What’s the Deal with the Arts?

Warning: if you are breathing, something in this post will most likely offend you…

Arts In Education Week was established as the second week in September back in 2010 by a declaration from the US House of Representatives, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to share my feelings on the arts in education.

I’ll make it short and simple: it’s important.  No, it’s vital. (okay, now I’ve probably offended all those non-arts people!)

Here’s the next truth: too many arts teachers (and when I say “arts teachers” I am referring to all disciplines we teach in the schools: visual art, music, theatre, dance, etc) put too much emphasis in the wrong area in regards to the students they teach – and that needs to change (okay, now I’ve offended everyone that’s an arts teacher and was all excited about my first point – so I’ve kept my word to offend everyone!)

I’ll start by traveling back in time a little so you know my background and view on this subject.  Not only did the arts, specifically music and theatre, consume my childhood but they also directed the path for just about everything I did after I graduated high school.  I attended college on both music and drama scholarships, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in K-12 Music Education with a minor in musical theatre, and to this day I am still heavily involved in the arts as a music director for two different organizations.  My professional arts experience includes work at amateur, community, and professional levels in theatre (both musical and non-musical), opera, solo singing, directing, arranging, and conducting.  I’ve conducted choirs, handbells, and string orchestras; I’ve served as a clinician in Florida, and obtained certifications in Orff and World Music Drumming.  Believe me, I love the arts.  My daughters both started ballet when they were two, my oldest daughter has been taking violin since she was three (my youngest daughter hasn’t started yet  because she’s only 2!), my wife has a masters degree in accompanying and vocal coaching, and I spent 9 years in the classroom as a music teacher before making the switch to administration.  When I talk about the arts I feel as if I have some understanding and perspective on it.

So here’s the thing: all that brain research you read (or hear about) that says the arts improve cognitive function, reasoning skills, creativity, innovation, people skills, etc, etc, etc, is absolutely spot-on.  The bottom line is research indicates students who study the arts do better in school – I know of no reputable research out there that would disagree with this statement.

And for those people out there who think arts teachers aren’t “real teachers” you need to re-examine what they do.  As a arts teacher I can tell you that these are some of the best teachers in the building to speak to in regards to issues such as differentiated instruction, mastery learning, classroom management, adapting instruction for EC students, student engagement, or higher-order thinking skills.  Students in the arts are constantly asked to create and evaluate (at least if they are being taught well), and teachers in the arts often have to reach every student (even the ones that are allowed in “regular” classrooms), they have to engage and motivate students (since their grades “don’t count”), and they have to constantly fight the never-ending battle to justify their jobs and their responsibilities when funding is tight.  These teachers deserve not just out thanks, but our respect as professionals. (okay, now I’ve really offended the non-arts teachers, so I guess I need to offend someone else).

But here’s where too many arts teachers go wrong: too many (though not all) of them forgot that the most important class they teach is not Honors Chorus and Advanced Photography or Modern Dance IV.  No, the thing that the regular education teacher gets all too well and the arts teachers forget all too quickly is that we can not put all our emphasis on the “chosen few”.  Too many choir directors I know have said they don’t want students in their choir who have never learned to sing or read music; too many visual art teachers don’t want students in their studio who have no talent.  And what they do is turn off the vast majority of the population that will never be on a stage or have an exhibit on a wall.  Yet in so doing we forget that without the people to attend the stage performance or visit the gallery there would be no reason to be on stage or hang something on a wall.  The truth many of us (myself included) need to remember about arts education is that perhaps the most important class we teach is the basic appreciation course for the content area itself.  Why don’t people like listening to symphonies?  Because they don’t understand them.  Why don’t people like to visit the art gallery?  Because they don’t understand what they see on the wall.  And that, fellow arts educators, is the problem.  Too much of our “art for arts sake” is incomprehensible to the general population because we have not done an adequate job of explaining to them how to understand it.  When I taught I constantly reminded myself that the most important class I taught was General Music; it wasn’t my guitar class, my handbells, or my choir.  It was the class where I had to teach the music consumers what it was they were consuming so that the music creators would have someone for whom to create.

So in honor of Arts of Education Week I challenge the consumers to take the time to thank the teachers who empowered and taught the creators how to create.  And to the arts teachers I challenge you to not forget the arts consumers who are the ones for whom you create – both are needed, and when we lose sight of that fact we fail at that which we work so hard to achieve.

Arts education is important – actually, it’s vital – but it’s not just vital for artists.  It’s vital for everyone.


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