All summer I ran into people I had not seen in a while. The majority of them wanted to know what I was up to these days. When I would share with them that I have been accepted into a Master of Arts program in teaching this spring, I would receive enthusiastic positive responses. Then the question of what I was planning to teach would inevitably come up. When I would reply “visual arts education,” the responses ranged from blank stares to slack-jawed stares to stares of disbelief, usually punctuated by a sigh of “oh.” And it would be at this point that I would feel the need to defend my choice. I continue to find it fascinating that people would find it odd for me—a person with a B.F.A. in art and a professional art career in my background—to aspire to teach art. But I believe I understand what they are thinking—or at least how they are thinking.
The emphasis that has been placed on the S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects has all but eclipsed most of the other subjects. It is easy to see why the S.T.E.M. subjects are important, but art? What possible benefits could art have to any student who is not “artistically inclined”? I’m glad you asked.
There has been a lot of brain-based research that demonstrates how art education (this includes music, dance, and theater, as well as visual art) complements and enhances all the other academic subjects, including S.T.E.M. Exposure to and participation in the arts cause neural development in the brain that affect fine motor skills, creative and abstract thinking, and even emotional balance. Learning music helps students recognize patterns and sequences, while visual arts enhance spatial-visual perception and acuity, skills that are just as important for an architect or an engineer as they are for a musician or an artist. Art education is just as crucial for the development of a well-rounded education as any other academic subject—maybe even more so. Visual art education does something that many of the S.T.E.M. subjects don’t. In math and often in science, there is one right answer, and often it is thought that there is only one way of arriving at that answer. At the very least, students are many times discouraged from deviating from the formula that is presented as “the way” to solve the problem. Conversely, in art, problems are presented that require the student to think creatively and formulate their own methods of reaching a solution.
Another very important aspect of arts education is its ability to elevate the cultural intelligence of its participants. Children from more affluent families or communities are often exposed to a diversity of cultural inputs in the form of extra-curricular activities and trips to museums and libraries, while many lower-income students have to depend on receiving these kinds of experiences through their schools. Studies have shown that students that have broader cultural knowledge tend to score higher on standardized tests, which are biased toward the dominant culture. According to Eric Cooper, president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, “Arts education enables those children from a financially challenged background to have a more level playing field with children who have had those enrichment experiences.”
In spite of overwhelming evidence that art education is beneficial throughout primary and secondary school, there is still a fight to keep, get back, or acquire these programs in schools. So, until art education is recognized for the advantage that it is, I suppose I will just have to keep entertaining blank stares.