George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Arts Are Essential

Cornell University's president on why teaching creativity in schools is not a luxury.
By David J. Skorton
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As president of a large research university that received 33,000 applications for 3,050 places in the fall freshman class, I'm often asked by parents of students in high school, middle school -- and even those in preschool -- what their children should study in the K-12 years to increase their chances of admission to college. I dutifully affirm the conventional wisdom: Take the most challenging courses in core academic disciplines like English, languages, history, math, and science for the required number of years, participate in extracurricular activities, volunteer . . . .

Then I put in a plea for taking time to explore the humanities and arts in all their varied dimensions -- visual and performing, Western and non-Western, classical and avant-garde. Far from being mere adornments to educational development, easy to dismiss as nonessential in tight economic times, these disciplines nurture our creative instincts.

Although they do not always lend themselves to the kinds of metrics used to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math, the arts and humanities play a vital role in the educational development of students. They keep and convey our cultural heritage while opening us up to other societies and civilizations around the globe. They help us explore what it means to be human, including both the ethical and aesthetic dimensions. If science and technology help us to answer questions of "what" and "how," the arts and humanities give us ways to confront the intangible, to contemplate the "why," to imagine, to create. If ever there were a time to nurture those skills in our young people, it is now, when our nation's future may depend on our creativity and our ability to understand and appreciate the cultures around the world as much as on our proficiency in reading and math.

The Heart of the Matter

Great research universities are often thought of in relation to their contributions to the advancement of science and technology. Biomedical inquiry and discovery are well established in universities, as are research in the physical and mathematical sciences and the social sciences. Yet liberal arts education is the heart of a university, and the humanities and arts comprise its soul.

As a physician and biomedical scientist, I consider the scientific method a specific application of epistemology that involves observation, formation of hypotheses, and testing of the hypotheses, and that includes ample helpings of deductive and inductive reasoning. (I have long given medical students in my clinics a copy of The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes, a collection informed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's medical training; Holmes was reportedly modeled on a diagnostician from whom Doyle took instruction in medical school in Edinburgh.) Once scientific inquiry has occurred, the conclusions of discovery frequently lead to practical decisions that are, or should be, based on ethical or moral considerations. So, even in the hard sciences, philosophy, history, art, and literature play their role.

Given how much greater a role the arts and humanities play in their own right -- the arts for arts' sake -- they certainly don't need to be justified by their utility as servants of science. How unfortunate, then, that arts and humanities scholarship receives so little recognition and funding, and so infrequently finds its way into the national discourse.

Credit: iStockphoto

Play On

Take, for example, music, which has been an important part of my own life since my teen years. I worked as a rhythm and blues musician in the Chicago area to help pay my way at Northwestern University, where I earned my undergraduate and medical degrees, and I continue to make time for music.

Music as an art form is at once complex, evolving, up to the minute in its currency, and yet primal, basic, and eminently human. It is among the most universal of art forms, among the most organic of experiences. According to Michael Thaut in his book Rhythm, Music, and the Brain, "Throughout human history, music has been considered a form of communication. However, the nature of what and how music communicates has been the subject of long-standing and fascinating inquiries in philosophy, religion, the arts, and the sciences."

Music is a communicator, a transducer of emotion, a stimulator of understanding -- explicit or implicit. Music teaches in a way that we cannot replicate with words. Pedagogically complex, music transforms us, touches us alone or in a shared experience, whether planned or improvised. What of the place of plans and improvisation in art, in life? Can anything teach that point more clearly than music? The seamless juxtaposition of the planned and the extemporaneous -- musician to musician, musician to audience, audience to musician -- are vividly evident in the live act of creating and receiving.

Education is innately a forward-looking and optimistic enterprise. The investment in the preparation for teaching, in the moment, in the follow-up -- all are intrinsically optimistic, optimistic that these efforts will bear fruit and that the fruit will be borne even by trees not yet planted, seeds not yet sown.

There is growing evidence that arts education improves student learning and thereby produces better citizens. Throughout the United States, educational institutions -- from local schools to community colleges to research universities -- act as centers for public culture and for instilling in our children the values and knowledge that come only from a study of the humanities and the arts.

I believe deeply that arts education is of great value in and of itself, not only instrumentally; I believe just as emphatically that education in the arts is the business of all of us, from the home and the family to the neighborhood and the village, from the P-12 school system to higher education to lifelong learning, culminating in the great and defining legacy of our public culture.

