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The case for an arts education

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Nearly four years ago, Courtney Kurysh sat at a rickety desk, overwhelmed by her CHM139 exam. After staring at the blank page for minutes, she began to draw a picture of a delicious pie. In that moment, she realized that an education in life science wasn’t for her.

Now she’s in her fourth year in the Visual Studies program. She’s even co-president of the Fine Arts Student Union. After her brutal first year, she was glad to get back to what she’s passionate about studying: the arts.

“[In elementary school] I had classmates asking me to draw their title pages and book report illustrations for them,” she says. In high school, she went on to study classical ballet at Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts, an arts school in North York.

She soon decided that there might not be a future in dance or visual arts, so she took math and science courses instead. “I knew it was the wrong choice to continue with the sciences but you don’t listen to anyone, let alone yourself, right? I felt huge pressure because of university applications.” She says Grade 12 was one of the unhappiest years of her life.
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What happened? Why did Kurysh, like so many other students with an innate love and ability for the arts, turn away from her passion?

Sir Ken Robinson, an academic authority on creativity in education and author of such studies as Arts Education in Europe and Facing the Future: the Arts and Education in Hong Kong, spoke at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference in 2006 saying, “Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts, everywhere on earth. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics.”

According to Robinson, the victory of science over art started with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Robinson points out that there were no public education systems before to the 19th century—they were all started to meet the needs of industry. In the world of competitive capitalism, spending your education mastering the oboe or the brush stroke would usually leave you on the margins of society.

Thus children are raised to believe that an A in math is better than an A in music. “It has really come to dominate our view of intelligence because the universities design the system in their image,” noted Robinson. “If you think about it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. The consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at in school wasn’t valued, and was actually stigmatized.”

Kathleen Gallagher, Professor and education researcher at OISE, says that “Institutionally, schools can be challenging places in terms of their ability to acknowledge difference. They’re often organized around the notion of a generic student, and many students in our schools don’t fit that generic student identity. So they tend to produce policies and practices and curricula that don’t have flexibility to reach a great range of learners.”

Such is the case in most Ontario high schools, where the curriculum is geared entirely toward university admissions. In non-arts high schools, only one out of the 30 credits needed to graduate is a mandatory art course. Additional art courses may by taken, but count only as electives.

Katherine Wynne, Former Ontario Minister of Education [now Minister of Transport], acknowledges that there’s a pervasive notion among high school students that science, math, and technology classes are the most important. “In order [for students] to get their mandatory courses,” she says, “they find they don’t have space.” That’s certainly what happened to Kurysh.

Wynne tells me that the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders might, at some point, sit down and take a comprehensive look at the curriculum and its requirements, but she isn’t sure if restructuring those requirements is the answer. She believes that the problem starts and ends with student engagement, beginning in elementary school. “If kids don’t get a grounding in elementary school, they won’t opt for it in secondary.”
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The $45.5-million Program Enhancement Grant, meant to increase student engagement, was recently distributed among Ontario schools. It was directed at physical education, outdoor activities, and the arts. And in 2007, $4 million was given to each school board for professional development programs for arts teachers.

Despite the pro-
vince’s financial problems, education spending is
expected to increase in 2009-2010 by almost $1 billion. Part of this increase, however, goes directly to raising school board sal-aries by about 13 per cent. Says Wynne, “I’ll be doing everything I can to protect [arts] funding. The classroom programs are the last to be cut.” The cutbacks will mostly affect special needs aid, educational assistance, and social workers.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has echoed Wynne’s sentiments. Responding to Stephen Harper’s infamous statement about art not being the domain of “ordinary Canadians,” McGuinty told the Toronto Star, “We attach a high value to arts and culture, we understand what it does for our economy but more than just that, we understand the economy is a means to a higher end and that higher end is a society.”

However, the Star reported in 2008 that People for Education, an education watchdog, said the changes to arts are slow in coming. According to the group’s annual report, there are big gaps in arts funding from one school to another. In Ontario, 47 per cent of high schools and 53 per cent of elementary schools rely on parents for fundraising, with more affluent areas having a great advantage.

Another problem is a lack of specialized arts teachers. In many public schools, the teacher who instructs math and English will also teach drama and music. In fact, only 14 per cent of schools with Grades 7 and 8 have a visual arts teacher, and only eight per cent have a drama teacher. The government hopes the Program Enhancement Grant will remedy the situation, but equal access still has a long way to come.

