If you are a teacher on the 21st Century, chances are you know how important the arts are for education and academic achievement. Scientific research has been urgently pointing us to the rescue of artistic programs in schools, voicing out how the arts wire the brain for learning. “Music makes you better at Math”, is one well-known claim. “Drama helps prevent bullying. Analyzing works of art improves your thinking skills”. Thousands of articles and hundreds of books now give abundant advice to teachers on how to blend the arts into the curriculum. From making up songs to better learn times tables or timelines or the periodic table, to the latest marriage of arts and technology in Maker Spaces, it seems like the arts are making a glorious, drumroll entry to formal classrooms everywhere.
But, are we using the arts as a clever disguise for the yucky subjects we want our students to swallow? We know boredom painfully eats away learning. So we use the arts to make our subjects more enjoyable, to chase boredom away.
We might get our results, but are we seeing the arts in a utilitarian way?
It’s not that we didn’t have the arts in schools before. You surely remember your own kindergarten drawings hanging on the refrigerator of your childhood home, or the warm feeling on your belly while trying on the costume for your first school play. But arts were never really center stage in most classrooms. They were something nice to do when the “real subjects” – reading, math and science – had been covered, and even used as a bribe to get kids to do the “important stuff” (If you finish your work quickly you can make a drawing). When there was not enough time in the school day, or if remedial work was needed due to poor academic performance, it was always the arts, along with recess and physical education, the ones who took a cut. In many schools, they still do.
Arts integration with core curriculums is surely something to be encouraged, but let’s be careful, that’s not the whole picture. When we praise the arts so much on behalf of what they can do for learning other subjects, we are somehow demoting the importance of the arts per se. Does anyone need to explain why we have reading and math in our schools? Do you have to convince parents and administrators of how crucial it is for children to be good readers and to master their numbers? Of course you don’t. That is because we can easily relate those abilities with better chances for employment – but here the arts wiggle on moving sands. Even parents have sometimes raised their concerns about their more artistic-oriented children: “Yes, he is very good at drawing, but will he be able to make a decent living out of it? Better work more on his grades.”
The arts have mostly a supporting role in many of our schools: they are the side dish but not the main course, the accompaniment and not the melody, the left hand in a right-handed world. The arts are often treated like the accepting mistress, always on the background, subordinate to the official wife: the core curriculum. And in fact, if we somehow devote “too much” time to the arts, we tend to feel guilty and nervous, as if we were cheating on the “serious” schoolwork.
So let’s not cheat with the arts. Let’s bring them home to our schools and give them the fair treatment they deserve: no longer a second-class learning, but a crucial part of the curriculum. And that goes beyond blending. It means learning to play a musical instrument, becoming an educated art consumer, respecting the dancers as much as we do the mathematicians. It means looking up, not down, to the educators that teach music, art, drama and dance – those bright, accomplished and passionate teachers that have inspired so many of our children, sometimes restoring their motivation and self worth, and in many cases keeping them from dropping out of school. It means embracing the arts not just because they serve as a means to an end, but because they are good for the kids, period.