Why arts education isn't a luxury

On The Answer Sheet, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham argues that arts education is more than a luxury, citing a speech by Jerry Kagan, a developmental psychology researcher.

First, he estimated that something like 95% of children are capable of doing the work necessary to obtain a high school diploma, yet the dropout rate hovers around 25%. Too many of these students quit because they decide (usually in about the fourth grade) that school is not the place for them. This decision is based largely on their perception of their performance in reading and mathematics. The arts, Kagan argues, offers such students another chance to feel successful, and to feel that they belong at school.

Second, Kagan argues that children today have very little sense of agency — that is, the sense that they undertake activities that have an impact on the world, however small. Kagan notes that as a child he had the autonomy to explore his town on his own, something that most parents today would not allow. When not exploring, his activities were necessarily of his own design, whereas children today would typically watch television or roam the internet, activities that are frequently passive and which encourage conformity. The arts, Kagan argues, offer that sense of agency, of creation.

And there’s more.

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  1. the weakness with his arguments is that they have little to do with the arts: you can substitute the word “sports” for “arts” and his arguments have equal strength:
    a chance to feel successful,
    a change to be active,
    a chance to communicate without words,
    a chance to make things for others,
    a chance to work together,
    a chance to express feelings.
    Alternatively, it could be a call for different styles of teaching in the academic material. The partial exception is #2 … but that one juxtaposes agency, exploration and exploration.

    I do think a case can be made: I don’t think that this author has made it. Is the argument stronger in Kagan’s original source material?

  2. Over 80% of the students in our college prep and honors program are also in the school band, orchestra or chorus. There must be some correlation.

  3. Unfortunately, correlation ? causation.

  4. Correlation does not equal causation.

  5. Not only doesn’t correlation equal causation but there are also priorities that have to be kept in mind. What’s the value of the relatively vaguely-defined “sense of agency” if a kid can’t read?

    The luxury in this case is the luxury to define education as anything the pundit or edu-theorist chooses. In fact some skills are foundational, providing skills on which further education builds and without which those further skills are unacquirable. Ignore that relationship and you’re just arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

  6. The same arguments could be made in favor of shop classes…indeed, shop classes have the advantage that the successful or unsuccesful outcome of a project tends to be obvious to the kid who made it…the bookcase stands up or it doesn’t, the car engine runs or it doesn’t. This is a useful corrective to squishy-soft “self-esteem” teaching, whereas the educationist approach to teaching of art would mostly be more of the same.

    Here’s Peter Drucker writing about his own experiences in elementary school in Austria:

    “even Miss Sophie could not make a craftsman out of me…But I took from her a lifelong appreciation of craftsmanship, an enjoyment of clean honest work, and respect for the task. My fingers have never forgotten the feel of well-planed and sanded wood, cut with rather than against the grain, which Miss Sophy–her hand on mine and guiding my fingers–made me sense.”

  7. “Over 80% of the students in our college prep and honors program are also in the school band, orchestra or chorus. There must be some correlation.”

    Yes, they have parents with disposable income and/or free time. If you have one, you don’t need so much of the other. But a parent who’s drugged, depressed or just flat-out stupid won’t bug a kid to practice or go to rehearsal, etc.

    Arts education–does that mean art history, music theory or messing around with finger paints?


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