Why The Arts are Essential to Your Kids’ Success

And Your Neighbor’s Kids Too.

 The case for the arts needs to be made across the entirety of American culture, but if we don’t plant artistic seeds in the young, the argument is pointless.  

The arts are being squeezed out of the American educational system. Music, theatre, dance, visual, and literary arts are all losing their place in the formation of our next generation of citizens. The reasons given are often financial: there are more demands on schools and fewer resources with which to meet them. There is also our well-intentioned push to measure and quantify student learning with standardized achievement tests, as if all students are clones and we are programing them like computers. Parents feel strapped for cash and time and don’t make the sacrifices required for music or dance lessons.

When arts education is on the chopping block, I hear the objection: “But the arts are important.” It is a throwaway line. Few people articulate why the arts belong in education and that is a shame, because it isn’t a hard case to make. So here’s my purely experiential, non-scientific stab at the case for the arts: Why the arts belong in education; why we need them and how do they serve their students.

Art as Societal Bellwether

496px-Athena_Herakles_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2648      Art is an integral part of who we are and who we’ve been. It is a primary method of recording and reading history. It reflects the general psyche of a place and time. The Renaissance fascination with all things Hellenic is reflected in the architecture, sculpture, and paintings of the era. The ennui and cynicism of Fin de siècle Europe is observed in the art of that time.

Looking through this window into history- we see the micro impact of huge historical events on individuals (the artists) and whole societies (how the art was received.) How much richer is the study of history when it is studded with songs, paintings, and literature of the people affected by the actions of governments and nations?Picasso: Guernica

We spend thousands on public art projects to charm and invigorate public spaces. In the US, the Kennedy Center honors influential artists of our nation annually. Foundation and government grants pair with private donations to fuel every major orchestra, ballet, opera and art museum in the country. Tourists all over the globe visit museums full of artistic cultural artifacts and seek out local art and music in order to get the flavor of a place.

Awareness of art’s significant influence on society makes us more critical of the art we want in our society. Anyone who thinks that violent song lyrics and misogynistic advertising are inconsequential doesn’t know art or history.

The Art of Persuasion

Elementary school textbook, 1971. Notice the use of pen as bayonet.

Elementary school textbook, 1971. Favorite bit: the use of pen as bayonet.

When we understand history and art’s role in it, we exert some power of discernment over the propaganda, advertising, and media that bombard us. Governments know the power of the arts- Soviet and Chinese communists spent a lot of energy and ruined a lot of lives trying to control it. Art had to meet Soviet standards for promoting communism. In Maoist China, artists who were permitted to create were those that toed the party line. Others were silenced (in any number of ways,) or sent to “re-education” camps. In the US, we once closely scrutinized and threatened artists we suspected of harboring communist sympathies. I doubt we would have bothered if we didn’t think them influential people.

Canadian WWII Poster      Politicians carefully consider the music they will use on the campaign trail, trying to set just the right tone and make all the helpful inferences that a piece of music carries with it. Advertising has put cash in many a jingle writer’s pocket. Visual artists create graphics to encourage everything from buying war bonds to drinking brand name soft drinks. Multiple artistic professionals are employed to sell the latest earworm of a song from the pop star of the moment (a melding of capitalist and artistic aims, not that they are mutually exclusive.) Songs motivate and give voice to social movements from the French Revolution to American civil rights.
Persuasion and motivation are, most often, emotional pursuits, despite our delusions of being rational creatures.  The arts are the tools to manipulate the heart. Knowing this, we may still be taken in, but we will know the forces at work. It makes us harder targets and we are better equipped to use the arts of persuasion to our own advantage and to the advantage of causes dear to us.

Fluency in the Languages of Human Expression

In order to benefit from art, we must know its vocabulary and have some basis from which to approach it. Most of us have perfunctory reactions to art we see or hear, even if we don’t know why. But knowledge deepens understanding of any subject.

If I had not been forced to study poetry, I wouldn’t know to consider the words that are left out as much as the ones that are chosen. There are mime gestures in ballet that function as sign language but I am wholly ignorant of their meaning, so I barely notice them. I often hear people not trained in classical music say that they find it relaxing. That is not my experience because I know its language. I know the aural vocabulary of consonance and dissonance, and some of its history. I hear detail and technique. I glean more because I know more.

Education in the arts teaches the languages of human expression, enabling us to not only understand others, but to better communicate our own ideas, both of which are important to the individual and to the health of greater society.

