Creativity has come under attack in our nation’s education system. Detroit Public Schools are a prime example of this ill-fated trend. Budget cutbacks have forced many schools to downsize tremendously at the expense of art programs.
Unfortunately, students are the victims — particularly those who excel in the arts rather than traditional academic subjects. It is obvious that math, science and literature will never be obsolete — we need their help to instill continuity and convergence in thinking patterns. But creative endeavors play an equally important role in cognitive development and real world application. Improvisation and the ability to think non-linearly are imperative. For this reason, we need a paradigm shift that emphasizes the importance of the arts in our education systems.
Though the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act labels arts as a core subject on paper, in practice art programs are disproportionally eliminated. Today, only 40 percent of Detroit Public Schools have art teachers — down from 80 percent just 10 years ago. Only 55 percent of schools have music teachers and the decline is steady. Just last month, my own mother Phyllis Toles was forced from her art room to teach a second grade class, to the dismay of her colleagues and hundreds of students. There was nothing the principal or parents could do about it.
The overarching problem is that many parents and administrators fail to consider the elimination of these programs as a salient issue. My mother said, “There is nothing that is not art. Every man-made product we come in contact with was a design in the head of an artist at some point. Art is crucial for societal progress.” I also agree with international education advisor Sir Ken Robinson, who said in a recent speech that emphasized the arts in education that “creativity is just as important as literacy.” And I am not biased because my mother is a former art teacher. In school, ironically enough, the arts were always where I got my lowest grades. Seriously.
The arts (music, dance, drama and drawing/painting/sculpting) are indispensable because of their subjective nature, which encourages trial and error. This translates into students attempting various approaches in other life experiences that may demand creative thought. Mistakes are often stigmatized in subjects like math and science, in which there’s only one objectively correct answer. Without the presence of the arts, preparation for standardized testing in these subjects and rote memorization stifle creative impulses. With a creative outlet, students might do better in all areas of study.
The arts help us grow into productive beings. And it’s no secret that as humans we are most productive when motivated. Bestselling author and Yale Law graduate Dan Pink reported in a recent study that optimal motivation consists of the following three things: autonomy (as opposed to inflexible prompts), mastery (as opposed to memorization) and purpose (other than achievement for achievement’s sake). The arts embody each component. Autonomy is the most important of these — the intrinsic motivation required for artistic endeavors fosters the same development of self-direction outside of the classroom, increasing students’ independence.
Emerging from the age of industrialization, it’s clear that our public education systems are outdated. As Robinson notes, schools were modeled after the factory system and the assembly line — with strict bells, departmentalized subjects and atomized “workers.” In contrast, the arts engender community and collaborative efforts for everyone’s mutual benefit. Indeed, innovation occurs when groups work together and are encouraged to express various perspectives in unique ways.
Many districts around the country have recognized this problem. And many colleges and universities are changing the way they train their teachers to better suit today’s non-factory-based economy. Some schools — like Community High School in Ann Arbor — allow students the option of molding their schooling experience to fit their personal needs and desires. Until this mode of operation is readily available to all students, arts programs must do the best job of fostering personal fulfillment, creative development and the requirements of motivation that Pink lists. Eliminating arts from schools is counterproductive to the paradigmatic shift that our education, culture and economy are undergoing. It’s time to bring art back.
Julian Toles is an LSA senior.