The Arts in Education: An Absolute Necessity - A Response to Michael Greene

February 28, 1994

In his keynote address at the 1993 Meeting of CMS, Michael Green discussed the declining place of the arts in the United States. Funding for the arts specifically, for music education is decreasing year by year. The amount of time spent on the arts in the public schools is also decreasing; thus, our children do not view the arts as essential because our society does not demonstrate that it views them as essential. As music educators, we have tried in vain to justify the necessity of the arts by extolling the virtues of aesthetic appreciation and creative nurturing. It is imperative that we demonstrate now that any education without the arts is not just incomplete, but is seriously jeopardized.

Our society shows by its spending and by the place of the arts in school curricula what it deems important. In the United States 9.5 cents is spent on the arts for every $100 spent to support science. In fact, the National Science Foundation spends more for science education ($180 million out of $1.8 billion) than the entire NEA budget ($170 million). School curricula treat the arts as superfluous. In Los Angeles, for example, 99% of the children do not receive a comprehensive K-12 arts program (1).

Only 29 states have graduation requirements that in some way involve the arts. Of these 29 states, 13 accept courses in domestic science, industrial arts, foreign language, or computer science as alternative ways of satisfying the arts requirement. As educational budgets decrease, fewer and fewer children have the opportunity to receive music instruction from trained music educators. At the elementary level, 55% of all school districts in the nation either are not served by a music specialist or are served by a part-time teacher. The music teacher-to-student ratios in different states are astounding: South Dakota ranks best, with a 1:151 ratio; New York has 1:390; Alabama has 1:819; Utah has 1:1141; and California ranks last with a 1:1535 ratio.(2)

With low budgets and few trained teachers, arts education is becoming increasingly passive, realized in assembly programs or trips to hear or see local productions, concerts, or exhibits. Our funding shows that the arts are seen as curricular icing, a nonessential part of the educational process.

We have long justified the importance of music as a reflection of our thinking and values it is an expression of who we are. Through the arts we express our discoveries, our discontents, fears, longings, and joys. We believe that it is important for children to have the experience of self-expressions, to learn to be creative and imaginative, and to understand their own feelings. Yet, despite the fact that, as Greene points out, the public believes arts education is essential and is willing to spend more to ensure its place in education, it is not happening in local, state, and federal governments, which heed quantifiable justifications.

In the last two decades, public interest in the arts has given rise to over 200 magnet schools for the arts (musical, literary, visual, dramatic, and dance). Out of these are coming some amazing facts that support our long-held belief in the necessity of the arts for the whole educational process. St. Augustine School in the Bronx is located in a crime-ridden neighborhood. This declining school became a school for the arts in 1984; since then enrollment has more than doubled and test scores have soared. Almost 90% of its graduates go to college. Its students are not from privileged families 75% of the children in K-8 are from single parent homes, and the tuition of $1800 is not easy for the families, 30% of whom are on welfare.(3)

In another situation, the eighth grade of the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington, Kentucky has achieved the highest scores in Kentucky on state-administered tests in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies, for the second year in a row. Its students are chosen on artistic merit, not on academic achievement, and yet its students are surpassing all other Kentucky schools in the academic "core."(4) In a nonmagnet situation, Marion Etzel reports that in Chicago, where the overall school retention rate is 50%, one inner-city Hispanic school was able to boast a 95% retention rate, attributing its success in no small measure to its comprehensive music program.(5)

Why are these schools that emphasize the arts so successful in "core" disciplines? Why are these schools that have "normal" student populations seeing extraordinary successes? Why, as the College Entrance Examination Board reports, do students who have had arts training score better on SAT exams? Isn't this the kind of data that can be understood, even by those who control the governmental purse strings?

There are those who would say that relating the arts to academic achievement implies that the arts have no intrinsic value of their own. However, we need to convey the message that indeed the arts do have unique value of their own and value from the ability to enhance, facilitate, and integrate other domains of knowledge. Learning without the arts is seriously weakened. Evidence demonstrates that the arts stimulate academic achievement and are also the catalyst for achievement across disciplinary lines. For example, this last decade has seen a rising interest in developing critical thinking skills; this skill is predicated on being able to see a situation from multiple perspectives, flexibly arrive at conclusions, or creatively devise solutions. Others have noted the desire for developing students' higher-order thinking skills, teaching students to arrive at complex solutions with the application of multiple criteria. Certainly, there are direct parallels between these kinds of thinking processes and the kind of thinking developed in artistic experiences. Robert Root-Bernstein sees a relationship between the arts and the sciences, or between the scientific process and the process of creation in the arts. He predicts that the current separation of arts and science education and a de-emphasis on arts education will have a detrimental effect on the creativity of future scientists.(6)

Researchers are demonstrating the essential role of music in learning. Howard Gardner speaks of musical intelligence as one of seven intelligences that every human has. He points out that only two of the seven the linguistic and the logical-mathematical are developed by our educational system.(7) Gordon Shaw, a brain researcher, believes that music will allow the examination of higher creative and learning functions in new and more productive ways.(8)

We cannot continue to allow the destruction of arts education in our schools. We cannot continue to be passive observers to a public discourse about the lack of creativity of leaders in posing solutions to world economic, political, and ecological problems. We cannot accept as our "fate" the decreasing prominence of the arts in education, when we know and have the facts to support the absolute necessity for the arts in our education and in our society.


(1) Laura Van Tuyl, "Arguing for Arts Education," Christian Science Monitor 83 (1 April 1991), 12.

(2) Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education. The Report of the National Commission on Music Education (MENC, March 1991), 9-16.

(3) Felicia R. Lee, "Bronx School Struggles Despite Praise and Fame," New York Times 142 (1 June 1993), B3(L).

(4) Lucy May, "3 Schools Follow Different Roads to Success," Lexington Herald-Leader (7 October 1993), B1.

(5) Growing Up Complete, 17-28.

(6) Robert Root-Bernstein, "Education and the Fine Arts from a Scientist's Perspective: A Challenge." White paper written for the College of Fine Arts, UCLA (1987).

(7) Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

(8) Growing Up Complete, 17-28.

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