Opinion: Arts are important part of education

November 25, 2013


This year marks the 100-year anniversary of one of the seminal events in American culture.

The 1913 Armory Show is credited with introducing this country to modern art. Until that time American sensibilities were grounded in realism.  But all that changed when, in one fell swoop, we were introduced to the works of such varied artists as Cezanne, Duchamp, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and Van Gogh.

The reactions from the press, the public and the art community were sensational. Some loved the new works. Some called the art “insane.”  Others were shocked, leading to “accusations of quackery, insanity, immorality, and anarchy.” But its influence was profound, forever changing our perception of beauty.  In describing the show’s impact, one prominent modern curator has said that it “marks a reordering of the rules of art-making — it’s as big as we’ve seen since the Renaissance.”

While it is hard to imagine an art show generating that kind of attention in today’s America, it would be a mistake to think that the potential impact of the arts has diminished.  In fact, the opposite is true.  With the accessibility provided by technology, in today’s world the arts can play an even larger role in generating creativity, providing information, inspiring action and establishing the common cultural bonds that hold us together.

Unfortunately, that potential is in serious jeopardy. Why?  Because our schools have all but abandoned the arts.

A few facts bear this out:

l Forty-three percent of secondary schools do not require any art courses as a requirement for graduation. An additional 40 percent require just one art course.

l Fifty-one percent of 18-year-olds reported having had no arts education in “childhood” (before their 18th birthday), a sharp increase over 1982 when 35 percent reported having had no arts education. The availability of arts courses is related to income, race and parental education.  For example, white 18-24-year-olds have a 58 percent participation rate in art courses, Hispanics 28 percent, and African Americans 26 percent.

l Seventy eight percent of superintendents and principals say that arts education receives a lower priority than it should.

l Sixty eight percent of parents believe that the cuts in the arts in favor of reading and math have had negative effects.

But this is a time of change in American education.  The tide is turning from the flawed reasoning that reduced art courses. As educational reformers analyze and look for solutions to the problems of low academic performance and the achievement gap, the importance of the arts is being re-examined.

What are the reformers finding? That the arts can be used as a powerful tool to: engage students in learning and promoting high achievement, accommodate different leaning styles, foster creativity and group projects, develop language and non-verbal communications skills and teach the effective and efficient use of technology.

The efforts to reintegrate the arts in our schools have gone beyond talk. Educators and policymakers are banding together to create new pre-K through 12th grade standards in dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts. If these standards can be implemented, monitored and measured, then the progress they engender will ensure their survival. 

These reformers understand that the arts are not in competition with other subjects.  Real academic achievement — the kind that supports personal, professional, and civic engagement — is derived from multiple disciplines, each contributing in its own way to learning 21st century skills such as critical thinking, communication, and creativity.

A hundred years from now, we can only hope that students will learn about the remarkable Armory Show of 1913.  But we must also hope that they learn about another revolution, the one from 2013 and beyond that restored the arts to their rightful places in our classrooms and our schools.

— Gene A. Budig is past president of three major universities, including Kansas University, and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president at the College Board in New York City.


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