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. This essay was adapted by the author from an address given at a 2007 forum, "Transforming Arts Teaching: The Role of Higher Education," sponsored by the Dana Foundation.
Why Arts Education Must Be Saved Series

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Busted Keys's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

this begs the question, when did the arts become so separated from everyday life that it lost its importance? as children, the arts could only have been considered fundamental and natural to our development as we'd doodled, daydreamed, and came up with creative tunes and games. life in itself IS art so it only seems odd to me that we've devolved it into an afterthought and plugin to other disciplines. and as a discipline, i'm not talking about studying art for art's sake. added variety and experiences only enhance our approach to solve new problems. and without these studies to exercise and enhance our creative capacities, life would be better staying inside boxes and procreating widgets.

Mary-Helen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is an incredible piece. As president of one of the nation's most respected universities, if you were to put your 'weight' behind the arts it would be very, very helpful to those of us who know the Blues, R&B, and Jazz offer something essential to life that is all too often missing today. Please visit our site ( and consider adding your voice!

Ronnie Bell's picture

Unfortunately, politicians, parents and the press devote most of their time, space and energy talking about test scores and not the importance of anything else. Here in the U.S., we are driven by No Child Left Behind with Bush and now (gulp) Race to the Top with Obama. We only pay lip service to the arts because, as Mr. Skorton says, "they do not always lend themselves to the kinds of metrics used to demonstrate proficiency." My district is now obsessed with graduation rates, how many will, "walk across the stage." We should be identifying what kids are good at, what they are interested in and what makes them excited about learning and life. Then, we need to feed that interest and they will build their own futures- many to college, some to trade schools, some to public service, some right into the working world. My garage charges $80-$100/hr for mechanics, the plumber charges $125 to look at my sink- all 4-6 times what I make for teaching with a Masters degree and 25 years experience. Let's get it right and finally learn that we are not all square pegs to be squashed into the round holes of testing. Give us arts or public education is dead, hoisted on its own petard of testing.

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear Colleagues,

I use Arts to teach HS Geometry and STEM...
That's why I like to use the expression STEAM = STEM + Arts
I have used Arts & Crafts for 30 years to teach most every subject:
Kindergarten through University, and now Adult Lifelong Learners as well...

My website/wikispace-in-progress uses Arts on virtually every page...
It is just a natural way for me to communicate ideas and information and engage students in "making" and "doing" learning and production...

Take your time viewing the website because it is over 100 pages and growing... with dozens of links to internet resources, youtube videos, online student magazines, open courseware, research, museums, etc.

Get ready for Arts Fun...

Allen Berg

Mary-Helen Rossi's picture
Mary-Helen Rossi
Business Director at Merge Education

As I write this at the end of 2011, it's been over a year since this post was first published and our country has sunk even further into No Child Left Behind albeit under a new name ... Race to the Top. Standards! I don't think anyone of us is against setting standards, but it does raise a number of questions starting with - whose? - and moving on to - What should education be? - What are our cultural values ... are they simply to race past each other to be on the top? On top of whom? And how much humanity is left, pray tell, in the racer once he's competed so fiercely he's attained the heights?

We at Merge feel it's time for Americans who understand there is more to life than making and spending money to put our talk into our actions and begin to create educational agendas that seek to develop young people's enthusiasm and ability to learn rather than smother it. As my husband Bill says in his book Venturing Together: Empowering Students to Succeed, standards based education results in a psychological bleaching of students ... we need to reevaluate the standards we're using and put creativity back into learning so our children can breath again ... and start to thrive.

latusuli1's picture

I guess the most challenging factor that students in high school in particular have to face the choice of choosing what core subjects they want to focus on as a means of directing them in their own desired career path. Unfortunately, from what i have found the Arts, has rarely been recognized as a "Great" career path to take..The more prefered subjects to take is rather Math, or Science rarely even Music! What i loved about this article, is the fact that Art its self does not neccessarily mean that it has to be expressed through works of art but rather Art is something we naturally come by. In every culture we see Art, Art is thus essential for each of us to rather appreciate was has been preserved for us to hold dear and what must transform into the future! Our students need to see that Art is essential to learning ! And that it will always remain essential because it is all around us!

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