In defense of the arts… in schools

These are dark days for artists and the arts. By “artists” and “the arts” I do not mean the avant-garde stereotype of indulgent silliness. Someone overturning a silverware drawer into the opening of a piano and calling it “music.” A few haphazard strings of glass and feather collected on a coathanger presented as “sculpture.”

No, I’m talking about some of the highest forms of human expression. Music. Painting. Sculpture. Literature. Dance. Theatre. The most elevated means of creativity known to mankind. Slowly and almost certainly being pushed further and further back from the forefront of our collective thought.

What is the cause of this? What has prompted this retreat from the more sublime manifestations of our culture? Don’t we understand what such a withdrawal means — if not to our civilization as a whole but to our very souls? Indeed, without art, the crudeness of reality makes the world unbearable.

There are many culprits.

Technology? Perhaps… but technology can be a tremendous tool for both the creation and the enjoyment of the great works of art. “Lowbrow” entertainment? Not really… even Mozart appreciated the “Vaudeville” ditties of his day. Boorish humor and escapism has its place in a healthy culture — even reality television has a few rare pearl scattered amongst the swine.

No, I place the blame squarely in one area: public education. But before all you teachers break out your torches and pitchforks, hear me out — I’m on your side here.

In a state where high-stakes testing drives decisions on funding, staffing, and instructional minutes, fine arts programs are frequently a target when school budget cuts must be made. With the legislature and school boards dealing with budget shortfalls of historic proportions, there is already evidence from districts across the state that fine arts programs are on the chopping block.

These programs often suffer because of a misguided perception that the arts are an extracurricular, non-essential part of education. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Fine arts is part of the state-required curriculum that all school districts must offer from elementary through high school. Fine arts classes that meet during the school day are inarguably “curricular” by nature and by law.

I would go so far as to say — in matters of finances and district prioritization — the arts curriculum should take precedence over any and every extracurricular. That’s right, I said it. Art is more important than sports. Art is more important than high school football. If it comes down to schools emphasizing one over the other, I say that it is athletics that must take a backseat.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re going to say, “The crowds ain’t packing stadiums to watch some kid play ‘Moonlight Sonata.'” More’s the pity, but the point is taken. Obviously I understand that football draws revenue. Further, I have often waxed poetic about the venerable “Friday Night Lights.” I adore the traditions, pageantry, and cultural importance of athletic competition to our area. I proudly support my hometown team and believe whole-heartedly in the many virtues of competitive athletics. However, the ultimate purpose of our schools is not to train the next generation of gladiators, but to educate our children into contributing members of society.

Schools are called to the admirable duty of training our youngest members into becoming the men and women who carry our civilization forward. Sports are great, but not necessarily for every student. Art, on the other hand, is universal to the human condition. Winning a UIL state championship in football, basketball, or baseball doesn’t do anything to improve test scores, but a strong emphasis on the fine arts improves every aspect of academic performance across the board. It’s not even up for debate, but is a well-documented fact.

Before school districts or the legislature propose wholesale cutting of fine arts programs to solve what is admittedly a critical public education funding crisis, they should remember their responsibility to educate the whole child. Because fine arts courses are academic and a vital component in delivering the well-rounded education required by law, they should not take a disproportionate share of staffing and budget cuts.

That said, we don’t need art because some egghead academic tells us it’ll help with test scores, we need art because we are human beings. We’re not “enlightened animals” but the glory of nature. We have souls, we recognize beauty, and we crave connection as well as expression with others. Getting an education in the pursuit of eventually pursuing a career is vital to sustain life, but art is one of those sacred things we stay alive for.

If we, citizens, do not press ardently for an education in and an appreciation of the arts, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and living lives of quiet desperation.

The object of art is to give life a shape and the life of the arts is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.

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