Many artists have been dissuaded from pursuing their art because of what people think about art and artists. There has been, for many decades, a common perception that artists are wastrels and that making art is not a real job. Artists have been seen as (and valued as) a net drain on the economy. In education, art has been seen as an unnecessary frippery, a waste of time and something that only the namby-pamby think is worthwhile. Funding of the arts in education has therefore seen the most savage of cuts in austere times. It’s the first thing to be thrown overboard. In short, art has been seen, in the popular mind, as something entirely optional. By extension, artists have been seen as superfluous too.
It turns out that this is a blatant, wrong-headed, blind, prejudice, utterly refuted by the facts. Not only is art not optional, it turns out to be necessary. Furthermore, by not educating people in the arts, it actually reduces their achievements in traditional literacy and numeracy disciplines. A lack of art education impoverishes humanity in every way possible, including the very areas that are the focus of current educational policy (dogma).
In a landmark, ground-breaking study, the power of the arts in the classroom has been proven incontestably and irrefutably to lift test results in literacy and numeracy to the equivalent of an extra year of school. Pupil attendance and wellbeing, their engagement and participation across the curriculum were also raised. As little as an hour of music a week can produce these results.
Professor Brian Caldwell and Dr Tanya Vaughan are here to tell you low-cost, high-grade results can come from a simple, sustained program of arts in the primary school classroom. Their book, Transforming Education through the Arts, is a hit in the U.S., going to No.1 in the Amazon hot new sales category for books in high schools in a matter of months of being published by Routledge.
Their results are thoroughly tested. For the first time, the value of learning in and through the arts to the broader curriculum and wider community has become hard science. That value had a figure put to it by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2010. For every £1 invested in the Creative Partnerships program in the U.K., the country received £15.3 worth of returns in social benefits since it started in 2002, under the guidance of Sir Ken Robinson. How many other investments have made returns of 1,530% over the same period?
Perversely, we are yet to invest in arts-enhanced learning programs in any significant way. The louder calls are to “go back to basics”. Those programmes turn out to be utterly counter-productive. The results you get are not the results you want.
Arts education is about equity and access, by providing the means to work together naturally, in a positive way and by celebrating diversity. In short, it’s the gateway to engagement, when so many have shut the door or have had the door closed on them.
When school lessons focus relentlessly on numeracy and literacy, it leaves precious little time for imagination, for play and for daydreaming. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I value all three. There is mounting evidence that they’re essential components of learning. Boredom, on the other hand, is not conducive to the uptake of information, trying hard or caring about the subject matter. If the curriculum doesn’t engage the whole brain, we’re sacrificing aesthetic competence in a quest for numeracy and literacy. We don’t even teach logic, rhetoric and propaganda self-defence.
If you happen to be poor at numeracy and literacy, your self esteem and self confidence are going to take a beating in schools that only value those things. At least if there is an hour of art a week, you get to shine at something you might be very good at. Everyone needs to shine. We are all good at something. Whatever we are good at should be valued, or we deny the value of abilities that have survived and developed through millions of years of evolution and natural selection. Who are we to deny millennia of evolution?
Being good at something means we have hope. Hope is essential for life, too. A feeling of hopelessness leads to all manner of social problems and breakdown of society. In the age of austerity, hope is under massive assault. Maintaining a grip on hope, through art education, has to be a worthwhile thing.
Art is also about joy and we should bestow joy upon our children. The alternative is misery. There is nothing more joyful and satisfying that creating something. The best critique of the world you live in, it has been said, is to make something. Showing kids how to unlock the power of creativity and allowing them to see how to shape the world into something of beauty is a skill far more valuable than basic numeracy and literacy, as necessary as both of those skills are. I’m an engineer by training and inclination, so I’m highly numerate and schooled in the sciences, but I know that engineering is better when coupled with an education in art. Engineering in the service of humanity is more successful when you have a more rounded appreciation of all that being human means.
We seem to be hell bent on producing cohorts of obedient insurance claim assessors (no offence intended to those people), rather than people who have an artistic outlook, who care passionately, seek beauty, create, enhance and give of themselves, generously. We need that spark of spontaneous invention, innovation, imagination and inspiration that is learned best through art education. It benefits the world in manifold ways. Producing generations of people that are wholly unskilled in invention, or in thinking innovatively, who are unimaginative and lacking in inspiration is tantamount to a crime, in my view. Art education humanises us, rather than mechanising us.
Given the now unarguably established power of art to increase engagement, reduce absenteeism and produce peaceful collaboration, infused with joyful, mutual respect and given the terrible damage done to millions of individuals already in the world of work by the misguided education policies of their youth that impoverished their artistic education, what would happen if offices and workplaces devoted time to making music? What if you could paint at work for thirty minutes a week? What would that ultimately do for productivity, company performance, innovation, staff turnover, customer satisfaction and the financial health of the company? Must we all stare into Outlook incessantly all week (how ironic is that product name?)
If not in work time (though I strongly advocate that), there are tangible, measurable benefits to be gained by companies funding the art education of their employees, after hours. Funding this adult art education is a highly effective overall employee performance enhancement technique. Continuous education should not be narrowly focused on one or two technical specialisations, even though education in these specialisations is undoubtedly valuable. Learning to use your whole brain more effectively has to pay major dividends for corporations brave enough to believe in established facts. For one thing, it’s an antidote to stress and frustration. And it works!
The world is not meant to be grindingly, ploddingly numerate and literate. That’s a very bleak conception of human life and endeavour. Adding a bit of art to the mix makes us more numerate and literate, not less. More importantly, it makes us more human.
If our goal is to raise the intellectual accomplishments of the population, then art is a sure fire method. We have the facts. Denial of fact takes us into the realm of something altogether more dark and sinister. If we deny the transformative power of art, we’re dealing with wilful ignorance, latent hatred of humanity, hidden agendas, control freakery, oppression or a desire for the subservience of others.
I think we can do better than that.