Thrice of late I have posted to criticize cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham (and author of Why Don’t Students Like School?), although in every case I have also said he has a lot to offer; here I want to offer my appreciation for his essay in the Washington Post in praise of arts education.
Willingham is drawing upon a lecture by Harvard’s Jerome Kagen, and does so identify six arguments for arts education, three of which speak most loudly to me:
Kagan argues that children today have very little sense of agency—that is, the sense that they undertake activities that have an impact on the world, however small. Kagan notes that as a child he had the autonomy to explore his town on his own, something that most parents today would not allow. … The arts, Kagan argues, offer that sense of agency, of creation.
Participation in the arts allows children to see the importance of creating beauty, of creating an object that others may enjoy. When a child gets an A on a math test, the immediate benefit is to the child alone. But when the child creates a drawing, she makes something for the pleasure of others as well.
The arts offer an opportunity for children to work together. Most school work is solitary, but when a band is congratulated for a performance it is the band as a whole that receives the compliment, not the individual child. Kagan ties this value to a larger moral complex. Too many of children’s activities are solitary, and solely for the child’s benefit. Morality and concern for others grows, in part, from understanding what it means to have a common fate.
I think there are many other great, and practical-pragmatic, reasons for arts education as well, which are not touched upon in the article. Certainly arts education demands, or should demand, of students that they think through and identify original ways to express ideas and new approaches to old questions and concerns. Arts education should ask of every student that they propose and create “answers” that are entirely unique and differentiated from every other “answer” in the class, and help students recognize from that there are multiple pathways and multiple solutions in every situation, and that often original thinking is the most valuable thinking.
From the perspective of other 21st century educators reading this, what are other good arguments in behalf of arts education? Answer by posting a comment below.