By Tami LoSasso
It’s a tired story. Funding in education is cut, channeled to nationally backed reform efforts, or school enrollment shrinks along with budgets for teachers and programs. We all know the reasons why the arts are the first to take a hit: they can’t be measured on a test, they’re too subjective, they’re not impacting learning in the core classroom, and too many are not skills based. While some of that may be true some of it is also blatantly false. For example, a 2016 report issued by Americans for the Arts stated,
“Data from The College Board show that in 2015, students who took four years of arts and music classes while in high school scored an average of 92 points higher on their SATs than students who took only one-half year or less.” (1)
Additional research with school age child development shows “a group of 162 children, ages 9-10, were trained to look closely at works of art and reason about what they saw. The results showed that children’s ability to draw inferences about artwork transferred to their reasoning about images in science.”(2)
Perhaps much of art is not tangibly measured, but in the intangible sense nothing could be more valuable to learning than the arts. An arts education most effectively teaches students the one thing many other subjects fail to teach: understanding. I’m not talking about understanding the imagery in a novel, a tangent in math, or a theory in science. I’m taking about true understanding – intuition – and what drives us both together and apart in and often broken but occasionally triumphant spirit of humanity.
Many times when someone stands up to defend the arts in education, the response is patronizing. “The arts are a great way for students to express themselves.” While that’s a start, what seems to go unrealized is that an arts education is so much more than self-expression. A recent trend in arts education is to prove how these subjects support the learning in core-curricular subject areas. Undeniably, there are direct connections between the work done in a theatre classroom and an English classroom. And there has been recent research that indicates that music can boost a student’s math skills because of the way it aids in brain development.
My argument isn’t against these points. Nor is my argument meant to downplay the importance of a strong education in English, math and all the other core subjects: a necessity to an intelligent species. It is simply an argument for teaching arts for so many other justifications besides the benefits to core subject learning and higher test scores. I argue we teach arts for art’s sake. Why? Because we need it now more than ever.
In a world increasingly disconnected from humanity, we need arts education. In a society that finds companionship on a little screen that can be held in the palm of a hand, we need arts education. In a culture where it’s too easy to shoot and ask questions later, we need arts education. A child exposed to the arts gains the intangible skills of empathy, interpersonal interaction, and perspective. An arts education teaches individuals how to problem solve and think critically, assessing the parts that make up the whole. These things have too often gone by the wayside in education because of the stakes attached to test scores. In a world that hands everybody a prize, there are too many students who make it to the high school classroom (and sadly beyond that) still not understanding personal accountability, how to handle rejection, and how to be a member of a community that is counting on you, personally, in order for it to succeed.
Let’s take just a theatre production classroom for example. Within the course of one semester a student will be exposed to deadlines for rehearsals and performances they can’t miss or be unprepared for because the other people in their group is counting on her. Personal accountability? Check.
In that same class, a student will be exposed to the process of reading for and yet not receiving the part they dreamed of, only to find another job they never thought they would like. A dose of personal rejection? Check.
And once a student knows their lines and finds their place behind the stage manager’s podium, they each must fulfill the responsibilities of their roles or the production won’t succeed. Imagine Romeo coming out for the balcony scene and Juliet isn’t present, or the curtain never rises. Being a productive member of a community? Check.
This type of learning is not limited to the theatre classroom. It happens in the choir room, on the marching band field, in the darkroom, or in the film studio. Each of the arts discipline has its own pathway of teaching these life skills. For most students, they simply don’t get anywhere unless they learn how to create, fail, start over again, and ultimately discover the cycle of civilization.
The arts teach students how to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The arts teach students that individuality isn’t the same as isolation, that the human condition can be expressed in a myriad of ways, that many hands make light work and when we all put our efforts towards something bigger than ourselves we realize paradoxically our own value and our own insignificance.
We are reminded daily that the world is far from a perfect place. There is crime, poverty, and indifference. The only way to fix it is to find the root of it: misunderstanding. The arts continues to blur the lines of race, gender, social class, and sexual preference. They help students develop an understanding of what it means to be not a person but a human being. The arts imparts to us that through all the ways there are to lift up our fellow man, we can in turn lift up ourselves.
Why do we need arts education now more than ever? Because when the world starts to break it’s largely artists and those who know how to appreciate it in its many forms who have the skill of understanding to lead all of mankind in personal accountability, and to pick us up when we’re down in order to work towards something bigger than ourselves once more. “Arts Students Outperform Non Arts Students on SATs.” American for the Arts. 2016. Web. AmericansForTheArts.org  Ruppert, Sandra. Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement. 2006. Web. Nasaa-arts.org
Tami LoSasso is the Lakewood High School Theatre Director and Colorado Thespian Chapter Director.