I have thought a lot about the benefits of arts education this summer. While I naturally have an intense interest in the arts, one specific event really got me thinking.
I had the pleasure of listening to the San Diego Symphony play a tribute to George and Ira Gershwin. The scene was perfect: I was sitting on the lawn of the Embarcadero. The sun was setting. Looking around, my heart was so happy! There is just something about that music that absolutely transports me. It was thrilling to be among hundreds of people – some right up close at the “champagne” tables, some up in the grandstands and some in the “cheap seats,” on the lawn with our blankets and beach chairs. All of us were there because we all have an appreciation of music.
As excited as I was to see that, I was also a little saddened as I looked over the crowd and the orchestra. Both the orchestra and the crowd were very white and the audience was pretty senior. Two of the three singers were people of color as Porgy and Bess was a featured musical that evening… But the orchestra and audience did not reflect that same ratio at all. The fact that San Diego has a quality orchestra and that the orchestra has an audience means we are doing something right as a society. The fact that the musicians and the audience were so homogeneous means there is still much more work to do.
I earned a master’s degree in Arts Integration 20 years ago and it felt very lonely at the time. Needless to say, I am very excited to see it becoming a real movement! It is wonderful to see so many educators realizing how powerful learning can be when we bring the arts together with other content areas. It is also heartening to me to see that many in education are getting the memo. What memo? That it takes a village to deliver quality education and that art teachers are an essential part of that village.
Still, it is too often the case that when budgets are tight, the arts are the first things to go . What happens w hen schools are struggling to raise the academic performance and achievement of their students? Those in charge pressure teachers to “buckle down” and stick to the basics of ELA and Math. But this leads to neglecting subjects like science, social studies and the arts, which enrich learning and add relevance, meaning, and context to those ELA and Math skills and content.
Diversity is a strength!
As much as I love the “standards” (like the Gershwins), it is so exciting to see musicals like Rent and Hamilton rising in popularity. The cast of characters are diverse. This appeals to a younger and more ethnically diverse crowd. It also pushes the boundaries of their art forms, taking risks, and bringing fresh perspectives. Shows like this will help bridge the gap and reach a broader audience but arts education is really the key to more shows like this having creators, casts and audiences.
There is a brilliance to the new National Core Arts Standards and the way they are broken down. They emphasize that we need to help students think of themselves as artists and approach the work they make in that way with the “creating” standards encouraging risk-taking, innovation and critical thinking. The standards also address the “presenting/performing/producing” aspect of art work to help students be not only makers of art but critical perceivers of it. They understand what it takes to bring a work to its completion and share that work as well as appreciate the work of others with a thinking eye and ear. In “responding” and “connecting”, the standards encourage us to help students see the value of arts in their lives and how connected the arts are to all other aspects of life, to find meaning in art and relate it to history and present day.
The benefits of Arts Education
If all students could receive the rich art experiences that these standards lay out, the audiences would be flocking to concert halls, museums, theatres and exhibitions in all sorts of venues, resulting in a greater variety of art being made and a wider audience hungry to receive and appreciate it. I was so excited to sit and listen to that music because I sang most of that music in high school and college. I felt it down to my bones and in my soul. Because I had tried it myself, I could really appreciate the excellence of those performers. I was lucky to have parents and schools who had the means and the desire to support arts education.
Discussions involving race are not always the easiest to have, but they are necessary. The arts are a powerful and essential tool for social justice. They help us to be more tolerant of differences. The arts can change the world! And my deepest desire is that all children no matter where they live, no matter which income bracket their families fall within, will be drawn to making and perceiving art because they were educated as artists themselves. It is up to all of us and we can make that a reality.