Despite the negative headline, I was actually pleasently surprised by today's report in the New York Times that American eighth graders display only "mediocre" art skills. Although some of the study's findings were quite discouraging for arts-lovers--for example, only 16% of eighth graders had gone to art museums with their class--the report also noted that about half of eighth graders could identify Renaissance painting, and a little over half could identify a half-note. This was touted as a "mediocre" achievement, but it actually seemed pretty good to me. Not to knock any of my former eighth grade students from the Bronx--who were brilliant kids doing their best to navigate a broken education system--but I would have been shocked if even five percent could have identified either a Renaissance painting or a half-note. Frankly, in urban schools, that kind of stuff is very rarely taught, as the focus has largely shifted to reading and math. The study did not break out student achievement along socioeconomic lines, so I have no idea how well urban students are doing in the arts. Still, on the balance, students' achievements in the study far exceeded what I would have predicted.
What disturbed me more than the findings reported in the article was some Times readers' online comments. Several readers argued that, given the worrisome state of American achievement in subjects like math, science and literacy, we should be making even further cuts to arts education to focus more attention on these "core" subjects. One reader even went so far as to say that we should not "further distract [students] with this stuff." And such sentiments are hardly the work of isolated trolls on the Times website. In fact, as I reported in my recent article in the Michigan Law Review, a slim majority of Americans think it is a "good thing" if increased emphasis on reading and mathematics results in a de-emphasis of other scholastic subjects.
Now, to my mind, there are countless benefits to arts education in schools, starting with the fact that for millenia, humans have expressed themselves visual art, drama, and music, and I think it is the height of hubris to ignore all that because we want kids to perform better on math tests. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the entire function of schools is to get kids to a certain level of proficiency in math, reading, and maybe science. Even if we reduce schools to this simple metric, it still strikes me as extremely implausible that the best way to achieve those goals is to spend countless hours drilling home the basics of math, reading, and science with no focus whatsoever on the arts, history, or on physical education. One of the biggest issues in struggling schools is getting kids engaged with the curriculum and with the scholastic experience in general. And if you're a student who is struggling in math or reading, and the entirety of your scholastic experience is devoted to the subjects that are already giving you the most trouble, chances are you'll lose interest really fast. Maybe you'll simply sit there, bored out of your mind, and coast to a high school diploma with a C- average. Or maybe, like so many kids have done over the past decade, you'll simply drop out entirely, thinking that school just isn't for you.
On the other hand, if you're a 14-year-old kid and, for a few hours of the day, you're learning about something that a) interests you, and b) you're kind of good at, you'll be more likely to be engaged in school in general. The point here is not that arts education is some magical placebo, it's just that when you present kids with broader, richer curriculum, they are more likely to find something in school that interests them. It's a rare person who is able to maintain the motivation to consistently work hard and stay engaged at something that they struggle with naturally. If you stink at the guitar, you're probably going to find another musical intrument. If bowling's not your thing, maybe you can be President of the United States instead. And that's all well and good when it comes to hobbies, but it is incredibly dangerous to narrow the scholastic experience down to reading and math test factories, because then we run the risk there are going to be a ton of kids out there that simply think "I am no good at school."
So, with apologies to that Times poster, we should be "further distracting" students with art, music, theatre, history and sports. Beyond the benefits that society can glean from a well-rounded, educated populace, we all stand to gain when young people are given every opportunity to engage their unique passions and skills inside the schoolhouse gates.