Know Thyself

Art (visual, performing, and linguistic) is communication. The arts are apparatus for communicating delicate and 364px-Van_Gogh_-_Trauernder_alter_Mannnuanced ideas, emotions, and experiences. They convey meaning at deeply human levels- levels that may not have words, or visuals, or sound, but are real and part of who we are and how we experience this shocking world. I have been moved to tears by a carefully composed photograph, been challenged by a painting, dug through a poem until I found a nugget of understanding, and had my mood changed by a song.

In order to communicate in any medium, I must examine and know my own mind. I must discover what it is that I want to convey. Creating artful expression forces me to first know myself better by seeking that clarity of mind.  I must isolate the idea I am trying to bring into the world, figure out how to present it, and make plans to build it.

Art is a safe place in which to do this work of self study. It offers a space to test ideas and affects, a space to express thought, a space to untangle ideas, and a space in which to safely experiment with modes of being. In the words of the composer and secular saint, Mr. Rogers: “[Art] is a way, that doesn’t hurt you or anybody else, to say who you are and how you feel.” What young person would not benefit from such exercise?

Honor the Other

Once I know my mind, I must consider the other- the audience. Who is my audience? What is their frame of reference? What do they need from me in order to understand my purpose? Effective communication requires me to honor my audience, increasing our mutual understanding.

That isn’t to say that effective art always results in the artist and consumer coming to harmonious conclusions. Far from it, but it does mean that artist and audience have both considered each other, possibly gleaning insights into themselves and one another. Society would be better if we made a habit of studying the frame of reference of others, instead of just trying to prove ourselves more right than someone else. Maybe the US Congress should be forced to play chamber music.

Discovery and Problem Solving

The imaginative skills required for making beautiful music and effective literature are the same skills for creative problem solving in the rest of life. Life is full of opportunities for a facile mind to find ways around problems, from organizing a home, to making a dollar stretch, to marketing a business.

Making art, like doing science, teaching, or plumbing, is full of problem solving. It is all about finding ways of bringing ideas into the world, a world full of rigid considerations. Art is always created within constraints. Children get frustrated when watercolors run into each other on a saturated page, or play dough refuses to have the rigidity and spring required to make usable fairy wands. Learning to work around and within a framework is where human creativity is at it’s best. Creative problem solving is the stuff of invention, and it bears all of our technological and much of our scientific progress.

A feat of creative problem solving. And then we paint it red, because it is awesome.

A feat of creative problem solving. Then we paint it red, because it is awesome.

Creative people find multiple approaches to a problem. They see connections where others’ haven’t and they discover new solutions to old problems. Developing a powerful creative process requires a good amount of practice. The arts, with their disparate mediums, styles, and skill sets, are stimulating places to begin resolving dissonance between a mental goal and the hard realities of materials and the limitations of one’s own skills.

Grit: More Powerful Than Talent

Art requires high-level skills to be effective and satisfying and these take work and time to acquire. My children are dissatisfied when the eyes on a face they’ve drawn don’t match, or they can’t play a piano piece as fast as they’d like. They already have an ideal in mind, but their skills don’t yet match up.

This mismatch can be powerfully motivating. People work hard for things they really want, and if a child’s mind is captured by an artistic ideal, they may be convinced to work diligently toward the goal. And diligence is what it will take. There are no shortcuts when it comes to building skill.3602584451_a3b9222310_m

Desire for skill does not mean that they will always work joyfully and willingly. They will want to give up when it gets hard, like any normal person. That is where teachers and parents come in- people who can see the end game, people who already know that to give up is the surest way to fail, and who know that perseverance is one of the hardest skills to instill.

The wonderful thing about learning perseverance in the arts is that art interests so many young people and they are motivated by a desire to do it well.  Scientific discovery motivates some children, but the arts catch the interest of many.

For people with an interest in visual, performing, or linguistic art, the pay off is satisfying. Seeing yourself approach your ideal through your own hard work is powerful. Knowing that you got there by your own sweat and effort builds confidence and pride. Achievement and mastery of skills is the way to true self-confidence.

This is not to say that artistic satisfaction is possible with only the skills of a superlative artist. Yes, it takes years of diligent work to gain aptitude, but the near inhuman skills of top performing artists are not what are required for individual delight. Enrichment through the arts requires people who have creative vision and have worked hard for some basic artistic skills with which to strive and discover what is possible.

Cooperation

Practice and solitary work builds character and work ethic, but if art is communication, it is at its absolute best when

This worked out okay.

This worked out okay.

made and shared with others. I hated group projects in school. They took so much time, and there was always one person who’s dead weight the rest of us dragged across the finish line. However, I never thought of theatre productions, string quartet, or orchestra as group projects, even though they were.

