the rails have been turned on a lathe. Then
there's the lamp. And the candle holder on the wall. And the wall itself,
which is done in a rough-plastering style that is supposed to be "a look."
It's all art, and creating it was somebody's job.
Artists don't always wear berets. When you think art, think movies. Think
television. Think music. Think power lunches cooked by celebrity chefs.
Think software. What do you hear about the best new computer games? "Cool
Web pages. Advertising. Products of every stripe. The packages they come
in. Billboards. Labels.
In fact, just about everything we see or touch in daily life has an arts
component. Bridges are beautiful. Houses are designed not just to give
shelter but to look good too. In California, the entertainment industry
contributes more than $25 billion to the state economy and employs over
Let movies, music, and entertainment software into your definition of
art and you're talking about a big chunk of America's exports, not to
mention our cultural power (for better or worse) across the globe.
So if this nation's really at risk, should we cut the arts?
The arts and at-risk kids
"I don't know if the correlation has been studied scientifically, but as
arts programming has been vanishing from the schools, the dropout rate has
been going up."
That's Ruth Mankin talking. She's the local education director of a
nationwide outfit called Young Audiences, which books artists into schools.
Actually, Ruth, those studies exist. Experience proves that the arts are
indeed a powerful tool for pulling at-risk kids back from the edge. These
are the kids getting rotten grades, flirting with drugs, hovering around
gangs, cutting class, and generally sliding toward the chute that empties
into a life of poverty punctuated by prison.
The government says there are more than 4 million at-risk children in
Teenagers and preteens account for 18 percent of all violent crime in
the United States.
We spend $7 billion a year incarcerating young offenders.
Want to Learn More?
Get arts lesson plans, resources, links to artists who have programs for
the schools, and other arts education information from the Getty
Foundation's Art Education Web site. The Young Audiences New York chapter
has information about chapters around the country. Explore youth programs
offered by the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Get detailed reports from the
U.S. Department of Education or read a report on arts education published by
the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and Americans for
What are we going to do about all this? Ideas abound. At one extreme is the
"juvenile boot camp" concept: Put the bad seeds in an army-camp setting,
make them get up at dawn and work hard all day, and punish them if they
don't follow orders. Surprisingly (to me), this approach seems to work with
Seems and some, however, are key words.
Kindler, gentler plans such as "midnight basketball" score better numbers.
But the hands-down winners of the numbers game are "community-based arts
education programs," which have been popping up around the country recently.
* The Ulster-BOCES Alternative School in Tillson, New York, is a "last
chance" school for truants and dropouts--kids who just won't go to school.
In 1992 this school added an aggressive arts education program to its
curriculum. Since then the school's graduation rate has nearly doubled--to
* In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild provides
a program in which professional artists offer classes in ceramics, music,
and photography for at-risk kids. Eighty percent of the kids who attend
these classes go on to college.
* In Fort Myers, Florida, the courts route some at-risk preteens into an
arts education program called STARS. The kids take classes in dance,
singing, and creative writing. It costs the taxpayers $850 per year per kid.
Exorbitant, you say? Compare and save: The typical "juvenile boot camp"
costs about $28,000 per kid. When you consider that communities served by
STARS have seen a 27 percent drop in juvenile crime, that's a downright
If art is such good medicine downstream from the schools, where the
dropouts accumulate like flotsam against the gratings of prisons and
probation programs, why not plug in some arts upstream, in the schools
It's happening, in a scattered way. San Francisco has a School of the
Arts. So does Denver. Washington, D.C., has something similar. These are all
schools in which arts and academics are interwoven.
Guilford County, in North Carolina, has added arts back into the
curriculum at its 14 high schools, and they've found that students who
participated in the cultural arts programs had higher GPAs, better
attendance records, and a dropout rate of zero. Students who had no
involvement in the arts had lower everything and a dropout rate of 7.2
So why aren't educators scrambling to get the arts into the core
curriculum? I think it's because the arts sound like too much fun, so they
get no respect. It's the old if-it-tastes-good-how-can-it-be-medicine
I was talking to a guy named Vaughn about arts programs for juvenile
offenders. He would have none of it. "If a kid steals a car," he said,
"that's grand theft auto and the kid should be punished. Don't tell me an
eleven-year-old doesn't know it's wrong to steal a car. And the punishment
has to be swift and automatic, like getting burned if you touch a hot stove.
Otherwise, the kid grows up thinking that's how it works: If you steal a
car, you get to play with clay."
Now the counterpoint. Suppose two kids steal a car on the same day. Kid A
goes to prison for two years; kid B goes into a two-year arts program. Kid A
spends his two years sullenly pumping iron in the yard. Kid B spend his time
learning piano and painting murals.
Now two years have passed, and both kids are out. You're on a dark street in
a big city at night. Someone is strolling in your direction. It's one of
those two kids.