George Lucas Educational Foundation

Art in Schools Inspires Tomorrow's Creative Thinkers

Without the arts, education's grade is Incomplete.
By Jeffrey T. Schnapp
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Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means "to fit together," suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.

It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions -- questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?

Art is the cleverness of Odysseus; the intimate knowledge of materials in a sculpture by Renaissance master Benvenuto Cellini or a dress designed by Issey Miyake; the inventive genius of a Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, or computer visionary Douglas Engelbart; the verbal craft in everything from an aphorism ("Time is money") to an oration ("Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation") to a commercial slogan ("Just Do It"). In short, art isn't to be found only in galleries and museums; it is woven into the warp and woof of an entire civilization.

To erase art, as the Taliban did by turning explosives on the colossal centuries-old Buddhas of Bamiyan along the ancient Silk Road through Afghanistan, is to deny the reality of human differences and historical change.

To oppose art, like the Nazi writer Hanns Johst does in his 1933 play Schlageter, which famously features the line "Whenever I hear the world culture . . . I release the safety on my Browning!" is to envisage the imaginative powers of the human mind as a threat to the public order (and, by extension, to enforce conformity to the familiar, the known, and the officially sanctioned).

Though omitting art from school curricula, whether because of budget or time constraints or censorship, is not on a par with pillaging the past or thwarting free expression, it does impoverish learning in ways that compromise the core subject areas routinely invoked as essential: reading, writing, and arithmetic. All three are coextensive with art -- so much so as to be inseparable.

Reading involves navigating the cognitive complexities of books and an emerging cluster of new media that merge text, moving or still images, and sound. The basic ability to decode and make sense of arguments and narratives is just the starting point on a road that soon leads to a critical understanding of how, if, and when things rationally fit.

Writing is, of course, the active counterpart of reading, the ability to state arguments and create narratives and thereby master the rules of written communication. To say that even everyday writing isn't an art is to accept the cliche that art refers exclusively to works of the fictional, visual, or musical imagination. And the all-inclusive art of writing now is expanding constantly to incorporate the communications revolution of the information age. For centuries following the invention of printing, writing still mostly meant applying pen to paper; now, any computer-equipped high schooler can be a typographer, a graphic designer, and a layout artist when completing a homework assignment. Information design has become the natural extension of crafting a well-honed message and a persuasive turn of phrase.

Last but by no means least, arithmetic: the domain of calculation and logic that undergirds the digital tools that are reshaping practices of reading and writing, not to mention a domain where the highest aspiration of a proof, formula, or algorithm is to be recognized as "beautiful."

So, the question we are now facing is not one of "education minus art" versus "education plus art," but, rather, what is the quality of the core skill set with which we hope to -- and must -- equip future generations? Will it be a tool kit designed for the performance of simple practical tasks? Or will it promote instead the sort of flexible, imaginative, and critical thinking that is required to grapple with the complex and ever-shifting challenges posed by the contemporary world? Will it limit its compass to the classroom? Or will it instead become a lifelong resource for personal growth and enrichment? Will it reduce the world of knowledge to what is readily quantifiable, or grant equal weight to that which can be measured only by the subtle yardstick of quality?

"Life is short, and art long," reads the Hippocratic aphorism. And the endurance of art summons humankind to look beyond the immediate chores of our daily existences toward the far grander horizons of knowledge and growth.

Jeffrey T. Schnapp is director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent cultural historian of the 20th century, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.
Why Arts Education Must Be Saved Series

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Jeanie Robinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher, my goal is to have the children create with their knowledge. I teach geography. I know that if I have kids do something or make something with their information, they are more likely to retain it.

As a parent, I have proof that music helps in math education. My daughter struggled through math for two years. This year, she was finally old enough to take voice lessons. She goes to days per week and is truly immersed in music. Guess what, she is in the advanced math class and is complaining that math is too easy! HMMMM. What is different here? Music!

Sounds like a study that someone should do!

Jem's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is a sad reality these days that art is diminished in the classroom. We have all the research that supports artistic activity enriches any curriculum and is essential to experiential learning and to reflecting on what is being shoveled in. It was just today, as I pondered tomorrow's first grade lesson, looking at my TE, I asked myself, how could I turn this into an artistic activity that access' deeper learning? I often feel like an academic drill Sargent in my class serving only the head and pushing more and more information in. I know I do not function this way, so why do I think that six and seven year old children do? Looking forward to more comments, more research to support what we intuitively know.

ritel nl ervaring's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"She goes to days per week and is truly immersed in music. Guess what, she is in the advanced math class and is complaining that math is too easy! HMMMM. What is different here? Music!"

I agree with your stance on music, it's not only good for the education in music, but also for a childs educaction in general.

Helen Mangelsdorf's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to share a favorite quotation from the author/illustrator Robert McClosky:
"Yes, I think every child ought to study design and drawing right along with reading, writing, and arithmatic. I can't think of a scientist, minister, politician, bulldozer operator, or any other professional man (sic) or job holder who would not be a better citizen for having had this training.
I get mad when I see this important part of life shoved way over to one side of our curriculum and labeled 'Art'. You cannot look at the face of our country without being painfully aware of the result."

Sean W C's picture

Art is life. Life is art. Without one, the other can never reach its greatest potential. Great article!

latusuli1's picture

If we took Fine Arts and Visual Arts away from any school curriculum, what would that grant us? Would it diminish Art totally out of the classroom? The Answer is No! Even if Art became diminished in the classroom, Art would still be an educational tool used to develop a students learning. Schnapp proposes that whether Art is not taught to a child, that a child "fits things together", i quote through "words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs...and from what i believe Art does promote imaginative, and critical thinking! Lastly, it is important for students to recognize the importance of Art itself that it is a means of fitting things is the creative process or journey of learning!

Mary Blouin's picture

It is important to point out that since the reduction of art, music and drama in schools, accompanied by the "No Child Left Behind" testing requirements for government funding, our Children are living solely within the confines of their mental images while in conceptual activities. Meaning that they are actively perceiving reality only through their mental images, only those images they can analyze, dissect, name and isolate. Living like this, they are, in fact, grounded in the sphere of the past. Therefore, their ability to perceive or actively conceptualize anything that could be different for the future is handicapped or impossible. Robotic, regurgitators of information for test taking.
Conceptual thinking is where new ideas, problem solving, abstraction, reflection, as well as creative thinking occur. To help awaken this part of the brain, it is necessary to quicken it with the help of the pictorial, sculptural element, through drawing, modeling and painting. This was the part of education that used to be responsible for teaching our children to be the thinkers and reasoners of the future.
It is the arts that have the mission to connect growing children with their active, energetic, creative selves. Conceptual Thought, in particular, needs more and more enlivening through the elements of imagination and creativity infused through each subject that they are learning. Finding teaching methods that continually engage the whole human being should be what parents fight vigorously for now.

" The fundamental flaw so far has been the way people inhabit the world with only their head and the rest of their being merely trails along behind." Rudolph Steiner- "Research with Teachers"

Darcy Hill's picture
Darcy Hill
Creative Drama and Music Teacher Pre-K through 5th Grade

Arts help. Arts heal. Arts breathe life and humanity into content. I am an arts integration advocate because I have seen its brilliant, inspiring rewards in the lives, hearts, and eyes of my students over 30 years in the classroom. Play is the root of creativity. Creativity is the root of innovation. Our children and their future deserve and need all of the arts and creativity available to fill their learning and impassion their dreams. Please see "Looking At Creativity" at

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