These were voluntary collaborations, cooperative endeavors. Everyone had a useful skill set, skill sets that I understood and respected. We were patient with each other because we understood the difficulties of making ideas heard, seen and experienced as clearly as possible. We learned to offer criticism gently. Even more importantly, we learned to take criticism constructively. We helped each other and celebrated our triumphs. Even less than stellar efforts were easier to accept, because we had each other.

My highest emotional highs occurred when I fell in love and when I made impossibly beautiful music with people I liked, music that I could not make on my own. Love for my quartet members grew out of our explorations of Schubert and Dvorak. There is simply nothing like creating beauty with someone else. It is one of the profound delights on Earth.

Collaborative art fosters appreciation of others and their skills and imagination. Actors cannot put on a production without lighting designers. 1st Violins need 2nd violins. Dancers need costumers. Drummers need guitarists. None of it works without all of its pieces in place.

Finding Purpose in Creation

Knit GraffitiHumans are creative beings and nothing breathes life into daily existence like finding a place to stretch our creativity. The main reason there are so many craft, yarn, woodworking, and DIY home improvement stores is because people need to make stuff. The satisfaction that comes from building raised garden beds is soul feeding. People craft, build, and make art because it quenches a universal creative desire. I have friends who practice a creative hobby as an exercise for mental health. They find it calming and nourishing: concentrating on something they love, making it fit their own purpose and ideas. As creators, we take control over a small piece of our existence. And that is a thing of great psychological consequence.

Children know that they are not in control of much. Adults become wise when they realize the same thing. A creative outlet can do much to improve our mental health and help us cope with a world beyond our control, by giving us a small space in which to make things as we’d like them to be. And art is an outlet that is readily available, can be pursued at varying intensities of finance and time, and bends to meet the needs of the practitioner. Why would we keep such a gift from children?

Synthesizing Algebra, and Other Lessons.

I remember sitting in math class and wondering, “Why are we doing this? When will I ever need this?” It seemed like such busy work and I didn’t see the point. It wasn’t until I set out to make a sewing pattern for a skirt (something I would never have attempted if I did not have some practice in creative problem solving,) that I finally synthesized the need for algebra and was thankful for geometry. Making stuff puts theories and abstractions into concrete practice.

Art is for Children.

Does it matter if students can manipulate mathematics, or does it only matter if they punch the right answers on their assessment tests? Do we think it wise to shove the diversity of the human mind down shallow road of knowledge without understanding or synthesizing it? Do we want adults who come to their productive years with problem solving skills, the ability to work with others, engaged minds that are always looking for better ways to do things, who have healthy outlets for their emotions and are practiced communicators?

Zack, age 8, oil painting after Wyeth

Zack, age 8, oil painting after Wyeth

If this is what we want, the arts must be part of their education. Not every child needs all of them, but they all need some. They should have visual art to learn to see, literature to learn to consider beyond themselves, theatre and language arts to make themselves understood, music to voice the depths of the soul, shop class to bring abstractions into reality, and places to try, see, and learn the languages that tell of the human experience.

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School Fundraisers

My children attend a wonderful public school. I am very grateful. The parents association at school operates with a level of involvement and organization that I remember from my private school days. They are a highly motivated group of parents who work very hard at raising a lot of money to support the educational offerings of the school. Off the top of my head, here are fundraising campaigns they’ve launched in the three years we’ve been at the school.

Oh, the memories

Oh, the memories

  • Wrapping Paper & Gift Sale
  • Coupon Book Sales
  • Read-a-thon
  • A local restaurant that donates a % of the profits from a certain day of each month.
  • Boxtops/Labels for Education
  • Book orders
  • 2 Book Fairs per year
  • Plant Sale
  • A pair of carnivals: the pièce de résistance: one in the spring, one in the fall, complete with silent auctions, bake sales, live music, crafts, and games.

These parents work their tails off. They are awesome, and they raise a healthy chunk of change. Because I am always ready to advise others on what they should do, I thought I’d brainstorm a few new ideas. Half of them involve booze.

School Rummage Sale:

Families donate toys, snow gear, bikes, etc. for the sale. This is a parents only event, complete with wine and canapés. All unsold items will be donated. No children allowed, as who knows who’s Wii or train table has been marked for sale.

tiny bubbles in the [beer]...

tiny bubbles in the [beer]…

Cash bar, or keg at the Carnivals.

