Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Who Needs Arts Education, Anyway?

In my opinion, all of us.

I did actually hesitate for a few days before adding this post. Some might see it as "too political." I asked myself, though, how can I call myself a music teacher if I am too timid to speak up in support of arts education?

In the current economy, "all" spending is obviously under intense scrutiny. Of course, what's actually "on the table" depends a lot on who is AT the table - but that's another discussion. Educational costs are ALWAYS "on the table." Perhaps I'm not the only citizen who finds this baffling at best.

In Vermont this year (and, as I understand it, in all previous years when he's been Governor), Governor Jim Douglas repeatedly said "we spend too much on education." I heard almost no one within the educational system, within the media or within state government challenge the patent absurdity of that statement. I found this even more astonishing, I guess, than the statement itself.

The statement implies that the state of Vermont is spending lavishly on education - that every student is the recipient of luxurious services and amenities, all paid for by apparently unwilling citizens. While Douglas' statement is an easy target for criticism, it reflects an attitude held more widely than we might at first want to believe. In most town meetings, the school budget is rarely passed easily. Within the schoool budget, one item which seems to almost always be "on the table" is funding for arts education. I have far too often heard arts education referred to as a "frill" by people who ought to know better - in public and reported verbatim in the media. I find this incredibly short-sighted and distressing, and not only because I am a music teacher by profession.

All state and national standards for education of which I'm aware contain requirements for arts education - both visual and performing arts. They are specifically included within NCLB. If we as a culture, as a nation, have recognized the value of arts education, why has calling it a "frill" not become newsworthy in itself?

Over many years, I have found myself attempting to explain the value and significance of arts education to community members, to administrators, to other teachers. I have found a surprising number of people who do actually view arts education as a luxury, as something that would be really nice to offer given unlimited financial abundance, but as something that really can't be afforded when money is tight. Almost everyone who holds that view had the opportunity to receive arts education when they were in school. I am shocked that people who had the benefit of arts education for themselves - whether they enjoyed it or not, whether they pursued it further or not - are perfectly willing to deny the same opportunity to our children today.

The fact of the matter is that arts education is not a "frill." Arts education provides a different way of knowing and interacting with our world, a means of understanding and expressing life which is quite different from other ways of knowing, and despite being less easily quantifiable and less easily fit into conventional models of education, is equally valid and important. "Differentiated instruction" is the current standard of excellence in education. Arts education is "differentiated" for every student, providing every student with a unique opportunity to learn in their own best style, and to express themselves without the constraints of the more typical classroom setting. Arts education is the primary means available to students for exploring and growing their creativity, which is an essential skill that they will use every day for the rest of their lives. There are dozens of studies clearly showing the value of arts education for the development of a complete, well-informed, productive citizen. Visual and performing arts profoundly affect all of us every day.

I believe that if each of us finds any value in the arts for our daily lives, if we enjoy music or art ourselves, and if we value creativity as a gift to be used for the benefit of all, we must support arts education in our schools.

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