Commentary: The arts deserve to play a vital role in education

For the Valley News
Monday, February 04, 2019

The performing and visual arts are sometimes considered luxuries within a school’s curriculum. This perception stems, in part, from a fairly common view that these disciplines are not core academic subjects and that most curricula rarely incorporate them into the evaluations that determine whether schools are meeting external expectations.

Yet we know, both intrinsically and practically, that the arts promote learning and well-being and also enhance the way students learn in a range of other disciplines. One curious example? Nobel Prize winners are 15 to 25 times more likely than the average scientist to engage in artistic endeavors. Einstein himself attributed some of his most important insights to his ability to play violin and piano.

The arts, far from decorative or ancillary, are often the best way to develop some of the most basic skills for learning, collaboration and original thinking. Training in the visual arts, for instance, is known to help students recognize and form patterns while heightening observation skills. The performing arts have been shown to help students develop small-motor and gross-motor skills needed for everything from penmanship to laboratory work.

Today, as fewer students learn handwriting and transition to typing on a device, teachers are seeing more students who are “all thumbs.” Yet even in our information age, inventions often start by putting pencil to paper or by creating a model from materials that need to be cut and reassembled.

As students acquire these practices through artistic endeavors, they also become keener listeners, observers and organizers. Doctors with musical training are much better at interpreting what they hear through a stethoscope. Lab technicians with visual training are better at creating more productive workspaces.

School administrators may want to consider ways in which arts education could be integrated more fully with other subjects to heighten the study of many disciplines. By doing so, the problem solving, collaboration and creativity the arts require can help students think more flexibly while developing habits of perseverance.

In the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, Richard Dreyfuss plays a music teacher whose program is being eliminated. When he hears the news, he famously says to his principal, “Well, you can cut the arts as much as you want. … Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.” And while this hyperbole offers a particularly poignant moment in the movie, it also offers an element of truth about how important the arts are for enriching our world and connecting disciplines. When teachers nurture the arts in schools, they also help their students develop habits of searching for beauty, an appreciation for aesthetics that often nourishes the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

Max Planck, both a Nobel Prize winner and an accomplished pianist once said, “The creative scientist needs an artistic imagination.” While we don’t know what the future holds for our students, we do know that they will have to think critically, make connections and communicate clearly, whether their subject is history or math, biology or painting, or all of the above. Let’s find ways that the arts can spark learning in and between every part of a curriculum.

Brad Choyt is head of school at Crossroads Academy in Lyme.