These are chaos intense events. Moms and dads would pay many tickets for a strong gin and tonic. I’ve done informal polling to this end. It would be a success. If there is a problem with having a keg on school grounds (of all the silly rules,) there are lots of families who live within 2 blocks of school. They could host in a garage or yard. I’m sure permits would have to be pulled, etc., but it would make the “throw wet sponges at parents” booth a distant second.

Service-a-thon

If we’re going to pledge money to our kids to read during the read-a-thon, how about doing the same for the time they spend serving others? I would love to pledge to a kid who was going to spend time weeding school flowerbeds, or helping the librarian sort books, or raking leaves for an elderly neighbor. File it under character education.

Change Drive

Get some Costco pickle jars and have a contest for which classroom/grade can collect the most coinage (American money only, please.) Prizes are given for the most money raised and the fullest jar. Root beer floats and bragging rights for the winning classroom. The losers have to roll all the pennies. Easy and unimaginative.

640px-Left_Hand_-_Kolkata_2011-04-20_2350

Please?

Straight Up Ask

Okay, here’s the deal. We can send your kids home with promises of iPads to the highest seller and you can look at their expectant faces and explain why you’re not going to buy more wrapping paper, popcorn, stationary, books, whatever else we can think of that is not too heavy for a kindergartner to carry… or, you can write us a check, three digits please. Like an NPR fund drive, the sooner we meet our goals, the sooner we’ll end the drive. Please, for the love of Ralph, that spring carnival is a killer.

Grant Writing

This will work better in high school, but how about it? Assign students to write grants to fund art, science & math enrichment, music, PE- all those “extras” that aren’t on standardized tests. They’d learn to research, assess what a foundation is looking for, to write to that interest, to be concise and clear, and to submit on a deadline, a real one. Little actual funding would get accomplished, but in the off chance that it did- double score- learning and money!

standing ovation for you, sir.

Standing ovation for you, sir.

Parent Prom

This would be fun… and just as awkward as the real thing. Get a sitter; buy tickets, and draw straws for a designated driver. There will be noshes, music from the olden days (your youth,) and other parents dressed up like you’ve never seen them. It could be a themed soirée -1980s, Dr. Who, dress like a middle schooler, dress like YOU did in middle school. Liquor is de rigueur, duh.

 

 

After School Ice Pop/Coffee and Cocoa stand

This would totally work.

This would totally work.

This idea struck as I watched the ice cream truck roll down my street, playing cheery Christmas music in July. We need our own food truck/rolling stand. There would be ice pops or snow cones in the fall and spring, for the two weeks that they last. When the weather turns chilly, it’ll switch over to coffee and hot chocolate. Not bad, eh? This one doesn’t require booze or babysitters.

 

Who doesn’t want to support the education of their kids? Getting rid of stuff, going to a party, and drinking (coffee) seem like great new ways to do that. Anyone else have good fundraising ideas? I can’t use any more wrapping paper.

Learning to Write

I’ve been writing this blog for 5 months now.  It’s the first blog I’ve ever had and I am enjoying it. I try to write a post a week. This is slightly strenuous as I have other things to do. I need blocks of uninterrupted time. I need a topic I am ready to write about. I am no longer facile enough to blather on about anything. And I am slow.

Every time I sit down to write, I think of all the teachers who forced me to put words down. I am indebted to them for teaching me to organize my thoughts and instructing me on wielding the tools of language. I have noticed that those with whom I was educated manipulate language with a lot of skill. And these are not just the classmates who became writers. These are farmers, yogis, scientists, doctors- eloquent people in every field. I think it is because we learned to do it early and got plenty of practice.

The last time I wrote with regularity, I was in high school. I was slow, but not as slow as I am now. I was blessed early on with a lot of teachers who made 2826079915_7b8ccb95b7me write, and I got good at churning out papers. Mrs. Eaby (2nd grade) made me write a lot of stories. Ms. Moorehead (5th grade) regularly had me turning in 4-5 pages of notebook paper full of stories, reports, or essays, and she made us journal every day.  She also had me write and illustrate a book for a kid’s writing competition. I’m pretty sure that’s the year I developed the divot in my right index finger where my pen sits.

In sixth grade, I moved to a college prep school and wrote at least a paper a week until graduation. It started on a typewriter. I loved the click of the keys, the way the hammers struck with enough force to emboss the letters into the paper. But, oh, correction tape was such a pain, and I had to compose by hand and then type the final draft, pecking all the way until Mrs. Butterfield forced us all to learn to type correctly. Thank you, Mrs. B for your strangely stressful class of sixth graders all doing timed typing exercises while you walked around correcting hand position and catching us looking at our hands. (My favorite Mrs. B quote: “If you’re going to lie or cheat at something, do it for something important, not a typing test.”) Her class proved invaluable in this digital age.

