IN budget-cutting times, the dire state of the arts in our schools' curriculum reflects as much the public's perception of the role of arts in American culture as it does budgetary constraints. Many Americans feel the study of the fine and performing arts is a nice thing for children - but that study of disciplines such as math and science is more important to prepare for the "real world" of college and work. The arts are often viewed as "frills." Radical as the notion seems, however, serious study of th e arts is one of the best ways to educate a young person for that real world.
The "back to basics" approach that has partly characterized educational reform for the last decade has not produced the results that educators and parents sought. However, research at schools with curriculums that include 25 percent or more of arts courses shows that students acquire academically superior abilities. There is a relationship between learning in the arts and learning in academic subjects, and as we look for answers to the dilemma of improving our schools, the power of the arts as an avenue for learning, "education through the arts," should be considered.
In this post-industrial society what is required of workers at all levels is that they be creative thinkers, problem solvers, able to work well with others and independently. Schools can no longer simply train students for specific tasks; we must educate them in broad skills so they will have the ability to function in any number of capacities. Students must be active learners, know how to work collaboratively, be judicious risk-takers, be able to push for high levels of achievement, and have the courage
of their convictions.
Arts training develops such skills. The student artist (musician, dancer, studio artist, writer, actor) learns by doing. Often in schools students do not do anything. Rather they learn about doing something, or watch someone else perform. The young musician, however, learns by doing, by playing the violin, not by listening to someone lecture about playing. Artists often work in groups, requiring listening, responding, and asserting their own "voices" while supporting the voices of fellow artists. Researc h tells us that one of the most important reasons Japanese education produces such productive workers is not the many classroom hours, rote learning, or longer days, but the fact that children are taught how to work well in groups. Many artists are highly skilled in collective and collaborative work.
Artists take risks and learn from mistakes. The "mistakes," the parts not yet well-executed, tell the artist where they need to work, rather than indicating failure. Working toward mastery of an art form is a life-long process, not something completed on graduation day. Artists know that how well and often they practice has a direct impact on the outcome. They understand that good process is important to a fine product. Artists works for themselves, as well as against an external standard of excellence. Having chosen an artistic pursuit, the student-artist feels a level of personal investment not always found in the classroom. Other characteristics gained from the arts are thinking creatively, acting on one's belief, good judgment, and developing self-esteem.
A distinction should be made between education and training. In American schools for the last century, we have been concerned with training; that is, turning out young people who will perform certain tasks predictably and are assumed to share the same cultural knowledge (the days when a teacher could convey most important cultural knowledge). And in the late l9th century it was not an unreasonable assumption that all important knowledge could be passed along by graduation.
In these times, with knowledge and information expanding exponentially so that no person can finally "know," we should seek to educate - a different proposition. We need to produce young people who can ask the right questions, seek what they need, and learn throughout life - just as they improve their skills and play the violin all their lives.
To speak to the issue of talent, of arts being for a gifted few, it is assumed in the United States that only the "talented" should study the arts. In other countries such as China and Germany, the opposite is assumed: All children can achieve proficiency in music and visual arts, much as we assume that all children can be taught to read (not just "talented" readers). As training, the arts is not offered in most US schools. The talented are never identified nor are students given access to this avenue of
learning. America is full of unidentified talent. In this new century, globally oriented and fast changing, we need artists in all areas and walks of life. "Artists" are people who share these qualities, imagination, capacity to work hard, personal vision, no matter what their occupation. Arts are a necessity, not a frill. To cut the arts is to deny students a whole avenue of learning.