Professional Learning

Arts Education: A Right and Necessity

Why arts education matters

February 15, 2012
Image credit: iStockphoto

This one's for you, Alexandra.

I'm feeling compelled to add to the case for art in schools and make another plea that as budgets are slashed this spring, funding for the arts in schools is preserved.

Several of my arguments have been made before, although I will review them; then I've got an addition to make to the case.

A Historical Justification

Let me start with some amazing scientific facts that justify our ancestral right to art, because long before we were building cities, writing, or taking tests, humans were painting, dancing, and playing music. Paleontologists have found evidence that as far back as 100,000 years, human beings were painting. The oldest evidence of humans making music dates back 35,000 years-carved flutes have been found in caves in Europe.

All around the world, for tens of thousands of years, humans (including kids) have expressed themselves in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. How can we think of removing such a mode of expression from the place where children spend half their lives?

For a meditative, surreal experience on the role of art for ancient and modern people, watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet Cave in southern France. It might transform the way you think about art and human beings.

Present Day Justification

Into the modern day and our schools. Let me review the points that many have made before:

  • Art education brings communities together and offers a language that transcends race, language, age, and ability.
  • The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution, that there are many ways to see and interpret the world, and that the limits of language do not define the limits of our cognition.
  • Teaching anything through music/lyrics helps kids remember (think of the ABC song); music helps children in math, language development, and to manage their emotions.
  • The arts help children find other ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings beyond the traditional.

The arts as their own curriculum, integrated into core subjects, and infused in a school, contribute to all aspects of learning. They make a place feel good. They bring beauty.

Here's another reason why we need the arts in schools: We need art educators. Having worked with handfuls of art educators, (and full disclosure: I am married to one) I am prepared to stand by an assertion that they are a unique breed essential to the success of any school, particularly those attempting to transform education. They are the ones who see ways of solving problems that others don't, who look at what we have to work with -- the materials, the personnel, the space -- and enthusiastically suggest combinations that others had never considered. They are the ones snapping the camera left and right, documenting the process of transformation that we're attempting in our education system.

They are the first to take the standardized curriculum and find the fissures where art can be inserted and where learning can be brought to life. They are the ones reminding those of us who can get too heavy and serious in this work to play and cover our hands in paste, clay, papier maché.

Art educators can run on the eccentric side or sometimes they're a little disorganized, but then they say something that spins a whole new angle on a kid, a moment, or a problem. As we tackle the overwhelmingly complex problem of figuring out how to save our public schools, I might just be convinced that we won't be able to do it without the help of art educators.

Alexandra in Costa Rica, 2003.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

In Memoriam

This weekend, on February 11, the world lost a remarkable arts educator, Alexandra Kulka-Wells, to breast cancer. Alexandra was a founding teacher at ASCEND, the small Oakland Public School where I also taught. There she taught kindergarten and first grade, integrating art into every standard. Her infectious energy and laughter knit our little community together in those first challenging years of building a new school. She went on to get her Master's in art education and work with several other Oakland schools, supporting teachers, parents and students to discover how art could help them experience learning in a different way. She was also a photographer and painter. In her 38 years on this planet, Alexandra touched the lives of thousands and will be deeply missed but always remembered.

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