My teachers took the time to offer real critiques of my mechanics, styles and thought process. I got paragraphs of reflection at the end of each paper and, with the exception of one teacher, I always knew exactly why a paper had earned the grade it did.

We wrote papers on everything at that school. I still have most of them in binders, arranged by year. Most were essays on literature we were studying. I wrote an epic poem in 8th grade that was 15 pages long. I am sorry you had to grade that, Mr. Brown.  I wrote lab write-ups (which I hated,) ½ pages in Spanish, a couple research papers for orchestra (yes, orchestra,) painfully dramatic stories, bad poetry, regurgitations and research papers for history class, oral and written presentations on Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche (oye,) and an assigned over-analysis of The Beach Boys’ song “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” (It’s a feminist diatribe against the American male establishment, in case you were wondering.)

In ninth grade, we read The Elements of Style, and were forced to own and refer to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. It was not fun reading, but it proved useful, despite my griping at the time. The best thing I got out of that school was some mastery over words and the tools to make them do my bidding.

large_text53874_32560By my junior year, I could click out a 3-5 pager (1” margins, 1.5 spaced, Palatino font, Chicago- if it seemed short) on my hand-me-down Macintosh SE in a few hours. I never took my teachers’ advice to do a rough draft ahead of time. It all happened in one sitting- write, re-read, panic, shift paragraphs, compose new transitions, re-read, tweak, write the intro, make sure I wrapped it all up at the end, print, pull off the dot-matrix edges, staple or clip (depending on the teacher) and go to bed between 2 and 4 am.

I worked well with a fire lit under my rear. Some of the best papers I wrote were the three I wrote for Mr. Musgrave at the end of 10th grade. They were overdue and he said he’d fail me if I didn’t have them all in by the end of the week. I wrote one every night for three nights. He gave me barely passing marks because they were so late, but wrote glowing feedback and said that they were worth waiting for and my best work. Apparently, I thrive on fear.

When I went to college for music, I knew my writing days were essentially over. I picked my freshman English class based on the number of books in the syllabus that I had already studied. I read one new work for that class- A Doll’s House. I had my mom send me all my notes and papers on the other books. She asked me if that was plagiarism. “Nope,” I said, having already anticipated the objection. “It’s my work. They are rough drafts for this class.” It was awesome. Professor DuRocher like my writing and I did rework them… except for the one where I only changed the date and the professor’s name. I did; I’m not proud of it. I was working very hard at trying to get my mind and fingers around playing chord progressions and that paper on Hamlet was already passable. By the way, Professor DuRocher, may he rest in peace, was a truly inspiring teacher. I wish I had the chance to really study with him.

Writing for my music history professor was a nightmare. I spent my entire education learning to write artful prose with style and flow and she had no use for such froth. Dr. Hanson was tough 6189238026_ea959a4e23_nas nails, no nonsense, “don’t waste my time with your flowery segues and connecting transitions.” She would cross them out and write “bullshit” on anything that didn’t directly support my thesis. I got disappointing marks on every paper I wrote for her because I could not bring myself to write the way she wanted. She was also the kind of teacher who took off a point for every misplaced comma in footnotes and bibliography. And you had better stay consistent with either MLA or ALA style! I am getting tense just thinking about it.

I took 5 classes with this excellent teacher. She knew her stuff and was painfully efficient and clear in her presentation of the material. By the 5th semester, I got it. She finally broke me of my habit of nice writing. I turned in a paper on Copland’s “The Tender land” opera that read like an outline. An outline was my first draft. I took out the letters and numbers, added enough words to make full sentences, double and triple checked my notations and turned in a completely artless paper full of nothing but analysis and citations. The introduction actually included the phrases “First, I will show… Then, I will analyze… Finally, I will…” She deemed it acceptable. I earned an A and she wrote on the last page “Yes! You finally got it!” Whew, what a relief.

So here I am, making myself write again, in my pre-Dr. Hanson style, because it is good for me, because it helps me sort my mind and because, apparently, people besides my mother enjoy reading it.

425669_225060984259427_1569910971_nTo my writing teachers, Eaby, Moorehead, McAfee, Robertson, Moore, Lipkowitz, Brown, Scanlon, Musgrave, Kuh (even though I didn’t have you in class,) Pennington, Field, Hanson, and DuRocher, thank you. I hope I don’t embarrass.