• • •

“It is well documented that the intellectual and emotional development of children is enhanced through study of the arts,” states the 2009 Ontario Ministry of Education document on the arts curriculum for elementary schools. Several studies, not the least of which comes from right here in the GTA, have shown that this is indeed the case.

In 1994, the North York District School Board and the Royal Conservatory of Music partnered to develop the Learning Through the Arts program. The LTTA hires trained musicians, actors, painters, dancers, and writers to work with regular teachers towards engaging children with class material. By developing creative lesson plans, these instructors integrate the arts with other subjects such as using images to learn math, or songs to learn history, for example. The program has since spread across the country.

Beginning in 1999, Katharine Smithrim and Rena Upitis, professors of education at Queen’s University, conducted a three-year study of over 6,000 students in the LTTA, their parents, teachers, and principals. Their findings were overwhelmingly positive.

The children within the program scored higher in reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing, and geometry and applications. When it came to the students’ attitudes toward learning, both boys and girls were more likely to be engaged in math, reading, and writing. Boys’ engagement with computers and group work went up, and girls’ engagement with the arts saw an increase. Both sexes reported an increased desire to take part in physical education. Kids in the program, simply put, liked school more.

Furthermore, the kids learned how to work well in a social environment. One teacher commented, “LTTA got a whole bunch of people working together willingly.” There are even findings that suggest the program helped with students’ emotional development. One Grade 6 student said, “The arts taught us how to bring out inner feelings, how to cooperate, listen, and express ourselves through movement.” Many students also reported an increased sense of self-esteem.

The researchers concluded that the effects of the LTTA program “could be described as transcendent, that is, going beyond the perceived limits of physical, cognitive, social, and emotional experience and moving towards deep transformation of personal beliefs and practices.”

Says Kathleen Gallagher, “The intrinsic value of succeeding in the arts is that [students] see themselves as competent learners, rather than as learners who are trying to fit a mold, or are constantly behind the eight ball trying to make a mark that was really designed for someone else. I think at a very basic level, [the arts] allow people in a classroom to encounter others and themselves in very different ways that don’t box them into a certain understanding.”

The results from programs in parts of the developing world are even more remarkable. In Venezuela, an internationally renowned music education program called El Sistema has elevated the socio-economic status of over a million children. Founded by José Antonio Abreu 34 years ago, the program emphasizes a non-traditional, inclusive form of teaching music where everyone learns as a group. Teachers often sit with the students while playing and older mentors help out young hopefuls. There are currently 208 local education centres around the country, with over 300,000 students enrolled at any one time. Notable graduates include the internationally renowned Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel, whom many consider to be the world’s premier musical conductor.

The program has rescued generations of Venezuelan children from lives of poverty, drug abuse, and crime in the slums. Most graduates have gone on to become productive across many fields in society and in the workforce. El Sistema demonstrates that an education in the arts, just like an education in physics, engineering, or technology, can be good for the economy.

The arts give permission to students to be creative, imaginative, and to make mistakes in a way that other subjects don’t. This is crucial to their development as learners, but also as thinking, feeling human beings.

• • •

The age of Industrialism is coming to a close and the skills and knowledge that were once so highly regarded as integral to a functioning economy are no longer essential. Perhaps the hierarchy we are so used to will soon be turned upside down.

This is not to suggest that those studying art should get comfortable. A study by Ohio State University in 2003 concluded that even in the best of economic times, students who major in the arts can have trouble getting a job and keeping it, and are more likely to switch jobs more often than people in other areas of study. And not surprisingly, the pay is barely enough to stay afloat. Visual artists average between $19,000 and $23,000 US a year. Still, the possibility of living on the edge of poverty someday still doesn’t lead Kurysh to regret leaving the life sciences behind: “For me personally, art education is important just like engineering or sciences are considered important—it fulfills a basic human need,” she said. “Art education provokes students to think about the world, philosophy, science, and politics in a whole new light, see how it makes them think and feel, and create something out of that to get the world to think a new way.”

“The basis of art education and why I love it so much is not because it teaches me to draw or to take photographs, but because it teaches me to think critically about the world and how we relate to it and to each other. It doesn’t get much more important than that.”

Second drawing by Lola Landekic