We must ensure that fine and performing arts are an integral part of everyone's education. That's the proposition advanced by two national commissions on the Arts in Education on which I've served - one sponsored by the Education Commission of the States, and the other, by the College Board.
In this era of severe "reductionism" - of taking everything down to its presumed basics and single-mindedly focusing on the most important of these - education in the arts has suffered. Yet there is so little that many non-arts educators and education policy makers really understand about the importance of arts education.
Art education is about far more than learning to draw or play a musical instrument. Numerous research studies have found that kids who are engaged in arts courses do better in their other courses - including the "all important" mathematics and English language arts - than those who are not. But more, arts education develops abilities that aren't addressed in the "core" academic subjects. An 11-minute video prepared by the Arts Education Partnership for its 10th Anniversary in 2005 offers some observations by knowledgeable educators and policy makers on this importance (I'm honored to appear a few times):
So why study the arts? Continuing on the hierarchy of learning lists that I started in Why Study Algebra? and Why Study History?, education in the performing arts develops students' abilities in coordination, teamwork and harmony, and interpretation. The fine arts develop abilities in depiction, dealing with differences, creativity, and emotion. Or, as a professor at the Columbus College of Art and Design once suggested to me, the arts teach us about our soul. And for those who no longer pursue the experiential education of creating art, we can certainly benefit from the personal enrichment and enjoyment of appreciating it.
These are vitally important abilities and understandings in this 21st century. Of course, some may be developed through other educational means. But they probably cannot be developed so readily in students so early in their studies through other disciplines.
A demonstration of these propositions is presented in the achievements of TED Prize winner Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of "El Sistema," a youth orchestra education system that has transformed hundreds of thousands of kids' lives in Venezuela. Just watch and listen for a few moments and you'll be inspired by the virtuosity of poor and middle class kids there in this arts program, in a recent TED broadcast:
As Sr. Abreu states in his TED Prize address: "In its essence, the orchestra and choir are much more than artistic structures; they are examples of schools and of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That's how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem, and foster ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its sense. This is why music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility, the forging of values, and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids." His further observations on the effect of his "El Sistema" music education program "in the personal/social circle, in the family circle, and in the community" are well worth contemplating as we seek to reform education in our own country.
Learning to come together with our differences: Isn't that an educational objective we should insist that everyone achieves? Let's be sure to start with all our kids - and also to remediate ourselves.